Once he was dependent on prescription pain meds and felt like a complete failure. Now he is an internationally known musician and worship leader. How does such a transformation happen? Stefan Youngblood will tell you it is by the grace of God, with more than a little help from The Salvation Army.
As the worship leader for one of the largest United Methodist churches in North Carolina, Stefan has opened for some of the biggest names in Christian music, including Michael English and CeCe Winans. His song “We Will Rise” has become a stirring anthem that has brought hope to people all over the world when disaster strikes.
But it hasn’t always been that way.
Salvation Army stops
“I was 19 years old and had dropped out of college, but I was in a good place. I wanted to see the country and I basically became a homeless man in a van. I left Maryland on Jan. 21, 1981, and I ran out of money by the time I hit Texas. After that it was The Salvation Army in city after city all the way across the country. I literally looked for them in all the towns along the way.
“At that point it wasn’t about a relationship with God for me,” Stefan says. “It was about if you’re hungry and need help, that’s where you’ll find it. I knew I could find help there.”
By that time Stefan had dropped out of college and was just roaming aimlessly. His parents and seven siblings had no idea where he was. But the stops at The Salvation Army were a constant reminder of, as he puts it, “the Jesus who is always there.”
One day, he was on the road and the hitchhiker he had picked up started rolling a joint. It was then that he thought, Stefan, what are you doing? Go back to school or do something. This is no way to live.
He turned the van—and his life—around. Stefan ultimately finished school with a degree in music, and answered a call to the ministry.
Public life, private battle
A powerful singer and an extraordinary musician and songwriter, Stefan was a natural. Those abilities took him around the world ministering; he finally ended up at a large church in North Carolina, where a very public life led to a very private battle.
By the time he revealed his secret to an elder, he had a serious problem with addiction to pain medication.
“It had started innocently when I was in rehab for two shoulder surgeries," says Stefan.
"I condemned myself as a hypocrite and a loser to the nth degree because I had a secret I was hiding. It was five years before I could get it out and trust an elder in the church with it." At the height of his struggle, for a period of three weeks, Stefan was taking 21 pills a day: seven in the morning, seven in the afternoon, and seven at night, a total of 210 miligrams a day. And he was buying the pills off the Internet.
The elder flew down from Alaska to the Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital in Tampa to be with him and get him started in the program that would ultimately free him from physical dependency on drugs. But it was a clinical psychologist who would open the spiritual door he needed.
Who condemns you?
"The shame and sense of condemnation was unbearable," Stefan recalls. "At one point I was sitting there crying and the psychologist looked at me and said, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ [Romans 8:1]
“That was the same message I had gotten from The Salvation Army every time I had stopped at one, no matter where I was. Then that man telling me that Scripture really breathed life into it.”
Stefan’s road took him through addiction and then detox. A year later he was fired and cast out from a megachurch community. Six months later, as if the bottom hadn't been hit yet, he returned from church to find himself alone … suddenly a single dad at 42. But always, even when he was at his lowest point, someone was there to help.
In the winter of 2005 he found himself standing at a table counting screws and nuts—thousands of them—because one person had looked past what he had been and offered him a job. And as happy as he was to have someone believe in him again, he found it hard to sing.
“I felt like that had been yanked out of me,” Stefan says. “I couldn’t get a song out. I was down so low.”
Secret loses its power
He began to work with at–risk boys through the local school system, but he still wanted something more. A chance meeting with Jonathan Jeffries, one of the associate ministers of Edenton Street United Methodist Church, brought him back full circle. Jonathan had heard of Stefan and asked if he would come lead worship one Sunday.
“I walked in the building, and there were 141 people there that day and I thought, ‘Wow, there are some things here I could help them with if they’d let me.’ I saw a place that if they would have a broken guy, I could tell my story. And it became my strength because a secret loses its power when you shine light on it.”
In a period of three years, the contemporary service grew from 141 to more than 600, a second contemporary service was started, and new awareness of the homeless community became part of the lifeblood of both the services and the church as a whole.
Stefan and members of the two contemporary services at his church work with the homeless people in the area across from The Salvation Army in Raleigh, N.C.
On one occasion, the Salvation Army shelves were empty. As soon as Stefan heard about it, he knew that people must not have known about the problem because no one would let the Army run out of food. So he decided to do something about it.
“This time I was on the other end, and I could do something for them. We didn’t need a special program. We could just bring in food.”
So he put out the call and asked people in the church to bring food to the contemporary service the following Sunday. And since Edenton Street is one of the largest Methodist churches in North Carolina, he knew what it would look like when the stage area was filled … which he had no doubt would happen.
“The people knew what to do afterward. They knew the carts to put the food on and they knew how to get it over there.” Stefan laughs when he remembers how everything fell together. “It was like a little army, like ants, and everybody knew the mission. Restock the shelves of The Salvation Army. And that’s what they did. In one hour.”
But he knows that things that look easy are anything but. He may be ministering in a 4,000–member church and leading worship and missions here and around the world, but he still remembers the first time he walked into Edenton Street. That day, he thought about the words of Michelangelo. The great artist was the third person to be offered the commission to create the now–famous David sculpture. Everyone else had turned the job down because the marble was flawed.
“He worked away at that piece of cold stone and when he was finished and people asked how he managed to create something so beautiful from the flawed stone, he said, ‘I never saw the marble. I always saw David and I took it the rest of the way until I got to him.’ ”
Stefan Youngblood, now 50, considers himself like that flawed stone.
“I was pretty messed up, but God told me I’m not condemning you. I’ll kneel down there with you.” Stefan is grateful that he heard that idea more than once.
“That’s the same message The Salvation Army has,” he says.