Not since the days of the late Bates Pennycuff’s sign ministry have so many religious signs dotted Scott County.
“Jesus is Coming, R U Ready?” were Pennycuff’s signs, which could once be found on almost any road in Scott County. They’ve all disappeared now, but they’re being replaced by a new version: “Everybody has a problem no one can fix, BUT GOD…”
The new signs are products of the ministry of Randall Byrge, and in 2020 they became commonplace — beginning with one along U.S. Hwy. 27 entering Oneida from the south, then quickly spreading throughout the community.
Byrge, like Pennycuff, is a rags-to-riches story, spiritually speaking. Pennycuff’s days as one of the “meanest men in Scott County” were well-document, before he converted to Christianity and went from ruffian to a worker for the Lord.
Likewise, Byrge’s comeback from a struggle with addiction has been well-documented. On November 11, 2012, Byrge was saved at Roloff Homes — a faith-based recovery center in Corpus Christi, Tex. Ephesians 2:4 (“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;)”) was the scripture that forever changed Byrge’s life, and the basis for his But God ministry once he returned home to Scott County.
Signs, of course, are just words on vinyl or plywood. Words can ring hollow if there’s nothing behind them. And the signs are just the start of the work that Byrge is doing in Scott County.
In a community that is gripped by addiction — where stories of drug abuse and its resulting afflictions have long been among the top stories, year after year — change is happening.
That has been on display time and again in 2020, and not just in the signs that have been popping up all over the place as reminders. On July 4, Byrge and his recovery group — joined by hundreds of their supporters — marched along Baker Highway in Huntsville as part of the town’s annual 4th of July parade, boldy stepping forward to show the community what hope and change look like. Last month, their faces adorned the entire front page of this newspaper on Thanksgiving, as they again stepped forward to proclaim the difference that has occurred in their life.
Randy Byrge doesn’t want credit for any of that. In fact, he’s always quick to say that this it is God’s work, not his, that is bringing change to Scott County. But the scriptures also make it clear that God works through his humble servants — and Byrge has proven himself one of those.
On the 4th of July, Byrge wanted 300 people to join him between his “But God” banners in the annual Independence Day parade. He admitted that he didn’t think anywhere near that many would want to, but insisted that was his goal. As it turned out, nearly 350 joined the parade. Leading the way were his parents, James and Mitzi, along with his daughter, Addie.
“Eight years ago my parents had to lock me out of their house and send me away,” Byrge said at the time. “I had ran their name in the dirt to the point that they were ashamed of me.” But on that day, “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 were a lot of others with Byrge that day, too. There were the probation officers who several members of the recovery group still report to. There were police officers who had arrested several members of the group. There were church members who had witnessed to them, including Byrge’s pastor. The presence of each of them was significant, but no one’s presence was larger than members of what Byrge calls his “recovery family.”
On that day in early July, Byrge proudly walked with the members of his recovery group — with the people who have been to the bottom and back, just like he has — along the streets of Huntsville. It was a very public display of what happens privately each week, behind the scenes. Each Tuesday, the group gathers at Thrive Church to continue their journey. And there with them, front and center, is Byrge. Starting as a member of Judge Jamie Cotton’s recovery court and now a part of the team at S.T.A.N.D., Byrge’s life work is to help others find their way down the same pathway he found that leads to hope and redemption.
“People ask me all the time what makes me happy, and I tell them when I see a person in recovery out shopping for groceries with their family, that makes my heart smile,” Byrge told the Independent Herald last month. “Our county only sees the bad side, but when I look at these people I think of the kids that have parents again. Most of them are back holding full-time jobs, paying taxes, and helping give back to our community.”
As this newspaper noted in July, 340 people marking in a parade might not seem like much in a community of 22,000 that has been almost crippled by the opioid epidemic. But every movement has to start somewhere. There has to be a few before there can be a crowd.
“What do we do next?” Byrge asked after that 4th of July parade. “Is this the end? I have a feeling this is just the beginning.”
Indeed, it wasn’t the end. And it still isn’t. “We want to help give back to the community what we took from it and be a light to this beautiful county,” Byrge said last month. “We still have many, many people to reach, but as long as we all try and work together, we can make a difference.”
A difference is being achieved in Scott County. God is to thank for it — Randy Byrge will be quick to tell you that. But Randy Byrge is to thank for it, too.
Eight years ago, Randy Byrge was headed to Corpus Christi because he truly had nowhere else to turn. This year, he is the Independent Herald/Scott County Chamber of Commerce Person of the Year. He won’t want the recognition, but he deserves it. If there has to be a few before there is a crowd, there has to be one to inspire the few. Randy Byrge was the one, stepping forth in faith, to share his story. And, in doing so, he inspired a community.