Unlike his wife, Jenea Gomez, who grew up in The Salvation Army, Donny Melanson was raised without faith, and in a rough part of town.
“I got into a lot of trouble,” he says now.
When he was 27, Melanson hit rock bottom, spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically. “I was done with life,” he says.
Melanson decided he needed a “geographical cure,” a change of venue to get him out of the rut he was in.
“But the problem with a geographical cure is that you also bring yourself along with you,” he smiles. “Wherever you go, there you are!”
Melanson left Toronto and moved to Vancouver and, indeed, nothing changed. If anything, things got worse.
“I was walking the streets one night and I came across a Salvation Army shelter, where I ran into a shelter worker who knew me from Toronto,” he recalls.
“Donny, what are you doing here? You look awful!” he told him.
Melanson reluctantly agreed.
“Do you want to go into detox?”
“Sure,” he replied. “It’s not like I have any other plans right now.”
“That’s how the journey began for me,” Melanson continues. “This Salvation Army worker saw me in my brokenness and helped.”
Melanson had tried detox centres in Toronto, without success, but The Salvation Army was different. He learned about faith, Jesus and the path to rehabilitation.
Melanson stayed at the treatment centre for a year “to learn how to get a life,” as he puts it. But after three years of recovery, he relapsed. Soon, he was back on the street and was arrested.
Melanson had been in and out of similar institutions many times, but this incarceration was different. What in the world am I doing back in here? he asked himself.
Melanson was sharing a cell with a Christian who spent his time reading the Bible.
“I knew about God but just hadn’t met him personally,” says Melanson. So one night, he decided to pray. It was simple and heartfelt: “God, if you’re real, you need to show me who you are.”
Two nights later, he was awoken by a voice that whispered in his ear over and over: “Deuteronomy 2:3. Deuteronomy 2:3.” Melanson asked his cellmate if he could borrow his Bible and looked up the quotation. It read: “You have circled around this mountain long enough; now turn north.”
“I wasn’t high or hallucinating,” he says. “God was clearly speaking to me through Scripture. Paraphrased, I translated it to: ‘Turn your life around. Stop going in circles like the Israelites and go in the direction you should go.’
“This was my defining moment. I either believed in my faith—this is happening, God’s real—or rejected it.”
Melanson wound up in the same Salvation Army treatment centre he’d been in three years before, but this time it was different.
“Jesus was transforming my heart,” he says.
From there, Melanson attended the War College, The Salvation Army’s residential gap-year training program in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He met Jenea Gomez, who was in her second year. The two fell in love and were married.
By then, Melanson had stopped drinking and using drugs.
“As I began to admire The Salvation Army, its beliefs and its structure, it only made sense that I submit my life to soldiership because that was the culmination of everything I was living at the War College.”
The decision to become a candidate for officership took longer.
“I’m a thinker. I didn’t want to go into something blindly,” he says. “Soldiership made sense but officership seemed like a bigger commitment.”
But Melanson reasoned that if he was truly following Jesus, if he agreed to the standards set by the Army and to be accountable, if he agreed to God, then it came down to obeying the calling from Jesus, supported by a loving community of faith.
“That just made sense,” he says. “The writing was on the wall. I just had to read it for what it was.”
Donny Melanson and Jenea Gomez are planning to enter the College for Officer Training in Winnipeg in 2019.