Faith in God helps broken man leave past behind, start train ministry for children
By Jessica Brodie
CLINTON—It haunted him for years, the rage rising up like a tidal wave, controlling his life. The look in their eyes the day he—an undercover officer, a marked man—was kidnapped by a ring of drug dealers, beaten for hours and left for dead.
Over and over, they’d put his own pistol to his head and pull the trigger. The bullet never came, but the click of steel against steel was a nightmare he revisited without reprieve.
“I knew I was dead,” Joe Fuller said, recounting the horror of that day, Oct. 17, 1988—the day his life catapulted into darkness.
Now, 29 years later, Fuller is a changed man. After years of suffering horribly from severe, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, Fuller finally made the decision to trust in the Lord and leave the past in the past. Today, the member of Broad Street United Methodist Church is using that faith not only to maintain a life of Christian peace but also to bless the lives of young children through a nonprofit train ministry he founded and runs.
“Post-traumatic stress was a life sentence,” Fuller said. “But since the Lord has healed me, it’s distant now, almost third-person, like it happened to someone else.”
He sees God everywhere, in everything.
‘Thought everyone else was crazy’
But his journey wasn’t easy. Fuller, a retired law enforcement officer, started his career in Richland County in 1977. Looking back, he realized his passion for police work was, for him, an illness in itself. As a child, he and his twin brother were what he called “adrenaline junkies.” Being a police offer fueled his desire for excitement. He craved the adrenaline rush, how it was different every day.
Over the years, when Fuller began to get careless, he’d take a break from the force. Throughout his career, he’s been a social worker, a paramedic, a director of housing at a college, a pretrial interventionist for juveniles and adults, a drug and alcohol outreach addiction specialist. But he could never leave the allure of police work behind, and soon he’d get right back in.
When his first daughter was born, Fuller and his wife moved from Columbia to Clinton, and he became an undercover law enforcement officer in Laurens.
That’s when he became a marked man, he said.
The things he’d been through as an officer would revisit him, but after the beating Oct. 17, 1988, he was thrust into a full-blown bout of PTSD. But back then, PTSD was not something civilians were supposed to be struggling with.
“That was something military people get, those who went to Vietnam,” he said, and pushed himself to get right back into his work and on with his life.
His wife knew something was wrong, but he didn’t have a clue.
“I thought everyone else was crazy.”
Fuller left law enforcement in 1990 and became a drug and alcohol outreach addiction specialist in Newberry. He tried to pretend he was OK.
But he wasn’t.
Thanks to new understanding of the impact and scope of PTSD, a mental health counselor there soon recognized something was amiss, and Fuller was diagnosed with the disorder.
Then came his battle for recovery. Throughout the early 1990s, he saw a psychiatrist regularly and took medication for the PTSD, but he wasn’t getting any better.
“I truly felt if I played the game I’d be put back together like Humpty-Dumpty,” Fuller said. “But no—I was getting worse.”
While at first he’d felt sorry for himself, sorrow turned into anger, and by the early 1990s, began moving toward borderline rage.
“I got to a point where I was lying to the doctor,” Fuller said.
Finally, Fuller had enough of the medication and the therapy, which he said were a Band-Aid and not a long-term solution. He asked the doctor his prognosis.
“That doctor looked at me and said, ‘You’re gonna die with post traumatic stress.”
Fuller went home that day, poured all his medicine in the commode, and began a long period of introspection.
“My wife pitched a hissy fit,” Fuller said, but he was determined to fix himself. He didn’t want to live this way forever.
He learned everything he could about PTSD, including how to control his symptoms, but the flashbacks and nightmares were still present—and so was the anger.
The anger he could not manage, and he began to isolate. He trusted no one beyond his wife or his twin.
“It was really overwhelming,” he said. “When I thought about what they did to me and took away from me—ooh, boy.”
A friend suggested he begin to see a Christian counselor, but he dismissed it.
“God was not part of this,” he said. “I was clinging to God, but I would not allow him in.
I believed, but there was a part of me that felt if God didn’t heal me like I thought I should be healed, then I would be in total darkness.”
He became suicidal.
God’s light into darkness
Then one day, Fuller decided to try the Christian counselor. God spoke to him and showed him a path to freedom.
“It’s like being in a dark closet—no door, no windows, no light, no hope. You’re stuck,” he said. “PTSD is all about the past; there’s no present and no future. You’re living in the past, locked in that box with no door and no way to get out. Man cannot help you.”
But God can, and when Fuller’s eyes were opened to that truth, he caught a glimpse of a new way to live.
“God can do anything. He can force that light into your box,” Fuller said.
With the help of his counselor, he spent one full day wrestling with his darkness and allowing God to shine that light in. From early morning until six that night, he went back into his past—not just the beating that triggered all this, but back to his childhood, back to the mistakes of his youth and earlier adulthood—and shined God’s light.
“I had to clean it all up. God had to speak truth to me,” Fuller said. “All that clutter in the past dictates what you do today.”
And belief was the key to everything. While Fuller had lost faith in him or other people to have the ability to fix him, “When God speaks truth to you, you believe: ‘Oh! That’s exactly right! It wasn’t my fault!’ My mind believes that now. You have to believe 100 percent God will heal you.
“All it took was to feel His presence.”
When he left the counselor’s office, he was a man transformed. For the first time, he was able to sleep without flashback or nightmare. His wife saw an immediate change.
He was also able to forgive—not an easy thing to do, but a necessary one.
“If you don’t forgive you don’t heal,” he said.
‘Jesus Loves Me’ train
That was the year 2000. Today, Fuller is a changed man, a healed man. He’s started a “Jesus Loves Me” train ministry, aimed toward introducing the love of Christ to children younger than age 6.
After all, children love trains, he said, and they go wild about Thomas The Train. It hit him that they could go just as wild for Jesus.
With school and law enforcement partners, Fuller brings his “Jesus Loves Me” train to preschools, elementary schools and churches across South Carolina, doing what he calls an interactive “train church” to help the children know and love Jesus. He calls himself the Choo-Choo Man.
“It is God’s work,” Fuller said. “I am a follower of Jesus Christ doing His work, making His train available to all children like He made himself available to children. There is nothing better than seeing young children riding on the ‘Jesus Loves Me’ Train. It is difficult to put the good time in words, but the expressions on their faces tells all.”
A man who once battled darkness daily, Fuller has gone from PTSD to “Jesus Loves Me.” And it is all thanks to trusting God and allowing His healing grace to change his heart and life.
To learn more about Fuller’s train ministry, contact him at [email protected] or 864-923-1444.