The first few times a school friend invited seventh-grader Collin Finley to his church, the answer was a blunt no. Collin’s rough life up to this point had shown no reason to care about God. Growing up in San Bernardino, Calif., he had no memory of his birth father; in fact, the man his mom later married abused him physically, along with his three younger siblings. “I started getting in trouble in school,” he admits, “making some pretty bad decisions.”

The mother and kids finally fled 70 miles east into the California desert to try and start over, living at first in a domestic-violence shelter. Young Collin was put into twice-a-week therapy to deal with his anger, and started on anti-anxiety medication. The family eventually rented its own modest apartment, and his mother found work as a beautician.

His school friend and his mother, former victims of domestic violence themselves, persisted in coaxing Collin to at least try out their nearby church. Finally, in June 2007, he woke up one Sunday morning and decided to go. He walked alone to Valley Christian Assembly in Palm Desert, California, where he sat in the back row and listened to Pastor Mark Brattrud speak about two brothers in the Bible who didn’t get along: Cain and Abel. “I was intrigued,” Collin remembers. “I thought maybe I’d like to come back.”

The next visit he sat in on the junior high Sunday school, led by youth pastor Matt Brattrud. He attended a couple of youth night events as well. Soon Pastor Matt was saying, “Hey, man, why don’t you come with us to camp in August? We go to this cool place up in the mountains for a week. You’d love it.”

“Yeah, but I heard it costs $200,” Collin objected. “No way my mom could come up with that kind of money.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the youth pastor said. “I’ll get somebody to sponsor you.”

And so it was that the tough kid from the streets of San Bernardino wound up with a crowd of others at Forest Home Ojai Valley, riding zip lines and playing basketball, filling up on all the food a kid could want, and absorbing God’s love. Wednesday turned out to be what the leaders called “Holy Spirit Night.” By the end of the powerful service, Collin was at the altar with dozens of others. “We were singing a song called ‘I Surrender,’ and I was crying my eyes out,” he remembers. “The Lord just totally broke me that night.”

He returned to eighth grade in the fall “on fire for the Lord,” as he puts it. He found a Christian club called “Campus Life,” which gave him his first chances to speak about the change in his life. He told his old friends about Christ as well, some of whom dropped him quickly. But others were curious to know more.

Pastor Matt and the others at the church kept encouraging him in his new faith. When he moved on up to Palm Desert High School for ninth grade, he became all the more bold. “Every time I got in front of a classroom, I’d tell how I had followed Christ and say, ‘You’re all welcome to do the same, to follow Christ along with me.'” In the Valley Christian Assembly youth group, Collin began developing his talent for hip-hop, building his story into strong presentations.

Body Blow
Then came a serious trial that threatened to destroy him. “I’d had really bad headaches ever since sixth grade,” he says, “like, real migraines. When they would hit me, I sometimes couldn’t even see out of my left eye. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was causing them; they thought maybe I had an allergy, or it was a diet problem, or I was getting too much sun and getting dehydrated out here in the desert.

“I ran track at school, and in fact, I was able to run two half-marathons. But still, I didn’t feel good. I didn’t know what was going on. All the Aleve and Excedrin I was taking didn’t help.”

One Saturday in June 2009, Collin was on his way to a yard-work job when an anxiety attack struck, followed by a raging headache worse than ever. Nausea swelled within him, and his left hand went into a clinch that he could not release. He lost feeling in his left foot as well as his hand. When he tried to speak, his words were garbled.

The other guys coming to the job site thought Collin was just faking distress to get out of work. Eventually, the symptoms subsided. When he returned home that evening, he went to bed–and slept 40 hours straight, till Monday afternoon. When he finally awakened, his hand and foot still tingled.

His mother rushed him to see the doctor again, who this time ordered a brain scan. There it was at last: a massive tumor on the right side, 9 cm long by 7 cm wide and 6 cm deep, the size of Collin’s fist.

The young man was rushed by ambulance 65 miles up the interstate to Loma Linda University Medical Center. Surgeons there quickly called for removal of the mass, making no guarantees of how much collateral damage might occur. Surgery was scheduled for the next morning, June 12, 2009.

Pastor Lloyd Jacobson, staff pastor at the church, spent time preparing the young man spiritually for his ordeal, as did others. “That evening,” Collins says, “my mom was sitting by my bed, and I could tell she was really upset. I wasn’t scared, though. I said, ‘Mom, no matter what happens, I just want you to serve God. Don’t be angry with him about this; don’t be bitter. The Lord will help us get through this.'”

Beyond Expectation
The next day’s procedure took five hours, requiring eight pints of blood. When Collin regained consciousness, everyone was pleased to see he was not a vegetable after all. He could move his hands and feet; he could speak normally. Within two days, he was able to stand. Soon he found another patient in the teen ward who was battling leukemia, so they prayed together. A week after Collin’s surgery, he was ready to go home.

When he showed up the next Sunday at Valley Christian Assembly with a smile on his face, people were ecstatic. God had answered their fervent prayers.

Collin went back for his sophomore year in the fall more determined than ever to share what God had done for him. He was elected president of his Campus Life club, which has grown to the point of kids having to stand around the walls of the classroom each week because all the seats are taken.

“He’s a born speaker,” says Matt Brattrud. “In fact, he and I now take turns teaching the junior high class on Sunday mornings. I work with him, going over his notes beforehand, so he’s fully prepared. He does a great job.”

On the medical front, follow-up scans in December 2009 and March 2010 came out clean, with no trace of the tumor returning. “There’s no seizure activity at all. And the hole in the right side of my skull? It started out softball-size,” he says with a grin. “Now it’s down to the size of a golf ball. I feel great.”

Collin’s hopes for his family have come true in the wake of his dramatic recovery. “My mom, my brothers and sister, my grandmother–they’ve all come to the Lord,” he reports. “Even an older stepbrother decided to follow Christ just recently.”

His love for hip-hop has already led to the creation of several videos, one of which dramatizes his healing. “I’ve been able to share with kids all over this valley,” he says. Though just 16 years old now, he’s building a website to spread his message. “I love going out and speaking to groups; it’s an awesome opportunity to talk to my generation.”

And who says the heavenly Father doesn’t have a future for fatherless, disadvantaged kids?

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