It was a little before 7 p.m. Saturday evening, and folks were rolling into the First Baptist Church parking lot in Huntsville, joining forces for what was to be one of the largest entries the town’s annual Independence Day parade has ever seen. Dennis Jeffers, the town’s mayor, walked down to the side of Baker Highway, where the rest of the parade was lining up, and made a prediction: “He’s going to get his 300.”
That was the goal for S.T.A.N.D.’s Randy Byrge, who has carried his inspiring story of recovery and redemption to tens of thousands of people. He wanted 300 people to join him between his “But God” banners. He didn’t think anywhere near that many would want to.
By 6:30 p.m., they were showing up. By 7 p.m., they were coming in droves. And by the time Byrge and his team marched triumphantly along Baker Highway from the church to the courthouse mall an hour later, he knew he was going to lose his beard that he was so proud of — his pledge to the community if he actually had 300 show up.
“The beard is gone,” Byrge said as he walked past our location at the end of the mall.
At the time, he said 320 people had joined the effort. It turned out to be even more than that. The final tally was 340, and Byrge kept his word, bidding farewell to his beard in ceremonious fashion at the gazebo on the mall after the parade had ended.
And what a sight the 340 strong were. Fourth of July parades are, by their very nature, inspirational. It’s when we put on our patriotic best to celebrate our nation — decking ourselves out in red, white and blue, giving little thought to how gaudy it might look or the fact that we wouldn’t dare venture out in public dressed that way any other day of the year.
Saturday’s parade was inspirational for an entirely different reason.
There was Byrge’s daughter, Addie, wearing the #300 sticker herself to signify that the 300th person had signed in at the church to join her daddy in the parade — her daddy who is now eight years clean, capable of being a strong father who can raise his little girl the right way.
There was Byrge’s father, James, leading the procession. His mother, Mitzi, was near the front, too. Randy Byrge was the parade’s grand marshal, and the grand marshal usually leads the parade. But he wanted his parents to come first.
“Eight years ago my parents had to lock me out of their house and send me away,” he said. “I had ran their name in the dirt to the point they was ashamed of me.” But on Saturday, “My parents were leading a parade of 340-plus people and saying proudly, ‘Randy is our son.’ No one can do that But God.”
There was Byrge’s pastor, White Rock Baptist Church’s Jim West, pulling one of the trailers. Some of his deacons were riding on the trailers. Many of his fellow church members were along for the ride or walk, as well.
There were Byrge’s supporters — people who just wanted to show up to support him, and to help him honor God. Near the front was S.T.A.N.D. Executive Director Trent Coffey. These days he’s Byrge’s boss. Long before that he was one of Byrge’s biggest supporters. And if anyone in Scott County knows that Byrge’s story can be replicated, over and over, it’s Coffey. He’s no ordained minister, but this is the sermon he’s been preaching for years: stop treating drug addiction as a crime, start treating it as an illness — and help the sufferers of addiction find their way back.
There were also probation officers, police officers and many others. Their presence all spoke volumes. But no one’s presence spoke louder than the people who have been where Byrge has been — to the bottom, and back again, as living, walking testaments to the hope of recovery and the power of grace. There were people like Mitchell King — now seven months clean, who carried a sign urging prayer for drug dealers, that they be drawn to Christ. And there were others — Byrge’s “recovery family,” he calls them.
Some towns might stick an entourage like this as far towards the back of the parade as possible. In Huntsville Saturday evening, they were front and center — before the mayor, and before State Sen. Ken Yager, who made the drive up from Kingston to be a part of the parade.
“That’s the way I want it,” Mayor Jeffers said an hour or so before the parade began. “That’s exactly the way I want it.”
And why not? On a day when America celebrated her independence, there are few people with more reasons to celebrate than those who are celebrating freedom from addiction and substance abuse. Saturday’s parade delivered a powerful message to the thousands of people who lined up along its route: There is hope for others who are in the same predicament.
That’s a message Byrge has been telling to anyone who’ll listen since he found God in a recovery home in Texas and cleaned up. He’s made a ministry out of his redeeming scripture — “But God” — and uses it to show others what grace and mercy is all about. Because there are still others — many others — who need the same help he found.
“As you look at all these pictures and videos please know many, many, many more families have been affected and they need our help,” he said.
“But God” comes from Ephesians 2. It’s found lots of other places in the Bible, too. But it was Ephesians 2 that truly changed Byrge’s life one night in Texas. It is an example of God’s sovereign redemption for those who can’t redeem themselves and might not even want to be redeemed: ” And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others. But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)…”
Of the thousands of stories I’ve written in the years I’ve been in this profession, my absolute favorite is the one I wrote after sitting down with Byrge and hearing his story and his testimony in 2017. Our audience isn’t large enough to do it justice. Last week, Byrge told part of his story to a Knoxville TV station. Their audience isn’t big enough, either. Byrge’s story, and the passion with which he tells it, deserves a national audience. But, absent that, it’s plenty loud enough to change one small town — this one.
And that’s what Saturday’s parade helped signify. In a community that has been almost crippled by the opioid epidemic, 340 people might not seem like a lot. But every movement has to start somewhere. There has to be the first two or three before there can be a crowd. And as you watched Saturday’s parade through downtown Huntsville, you couldn’t help but feel that there’s a movement afoot in Scott County.
As Byrge said after the parade: “What do we do next? Is this the end? I have a feeling this is just the beginning.”