HILLSVILLE, Va. (Oct. 25, 2018) -- Michael Dolinger was 24 years old and the father of a young son when he was charged with five felonies for selling marijuana. Before the sentencing, he asked permission to take his family to Disney World because he thought he was going to prison.
“I never did anything like that with my dad, so I wanted a memory to go with me,” said Dolinger, who was four years old when his own father was incarcerated.
On Sunday, Oct. 21, the 28-year-old former drug dealer preached for the first time at the United Methodist church where he has found sobriety and a new community. His seven-year-old son watched with big brown eyes. His wife held their two-month-old baby daughter.
“God wastes nothing,” Dolinger told worshippers at Out of the Box United Methodist Church. “Tell everybody. Tell your friends. It’s that simple.”
Several in the crowd were not regular church attenders. They came to the storefront church to hear what “Mikie” had to say. Hundreds of people watched the Facebook live video of his testimony, re-sharing the message “God wastes nothing” on their own pages.
“You didn’t come here because you’re perfect,” Dolinger said. “You came here because you’re broken. But God is the creator. He’s the source. He’s the manufacturer. You can go and look somewhere else, and most of us have, but every time it will lead you back to him.”
Dolinger is the seventh person from Out of the Box to take official steps that could lead to becoming a pastor (through the United Methodist "candidacy ministry process"). Three of the seven came out the church’s recovery ministry. Four of the seven are already serving churches in the Holston Conference.
“Michael lifted Jesus up, and no doubt people will be drawn to Him,” said the Rev. Ronnie Collins, lead pastor at Out of the Box.
The story of how Michael Dolinger came to this place is loaded with grace as well as his sadness for other children who grow up in broken families.
TRYING TO FIT IN
“It was a viscious cycle I was raised in,” Dolinger says, in an interview on the day before he preached at Out of the Box.
When Dolinger was a young child, substance abuse and crime surrounded his family and neighborhood in Woodbridge, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. After his father went to prison for armed robbery, Dolinger’s mother moved further south to Galax, Virginia, to be near her family and to raise her children.
Young Michael felt like an outsider to begin with, he says, because he is biracial. His father is African American; his mother is white. In Woodbridge, he was singled out because his skin was “too white.” When his family moved to the Galax area, he was sometimes called names because his skin was darker than most of his classmates.
He acutely felt the absence of his father. He started smoking pot at age 10, started selling at age 11. By the time he was 18, he had collected seven or eight under-age drinking charges.
“It’s sad to me because fatherless children, they’re always looking for something to be part of,” Dolinger said. “I cared so much about fitting in with everybody. I didn’t want to be alone.”
His habits and companions put him in dangerous situations with arrests and jail time to follow. The charges were often dismissed on technicalities. Yet he was popular and performed well in school. His teachers tried to help him.
“The principals were always calling me out of class, saying, ‘Michael, you have so much potential,’” he said. “They liked me enough to give me that grace.”
He was captain of the high school football team, headed to practice during homecoming week, when an officer showed up to arrest him for his part in a weekend fight. Dolinger asked if he could change out of his football pads first.
Later that week, after his girlfriend bailed him out of jail, he wasn’t allowed to play football but was crowned “Homecoming King” by vote of the student body. “It was comical,” he said.
SURPRISED BY GRACE
By the time he was 24, Dolinger was a family man, working as a butcher in a supermarket while feeding his co-dependency and supplementing his income through selling weed, four pounds every three days. "I was a drug dealer who needed to be needed," he explains.
His wife, who "grew up the exact opposite of the way I did," didn't know about his secret life. When he got busted, he was suddenly heartbroken to think about leaving his wife and son, the way his father did.
He met with his father-in-law to tell him the bad news. “I’m crying, my voice is cracking,” he remembers. His father-in-law, though shaken, shocked him by hugging him and saying, “We’ll get through this.”
“That unconditional love …” Dolinger says. “That was big for me.”
Grace was revealed again when the young man was sentenced to 25 years but with most of it suspended and substituted with periods of reporting in, drug testing, and probation.
Dolinger committed to changing his life. “I had to re-do everything. I went to the gym, worked out a lot … Anything good, anything positive, I would sign up for it.”
He ran into Matt Hall at the gym, a friend who also had a recovery story. “He was going to a Methodist church. I wasn’t going at all … My wife was trying to get me there, anyway,” says Dolinger. That church was Out of the Box.
(The Rev. Matt Hall is now associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee, where he leads the recovery ministry. Hall also served as the 2017 Appalachian Trail chaplain.)
At Out of the Box, Dolinger quickly realized, “There are people like me at this church … It wasn’t just people wearing suits and talking about God, but it was people with real problems like me.”
Today, Dolinger smiles at the realization that he’s at the church three days a week. He and his wife, Samantha, are now debt-free while completing a “financial peace” class on Wednesday. He left his job at the supermarket two years ago and started a lawn-mowing business, partly so he could attend worship on Sundays. (“Do I trust God enough to leave?” he asked himself at the time.)
He’s also studying addiction psychology at Wytheville Community College, with support from a local physician who believes in him. “It’s what I know. It’s who I am. It’s like a calling for me because I understand it,” he explains. “There’s a group of people I want to reach in juvenile detention, fatherless children like me, raised by single mothers or the system in a viscious cycle.”
Two weeks before his daughter was born on Aug. 11, Dolinger’s dad was released from prison. The months leading to his release were stressful. “I was afraid for him to get out because it was going to demand my attention,” he admits.
But over the last four years, Dolinger had developed a relationship with his father. “I told him about the structure of my life and how it was based on Biblical principles,” he said. He explained that he had boundaries and couldn’t deviate or be distracted.
When his father was finally a free man, Dolinger wrote the following message on Facebook:
“My father has just been released from prison after 24 years … He has come out swinging, doing everything he said he would. After we spoke the other day, he looks at me with tears in his eyes and says, ‘Mike, if it wasn't for me going to prison, you would have never become the man you are.’ This statement floored me. He has developed a growth mindset. I complained a lot as a child about not having a father in my life. Little did I know God was saving my life!”
Among the many Facebook comments Dolinger received for the realization that his struggles made him who he is, one person’s response was only three words: “God wastes nothing.”
Michael Dolinger now looks at his past 28 years -- and his future -- with amazement. “God said, ‘It wasn’t a waste. I can use every bit of it and build my kingdom.’”
Holston Conference includes 872 United Methodist congregations in east Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and north Georgia.
Contact Annette Spence at email@example.com.
Inmate art inspires new ministries to fight addiction (The Call, 5.30.17)
Holston chooses Matt Hall as new AT chaplain (The Daily Times, 1.21.17)
Photos below: (1) Out of the Box United Methodist Church is a storefront church in Hillsville. (2) A worshipper thanks Michael Dolinger (right) for his witness.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.