(EDITOR'S NOTE: Duche', or "Dutch," George Bradley William Vonada spent his high school years in Williamsport and Milton going by Bradley Vonada. He was christened "Duche'," which he now only answers to, after a drug deal gone bad when someone in his neighborhood named him after a violent gangster in the movie "The Cotton Club." Later in life, he learned that Duche' is French, derived from the English word "Duke" and it translates as mighty oak. "Duche' is who I am now. Bradley Vonada is my son. He's done much better with Brad Vonada than I did," he said recently. For more on Duche's ministry, visit www.220life.com or www.duchebradley.com.
"I was there with Andrew Kirkland. He was a lifer, but he was a believer. He began talking and I was thinking I made a promise to my son and I didn't want my son growing up without his father and here I was, I had put myself in a position where that was the very thing that was going to happen. And the man looked at me and said eight words that changed my life. He said, 'You look burdened. Can I pray for you?' "
That encounter in a North Carolina prison cell set a new course for Duche' Bradley Vonada, who in three short years had gone from being a high school basketball star to a convicted drug dealer facing a potential 38-year sentence.
Duche’ Bradley stands under a Hometown Hero banner during a visit to Williamsport in April that pictures his son, Bradley Vonada.
"When he prayed and I repeated it, I didn't understand it but I knew I needed help and at the end of that prayer, something had changed. There was a heaviness that was not there anymore. When Andrew asked me about my son, I began to cry for the first time in four or five years," he continued.
"If I didn't have the love for my son, I possibly wouldn't have prayed the prayer that morning. I can't tell you how God would have worked it out. I didn't love me, but I loved my son. I needed help and I didn't want my son to repeat my mistakes and experience my pain and to experience the hurt that I had experienced in life. He absolutely was the seed that God used to plant in my life to cause my life to flourish for Him," Vonada said.
As a youngster during the 1970s and 80s, Duche' grew up in a home without a godly father's influence. To this day he never has met his biological father and the relationship with his stepfather wasn't good.
"I sometimes paint my stepfather in a very bad light. He was a great provider. But I didn't feel loved," he said.
Emancipated from his parents at age 16, being on his own was nothing new for Vonada as he was entering his final years of high school in Milton and then moving to and finishing at Williamsport Area High School in 1987.
Following graduation, he moved to Atlanta, Ga., where he got involved selling drugs, at first on a small scale and then in a much bigger way.
He began making trips back to Williamsport in early 1988, where he was reunited with his former girlfriend and not long afterward he got her pregnant. Their son, also Bradley, was born that December.
"You have to put on some emotional armor. I was carrying guns, I was angry. I was beating people up with baseball bats. I had transitioned from this happy-go-lucky kid playing sports to now living with this dark anger. I felt completely abandoned and rejected by all the people I loved and would have helped me," he said.
That period lasted from the time he was 19 to 22 when, after three arrests in three months on drug and gun charges, he faced the possibility of a long prison sentence.
"I had made a commitment to my son when he was born that I would never abandon him the way my real father had abandoned me; that I wanted to be the man in his life and give him the things he desired.
"God created a father to be with his children and here I was, I had made decisions that had totally ripped God's ideal apart and I watched my son suffer for it. It broke my heart," Vonada said.
At the time, it seemed doubtful he would be able to fulfill any promises. But God works in mysterious and wonderful ways.
Not long after giving his life to Christ, Vonada's prison sentence was reduced to seven years and he only spent two-and-a-half years behind bars before being released.
During that time, as part of his therapy, he wrote letters to his young son.
"He was unable to read them, but I would write them and I remember making a promise to him of being a father who would
always love him and support him. The letters were a way for me to communicate with my son without actually being to communicate with him (physically) on a regular basis," Vonada said.
"One of the lessons that the Lord taught me during that time is that love isn't what you do when you are with someone, love is what you do when you're not with them. I had to prepare myself when I wasn't with him for who I wanted to be when I was with him."
After his release from prison in 1993, Vonada made frequent trips to Williamsport to see his son whenever he could, while serving in various ministries in Washington, D.C., and New York City and then moving to Miami, Fla.
Some years later, when his son became a teenager, came another challenge.
"He (young Brad) ended up getting into trouble and his mother called me. I was in Miami at the time working (as a bodyguard and driver) for Jennifer (Lopez) and P. Diddy (Combs) and I reached out to God and said, 'Lord, what am I going to do?' And the Lord said, 'When you were at that age, what did your parents do with you.' And I said they emancipated me. And He said, 'That's what you have to do with your son,' " Vonada recalled.
"I remember the Lord saying 'Your son is making decisions that supersede your authority as his father so you have to emancipate him and give him back to me just as Abraham had to show his faith in me by giving his son Isaac.'
"I ended up flying back. (By now) his mother and I had a good relationship and we both were in a relationship with the Lord and learning to walk with and trust God," Vonada continued.
"I sat my son down and I said, 'Son, you are making decisions now that have adult consequences. You're not listening to me and you're not listening to your mother so ultimately I have to give you to God.'
"I remember his mother saying, 'Can I be included?' And his mother came and put her hand on Brad's back and I said, 'son, we love you; but we love God even more. And because we love Him, we're going to give you to Him,' " Vonada said.
"I took from the book of Kings, where Samuel anoints the head of David with oil, and I just took some oil and I poured it on my son's head and I devoted my son to the Lord. And my son began to cry like a baby. It was such a critical, tender moment in our lives because it really was spiritual.
"The Lord began to touch his heart. This was when my son was at the height of his rebellion and I watched his heart soften, just like mine had; because God was faithful to father him when I was not able to. It was a real turning point in all of our lives," Vonada said. "I gave him to God, who is a perfect father, without flaws. It was then that his new identity in a father was the King of kings, and he became a 'Young Prince!' "
One day at a time, things progressively got better for Brad, according to his father, and by the time he was a senior at Williamsport Area High School he was voted the Homecoming King.
"My son was very popular, likeable, and I give a great amount of that credit to that day we handed him over to God," Vonada said.
Out of high school, young Brad joined the U.S. Navy, where as a petty officer 3rd Class he now serves aboard the USS Makin Island. Father and son expect to be reunited next week when his ship returns to San Diego, Calif., after a tour.
"I'm really, really proud. But the biggest gratification for me is that I feel I played an instrumental part in my son not having to experience the setbacks that I still experience. Like, when I apply for a place to live, I've been turned down because I'm a convicted felon. Having that felony conviction as a young man has impacted the rest of my life, whereas my son, he's serving in the United States military and he's looked upon as someone who is doing something good," Vonada said.
"I love how God can regenerate from generation to generation, that my son can make my name great, where I had tarnished and stained it," he said.
Those life experiences have given Vonada a new message as he lives in Dallas, Texas, and travels across the country, encouraging change in others' lives through 220 Life Mission.
"The main and primary focus of my (ministry) is fulfilling Malachi 4:6 and Luke 1:17, which is that God wants to turn the hearts of fathers back to their children and the hearts of their children back to their fathers," he said.
"There is a message that I speak on from the end of Ephesians 5 and beginning of Ephesians 6 that talks about men loving their wives as Christ loves the church and women submitting themselves to their husbands. But when Chapter 6 starts it talks about fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.
"A big part of my animosity toward fathers and men is because (growing up) I never saw a man love his wife the way Christ loved the church. I didn't experience that in my home. I experienced infidelity. I experienced yelling. I experienced anger. I experienced avoidance," Vonada explained.
"I think a big part of our children going astray is that fathers are not loving their families; they're not loving their wives. If children see their fathers loving their mothers, they don't grow up with animosity toward their fathers, they grow up with admiration. That's why children who come from homes with good fathers you see their functionality is so much better because they have a good perception of a father in their home.
"No matter what any of us thinks, we all perceive God in light of how we perceive fathers in our families because we reference God as being a father. If our only view of fatherhood is men who cheat on their wives and verbally and sometimes physically abuse (them), then our perception of God is in that same light and it's a wrong perception.
"I haven't taken my experiences and said 'woe is me.' I'm taking my experiences and laying them down to what God says it should look like and I'm working toward the goal and the standard of being that man and encouraging other men to be that kind of a father in the lives of their children and their families, so they can grow up with their functionality being intact, being able to be whole," Vonada said.
"I've lived it and I've found it to be real. There is one thing that changes my life and that is the word of God. It still changes my life. My opinion could probably change somebody for a minute, but the word of God will change somebody for a lifetime," he added.