Marlon “Big Dog” Brown: A Story of Redemption and Hope
Over Labor Day weekend, I had the privilege of sharing two meals with Marlon “Big Dog” Brown (one of them was a breakfast at Vigilant Hope, a ministry to the homeless in Wilmington) and hearing him tell his life story and describe his work in Memphis, Tennessee. At 6 feet 4 inches and 275 pounds, the former star basketball player is aptly named. Brown works as the construction director for SOS—Service Over Self—a Memphis ministry that seeks “to glorify God by proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ in underserved neighborhoods through home repair and leadership development.” Brown also personally ministers to many Memphis residents—primarily the homeless, drug addicts, gang members, prostitutes, and the mentally ill. His life experiences give him an entrée with these groups and the ability to understand their problems and develop caring relationships with them.
Brown grew up in Millington, Tennessee, in a very poor, dysfunctional family, which had no running water until Marlon was ten years old. His mother died from cancer when he was nine, and he was “reared” by his physically and verbally abusive step-father. His step-father told Marlon that he despised the sight of him, that he had no value, should never have been born, and was “a poster child for using condoms.” Brown was made fun of at school because of his ragged, unfashionable clothes. To gain his classmates’ acceptance, Brown strove to excel in both athletics and academics. However, his feelings of abandonment, self-loathing, and worthlessness contributed to his using drugs, drinking, and having sex in his early teenage years.
Before playing his senior year, Brown was offered basketball scholarships by 22 colleges. That fall he was elected Mr. Millington, the king of Millington Central High School. Racism was so rabid at his high school, however, that his selection produced a riot and prompted six white supremacists to attack him on the way home from school in mid-October. They beat him severely, breaking numerous bones and leaving him for dead. Because of his serious injuries he missed his entire senior year of basketball received only one scholarship to attend college—at Christian Brothers College in Memphis. Brown shone in basketball, but he became involved with using and selling drugs and had to leave the area to avoid drug dealers who threatened his life because of the money he owed them.
Brown transferred to Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. He began using and selling drugs there as well, and after a year left Lamar. He continued to sell drugs, and one day sold dope to an undercover agent; the criminal justice system gave him a choice: go to jail or join the military. Brown understandably chose the military. While spending three years in the Army, he played basketball, smoked dope, and participated in a fight that led to a dishonorable discharge. Then followed a stint at all-black Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, where he enjoyed great success on both the basketball court and in the classroom. For a third time, however, he started selling drugs. When the police busted him, Brown had drugs, guns, and counterfeit money in his dorm room. This time he did go to jail. After his release, his life spiraled dramatically downward. Brown became a crack addict, committed more crimes to fund his drug usage, and over the next decade was incarcerated six more times.
After being released from jail the final time in 2002, Brown entered a rehab program at Memphis Union Mission primarily to avoid living on the streets during the winter. The staff there took a great interest in him in part because, as one of the few college-educated residents he introduced speakers, led devotions, and directed a few chapel services even though he was not a Christian. In fact, he began to read the Bible to prove that Christianity was false. He read Lee Stroebel’s The Case for Christ and took four Bible courses at a nearby seminary. His health improved significantly, a woman gave him a car, and SOS offered him a job. He was also delighted that his 21-year-old daughter, whom he had never met, contacted him. The combined impact of his reading and better life circumstances convinced him that God was real and cared about him. At age 41, he committed his life to Christ.
Brown quickly concluded that God was calling him to share the gospel with others. He realized that his previous experiences with homelessness, addiction, and prison had equipped him to minister to troubled men and women on the streets of Memphis. Brown did not start his street ministry because he had the finances or training to do so, but rather because he was angry that few people in Memphis were working to help the city’s homeless, prostitutes, drug addicts, and mentally ill. He was convinced that Christians should sacrifice their lives to help others. Brown credits an accountability group of five men he meets with weekly for helping provide the guidance, support, and spiritual strength he needs to carry out his ministry to Memphis residents who have been largely forgotten.
For the last thirteen years, in addition to working full time for SOS to arrange and direct crews of primarily college and high school students to renovate and repair the houses of low-income Memphis residents during the summer and spring breaks, Brown has spent countless hours befriending and aiding the least of these in Memphis. By developing relationships with hundreds of burdened individuals, speaking in dozens of churches, partnering with numerous agencies that provide food, shelter, medical care, counseling, spiritual guidance, and other services for the downtrodden, and hosting a weekly “Authentic Manhood Course” for 70 men, Brown has had a substantial impact on the lives of many men and women in his city. He insists that people can find the purpose, fulfillment, and joy they are wrongly seeking through drugs, sex, and crime by having, instead, a personal relationship with Jesus. God has redeemed and transformed Brown to be an agent of His kingdom in Memphis and beyond.
What a difference a caring mentor, coach, teacher, or pastor could have made in Brown’s life as he was growing up. As Brown laments in a recent television interview, he had no positive role models as a youth. Such a person might have been able to compensate for Brown’s loss of his mother and ill-treatment by his cruel, alcoholic step-father. A caring adult might have helped Brown develop better self-esteem, avoid drugs, and come to know Christ at an earlier age. Thankfully, God intervened in Brown’s life as an adult to bring him to Christ, but hundreds of thousands of other children are growing up today in situations similar to the one in which Brown was raised. By serving as mentors, tutors, and foster parents and volunteering at organizations that aid troubled youth, we can make a significant difference in the lives of many of them.