This past weekend my Dad, Fred Kroner, had the following article in the newspaper he works for. I was not only impressed with the article (my dads a good writer!) but also with the way this young man has been impacted by Christ.
It amazes me, though maybe it shouldn’t, how God can do such work in the lives of people who experience something as difficult as this young man did.
As you read, think about how God can help us to overcome anything, and about the power of forgiveness.
By FRED KRONER
FITHIAN — Those who know Brandon Divan know that he likes to run.
“Running is my own form of therapy,” he said. “It’s just you and the woods. It’s so calming. It’s like nothing else matters. It’s my getaway.
“If I’m having a bad day, I feel like working out. It clears my mind.”
Those who know the Oakwood High School valedictorian also know that he won’t run and hide.
He is an 18-year-old who has endured more heartache, pain and trauma than anyone deserves. The easy solution is to not talk about it, not discuss having a father who murdered his mother nearly seven years ago.
And yet, the three-time all-conference runner in cross-country and a track honoree this spring shares his background because amid the shock and the devastation, there is an uplifting story that helps define who the courteous young man is now and who he will become.
His mother, Kimberly, was 34 years old when she was shot during a domestic dispute in September 2005. Fifteen times.
Brandon and his sisters, Brittney and Rebecca, were just down the road, visiting their maternal grandparents (Kathy and Kenny Divan), who have raised them and whose surname the three children have legally taken.
“I don’t talk about it much,” Divan said, “but I think about it a lot. Every day, I think about my mom. Me and my mom had a good relationship. The hardest part is not getting to see her every day. I keep him off my mind.”
“Him” is how Divan refers to his father, Kenny Gray, who is serving a 56-year prison sentence. Brandon Divan was 11 years old when the horrific act took place.
Divan speculates his own age has helped him cope.
“Maybe I didn’t fully understand,” he said. “Maybe my young mind protected me so I could get through the day-to-day stuff. Maybe it was a youth thing.”
Learning the details was hard enough. Then, he was forced to relive them when he was called to testify in court.
“He (Gray) was sitting in the (court) room,” Divan said. “It was the first time I’d seen him since everything happened. That was rough. We had to go to Peoria (for the trial). Not having friends around, it was one of the hardest days in my life.”
Court records show that one question the boy was asked was whether he saw his father in court.
His response was, ‘No.’ “
The answer, he said years later, represented his feelings then and now.
“I did not consider him my father,” Divan said. “That’s not something dads do. Good dads take care of their children. Support them. Love their wives.”
Divan, a straight-A student throughout all four years of high school, still hasn’t figured it all out, but he has a pretty good idea where he found the strength.
“I owe it all to God, to be honest,” he said. “None of this would have been possible without him. It’s by his grace that I’m still around.”
As a young child, he recalled, “we went to church sometimes.” It wasn’t a regular activity and Divan added, “I didn’t know what it was like to have a relationship with God.”
After he essentially lost both parents on the same day, it was recommended that Divan get counseling.
“I went once,” he said, “but I never went back. It wasn’t for me.”
Even through his junior high years, Divan looked at church more as a building than as a place to find refuge and salvation, peace and tranquility.
“I didn’t go to church,” he said. “I wasn’t super motivated.”
For a while — a long while — he concedes he was lost.
“The first 12 years of my life were gone like that,” he said. “Having to grow up at 12 and figure it out was rough.”
By his sophomore year in high school, Brandon Divan had become acquainted with Josh Hunsberger, the youth pastor at Oakwood United Methodist Church.
He connected with Hunsberger’s Cometland Youth group and said “that jump-started my spiritual walk.”
He now attends church regularly, going by himself and sitting with two other Oakwood athletes who go alone: Garrett Barr and Cameron Lee.
“We have our own pew,” Divan said.
During high school, Divan has grown physically as well as spiritually. He recalls being a freshman who “liked football so much” but didn’t try out.
“I was 4-foot-10, 90 pounds,” he said. “My grandma encouraged me to start running.”
Besides being embraced subsequently by the church community, Divan (who is now 5-7, 140) credits his loving grandparents, a tight-knit group of six close friends affectionately known around school as the “bro-men,” he said, and one other individual with helping him stay on course.
That other person is a former high-profile Oakwood runner, Justin Jones, who two weeks ago graduated from Olivet Nazarene University.
Jones can relate to the ordeal that Divan endured as a fifth-grader. Jones and Divan are half-brothers who share the same biological father, the one who is in prison at Pontiac.
“Justin is one of the biggest influences in my life as a person,” Divan said. “I watched him run in high school, saw him go to state, saw what he was doing and that he’s such a great person. I thought I could give it a shot.”
At the time of the murder, Jones said he and Divan were not particularly close.
“We’d lost touch,” Jones said. “I’d been adopted by the man who is my father now. We weren’t in a lot of contact, but that event put Brandon back in my life and me in his.”
Though they were not living together in one house as brothers, they formed a bond that siblings who are close come to cherish.
“I felt for him, and not being able to imagine what he was going through, I wanted to be there for him, spend time with him,” Jones said. “I’ve tried to be the best role model I can be for all of my younger siblings.”
Jones is devout in his Christian upbringing and shared it with his half-brother.
“My faith has always been important to me,” Jones said. “During what Brandon was going through, I tried to use my faith to encourage him. He found a lot of encouragement getting to know Christ. He found strength, and a lot of good things started happening.”
Since last fall, Divan runs only after he inscribes biblical passages on his arms with a Sharpie. He uses different verses, but one is always constant.
“It’s Matthew 19:26,” he said. ” ‘With men, this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.’ “
Jones is pleased that Divan is open about his faith.
“That is a great way to let people know what you believe and start a conversation,” Jones said. “He says he looks at those (verses) during a race for inspiration.”
The connection between Jones and Divan will take another turn June 1. On that Friday, Jones and Milford native Anna Cooke will be married.
“Brandon will be my best man,” Jones said. “He’s my brother, and I love the kid to death. I thought of no one other than him that I’d want to stand next to me.”
In August, Divan will continue a family tradition. He will enroll at Olivet Nazarene University and join the cross-country and track and field teams that Jones is leaving after four satisfying seasons.
“He didn’t push me to do anything,” Divan said, “but on my college visit, my best friend (Erik Tharp) and I spent the night with him and it was an awesome night. I loved it.”
Tharp and Divan will be roommates as well as teammates next school year. Tharp plans to be a triple-jumper on the ONU track team.
Jones said it was the school — and not him — that sold Divan and Tharp.
“After spending my four years at Olivet, I could see Brandon in a place like that,” Jones said. “I met so many great people. I knew he would flourish in an environment like that.”
Divan recognizes an incongruity in his life and he is working to change it. The Bible, he recognizes, talks about forgiveness. He talks about it, too.
It has been more than a year, he said, since he last received a letter from his father. On the previous few occasions one arrived, he said, “I struggled to read through it, but the words didn’t mean anything to me. It brings up bad memories.”
The communication was a two-way street. Once.
“I wrote one letter in junior high,” Divan said, “and told him how I felt.”
He has started the process of forgiveness.
“Forgiveness is something I pray for,” Divan said, “but it’s so hard. There are times I say, ‘I do forgive him,’ but I don’t have any intention of seeing him. I’ve thought about forgiveness, but it is so tough.”
Divan also has thought what he would say if — God forbid — he knew someone who was dealing with circumstances similar to what he faced nearly seven years ago.
“I’d say just hang on and do the best you can, know this will be the hardest thing you’ll go through,” Divan said. “It will always hurt, but there is a light out there. It will get easier, and it could be worse.”
Divan has had nearly 2,400 days to think about it or — depending on the day — forget about the brutal death of his mother.
“Losing people is the hardest thing someone can go through, I think,” he said.
He quickly adopted a philosophy that helped pull him through the darkest of days.
“I thought, ‘This is the lowest part of my life,’ ” Divan said. ” ‘It can only get better from here.’ “
There is a strong correlation, he believes, between his 4.0 grade-point average and the experiences that confronted Divan.
“Having your face buried in a biology book will definitely keep your mind off other things,” Divan said.
The study time was necessary, he said, not just in science but for all of his courses. His efforts resulted in him earning all A’s in every class but one during the past six years. The exception was a ‘B’ in a junior high mathematics class.
“Some kids are fortunate enough to have natural (academic) talent,” Divan said, “but I had to do a lot of studying.”
As Oakwood’s valedictorian, he will speak at this afternoon’s graduation ceremony at Oakwood Grade School.
During his first three years of high school, Divan had a teacher who made certain he had plenty of reasons to open a science book.
“Mrs. (Norma) Anderson is the one who helped me decide my college major,” Divan said. “I loved her teaching. I had her for six classes (three science), three of them were Spanish because she taught that, too. I’ll major in biology.”
Anderson retired a year ago. Now, Divan is looking forward to his future.
He is considering a career path in the medical field but is enthusiastic about an opportunity that he has for the summer, starting this week.
“I will be doing a pastoral internship,” Divan said, “for Josh (Hunsberger) and Kim (Dancey, pastor) with the Oakwood United Methodist Church. I do what God is calling me to do and living life according to how I feel I should.
“I’m having the time of my life right now.”
That was especially true last Monday. Divan ran the anchor leg of the Comets’ 3,200-meter relay that won the race at the Vermilion Valley Conference meet.
He will take to his graduation the thrill of overtaking Bismarck-Henning’s final runner and helping Oakwood establish a conference record (8 minutes, 34.0 seconds).
It’s a mark he shares — gladly — with teammates Cole Burris, Tharp and Leighton Elliott.
“I ran my fastest (800) split,” he said.
And Divan’s life is moving forward, full speed ahead.