Rev. Doug Taylor needed a hand. Not just any hand, but one with “street smarts.”
“You need three things to work with me,” Taylor said. “Guts, grits and the gospel.”
Taylor found his man in the Rev. James Span. “James loves the Bible and has street smarts,” he said.
Boy, does he ever.
“I ran this street,” said the former drug dealer. Span was on the run from the Pennsylvania law when he settled into his hideaway on Knox Street, one of Lewiston’s rougher sections of town. “I sold so much drugs at that basketball court,” said Span as he gestured toward Kennedy Park at the end of the street. “I was on the fast road to hell.”
It was during that time that his life changed dramatically.
“I was sitting in the car getting high and the Holy Spirit fell upon me. I started crying,” Span said. “I can’t get high no more, I got to preach the gospel,” he explained to his buddy sharing the buzz of the drugs. “‘Damn, this must be some good weed,'” Span said he remembered his friend saying.
“I was addicted to alcohol. I was addicted to marijuana. I was addicted to cigarettes. I was addicted to cocaine,” Span said. “With God’s help, I quit everything except cigarettes at that time.” He has since given up the smokes as well.
The night Span was “saved,” he created his own ministry, Living Running Water, and was a regular on the church pew after that. His wife at the time liked the idea of becoming a minister’s wife, but that quickly faded, he said. “The more I went to church the more my wife went to the club” and the marriage did not last.
Span convinced the pastor at Christ Temple in Auburn to give him a chance and Span’s new career was born. One Friday night a month, Span was the church’s youth pastor.
He would surely cross paths with Taylor if he stuck with youth ministry. Taylor is the pastor at The Jesus Party, a widely popular Lewiston church for at-risk children. Span and Taylor talked during a tent revival in the same park Span once sold drugs. Taylor knew Span’s troubled past would make him a good fit to work with the youth at his children’s ministry and asked him to be assistant pastor.
“He’s white lightning and I’m black thunder,” joked Span, who is black. Taylor, who is white, said having a diverse staff definitely has been a benefit in an increasingly diverse city. “James and I work pretty good together,” Taylor said.
Span can relate to at-risk youth. “He has a wealth of knowledge and a lot of experience,” Taylor said.
Span shared some of that experience during a church service that recognized Alcohol Awareness Month. “I became an alcoholic at a very young age,” he said. “I started drinking when I was 9 after my mother died. Mom died of cirrhosis of the liver and dad did too.”
His father died when Span was 13, but he does not blame alcoholic parents for his history of heavy drinking. “I never believed that I was born an alcoholic,” Span said. “I was trying to cover up mom’s death. I was drunk because I was covering up the pain. When alcohol was not enough, I went to marijuana.”
Span started smoking weed when he was 12 and drinking hard liquor in the eighth-grade locker room before morning classes. “It’s nothing that I brag about. It’s just the lifestyle I lived,” he said. “I was suspended from school 14 or 15 times a year.”
Span is now 42 and living in Auburn with his wife, Christine, and 2-year-old son Isaiah. When he isn’t preaching the gospel or writing letters to men and women in prison, Span works as a telemarketer. A big part of his check pays child support for the four other children he fathered with four different women. “That’s how crazy I was,” he admits.
Span recently visited a child’s family in downtown Lewiston near where he had been stabbed. “I never thought I would be doing ministry work next door to where I got stabbed,” Span said. But the incident that happened in the empty lot right next door to The Jesus Party is a constant reminder of Span’s message.
“Whatever you are going through, Jesus can save you,” Span tells the children. “How God helped me, he can help you … God is a good guy.”