Alone in her tiny apartment, Mary James replayed the conversation over and over in her head. She had listened quietly as a pregnant friend recited her reasoning for getting an abortion. As the friend talked, James flashed back to her own isolated childhood, living in a home where her adopted father, a respected pastor, spent inordinate amounts of time shepherding his flock while his wife secretly battled alcoholism.
“When I threatened to expose my mother’s alcoholism to my father, she returned that threat by telling me she would disown me as her child,” James recalled. “This— coupled with knowing that my birth mother had given me up—created a sense of being unloved and unwanted. Not that it was true, but it was my perception at the time. I do not feel that way any longer.”
Those feelings of rejection began to shift after James, then 21, was reunited with her birth mother. In the early, awkward days of becoming acquainted, James discovered that her mother was just a teen when she became pregnant in the mid-1960s. She opted for adoption, despite her own mother’s pleas for her travel to Europe where she could legally abort her baby.
The thought of those two journeys—a life lost and a life saved—intersected as James’ birth mother knocked on the apartment door for another visit.
“As I opened the door to let her in, I saw a different woman,” James said. “I saw a woman who had placed the value of my life ahead of her own. From that day forward, I never looked at being an adopted child through the same lens.”
Now 49, James uses that pain to help others through her award-winning music and popular speaking ministry. A well-known local vocalist and songwriter, James has earned national accolades as well, earning two Inspirational Country Music Female Vocalist of the Year Awards. She’s also been nominated as a Top 5 Music Evangelist.
“I thought an award provided some type of validation and the night I (first) won, God had already brought me to a point where I knew it was His validation that truly mattered. He is my reward.”
James’ love of music provided strength for James even in her childhood, helping to counteract her deep insecurities.
“My adoptive family loved to sing, as did I,” she said. “I always had a song in my heart and I remember my mother would ask me to sing for guests.”
But, she said, “drawing and painting was my passion. Music didn’t really become a focus until high school.”
By that time, though, James had already spent two years using drugs and alcohol to mask her fears of loneliness and rejection.
“I think the main thing is that my parents themselves were not raised to be communicators,” she said. Her adoptive mother died of cancer when James was just 13. “We did not openly discuss our challenges as people or a family. We lacked intimacy.
“Those things that live in the dark stayed in the dark,” she said. ” If I did something wrong, instead of talking it through, my father would simply have me recite a Commandment.”
Rules and rebellion
That lack of intimacy, the musician said, also impacted her view of the church and Jesus.
Family life, for her, seemed to be “about rules and not relationship. What I did, not who I was or how I felt. I believed that God was the same,” James said.
“Because God represented ‘rules’ and not a ‘relationship’ to me, living without Him was a natural response to my pain. I did not understand the comfort that could be found in Christ or that a relationship with Him would have helped me walk away from sinful, harmful choices. My response to life would have been loving, instead of rebellious.”
The rebellion prompted her to run away at age 16.
“I filled a big purse with all that it could hold, wore as many layers of clothes that I could stand, and off I went,” she said. “If I was afraid, I buried my fear with drugs and alcohol. Underneath the sedation, I am sure I was terrified.”
As she entered adulthood, James gave up drugs, but still used the socially accepted alcohol.
“The drugs were so destructive that I quit doing them in my early 20s,” she said. “I was a young mom, so I had absolutely no desire to put anything in my body—even caffeine—that could potentially harm my children. Praise the Lord I had that much sense!”
A new anchor
Even alcohol went by the wayside in 1999 after a family outing to a friend’s church, resulted in James, her new husband, Dan Barker, and her two children, converting to Christianity.
“It was then that I realized how much power alcohol had in my life and how it acted as my stress reliever on tough days—which was every day, it seemed,” she said. “The Lord wanted to be my strength. By going without it after so many years, I learned how alcohol numbs the emotions, gains control and creates reliance upon it instead of God.”
Finally developing a relationship with each of her birth parents also helped to provide more stability as James was able to reconcile the past—including her feelings of isolation—by putting it into perspective. That fresh perspective also restored her relationship with her adopted father, who is now deceased.
“Meeting them answered many questions, which most importantly helped me understand that it was love that kept me alive, when I could have been aborted,” she said. “My mother wanted to give me the best life possible and everyone made the best choices that they could.”
Restoration and forgiveness
Even with her new spiritual grounding, James says trials have remained. The difference, though, is she no longer walks—or battles—alone.
“To be honest, I’ve experienced more seasons of questioning as a Christ-follower than I did as a non-believer,” she said. “When I became a Christian, I thought all my problems would go away, that trials were reserved for those who reject Him, that every prayer would be answered as I wish. Not the case.
“The way that I work through it now is by way of the cross, with humility and focusing on all that the Lord has done instead of focusing on the pain that comes with living in a fallen world.”
That power of forgiveness and the restoration that it has brought to her family has provided James with a stable of powerful speaking points, such as “Beauty from Brokenness,” “Strong for the Journey,” “Invite Him In,” “Wonderful Life, Glorious Light” and “Trusting God With Your Unfolding Story.”
“The forgiveness I received through Christ included my mistakes as a parent,” she said. “This is a huge, because when you blow it as a parent, it is hard to accept forgiveness. You want to fix it, reverse the hands of time, and you can’t. The sin and baggage you bring into your parenting becomes a part of your children’s lives—whether you want to admit it or not.
”But God’s grace and healing is not exclusive to the wounds I experienced, but also to those I have inflicted upon others.”
Her heart-hope is that others will experience the life-altering freedom that comes from forgiveness, a reality she’s benefited from on both the giving and the receiving ends.
“I will never forget the look in my grandmother’s eyes and the words she spoke as she held my face in her hands.… ‘To think that I wanted to have you eliminated. I am so thankful that your mother refused my suggestion.’ It was then that I truly understood how my birth mother had protected my life.”
Learn more at www.mary-james.com.
— by Lori Arnold
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