For former tough-guy atheist, ‘life is better serving God’

Mike Rushton, the youngest of three boys, grew up tough. His dad borrowed boxing gloves and taught his sons how to fight. “We were always told not to ever start a fight, but if we were involved in a fight we better not lose,” he said. “We did not lose many fights.”

His father did not attend church, but his mother was a faithful Christian who made sure her sons went with her to church. But when Rushton turned 13 and got a job working the late shift at the local café, his dad, who considered money important, did not make his son keep going to church.

Rushton went to work at a cotton mill when he was 16. “During those years I believed there was a God,” he said, “but I didn’t have any place in my life for Him.” He also became disillusioned when his former fourth-grade Sunday school teacher, the “best teacher [he] ever had,” disappointed him. A call came for the maintenance department at the mill to check conditions in the weave room. No one wanted to go because the woman who worked there would “cuss you out if you came on her job.” Rushton told his coworkers he would check it out because she was a nice lady. “I have been cussed out before, but I don’t believe any worse than she did,” he said. “That had an impact on my life, and I remember it like it happened yesterday.” He couldn’t see any difference in his life and that of someone he thought was a Christian.

From there, life became a series of troubling episodes. He was in jail several times, and “every time, alcohol was involved,” he said. “I have seen men shot, cut, beat and killed.”

Rushton was in the Army when he and Vickie, whom he had dated for several years, decided to get married. After his discharge, they moved to Newberry, where he again worked in a mill.

Vickie had been raised in church, and when the couple’s twin daughters were born, she started going to church again, but her husband would not go with her. When their daughter Misty, then 4, was not healed of psoriasis, Rushton decided to become an atheist. “When I heard people talk about Jesus Christ, I would tell them they were crazy, that people who believe in God are weak.”

Vickie would sometimes invite the pastor to the house on Sunday afternoons. “I finally had enough and told the preacher that if he ever came to my house again, I would whip him,” Rushton said. He told his wife not to take the children to church if they did not want to go. Eventually, Vickie stopped attending services.

Rushton had begun doing landscaping work, and business was booming. One evening, he covered the bed with $100 bills. “I told Vickie that she used to talk to me about God and Jesus, but this was what was important to me,” he said.

The following week, he was working in a Baptist preacher’s yard when a tree rolled onto him and broke his back. An operation was scheduled. The night before surgery, Rushton prayed, “God, if You are real, I want You to come through this window and take me out of my misery. I don’t want to live like this.”

At that moment, “Jesus Christ came into my heart, and I had a feeling of peace I had never had before,” he said. “I went from being a man who could do anything I wanted to someone who could not even take care of his basic needs. God had broken me, and He started rebuilding me into the person He wanted me to be.”

The next morning, Rushton shared with his wife what had happened, and they prayed together. The preacher whom he had threatened to whip came to visit him in the hospital and, later, at his home, teaching him how to study the Bible and to pray.

After recovering from surgery, Rushton went back to work landscaping. “I knew God did not want to handicap me,” he says. “He just wanted to get my attention and change my heart.”

Since then, he has been skydiving and run a marathon. God healed his daughter. Rushton ran for city council in 1990 and won. Later, he was appointed magistrate. “Imagine that,” he said, laughing. “Someone who went from being put into jail to being able to put people in jail.”

In 2007, Mike and Vickie retired, moved to Pickens, and are now enjoying a gift they never thought they would have — a grandchild, who lives next door. They are faithful members of Pickens First Baptist Church.

“Some people tell me that God did not break my back, that He would never do anything like that,” Rushton said. “I know God broke my back to save me from going to hell.

“I am carrying a lot of scars from my former way of life. I have served Satan, and I have served God. Believe me, life is a lot better serving God.”