The scriptures say God is a “father to the fatherless.” My own life is a testimony to what that means.
I was born to a 15-year-old single mom. She would eventually marry the stepfather my last name derives from, who grew up in an abusive and dysfunctional home. And much of that dysfunction and abuse, in turn, he passed on to me and my kid brother.
Like all too many males of our era, I lacked the proper role model to show me what it meant to be a man. Just another of those boys who could shave infesting the culture with our unfulfilled potential, fear of taking initiative, unwillingness to accept responsibility, and perpetual passive-aggressiveness.
Almost 15 years ago, God began changing me and fulfilling His promise to be the Father I never had, through the strategic placement of other men in my life.
One of those men died suddenly last weekend. His name was Jonathan Narcisse, and without hesitation I can say I would not be where I am today without him.
I didn’t really meet Jonathan at first. It was more like he confronted me. Everyone involved in local Des Moines politics knew of him as a combination of activist, gadfly, rabble-rouser, justice warrior, and bigmouth. He was a frequent guest on the influential midmorning talk show hosted by Jan Mickelson, who would also be a key mentor of mine. Jonathan had an amazing capacity to ingest and regurgitate large volumes of information, with a very distinctive voice.
So when I received a call from him out of the blue one day, he needed no introduction. He was also a big sports fan and had listened to the local sports talk show I was hosting back then. But what prompted him to confront me over the phone was hearing me fill in for Jan several times. It was a clear attempt by the company to groom me to one day make the jump from sports to news talk, which I ultimately did.
My heir-apparent status on Iowa’s big talker was why Jonathan opened that first call with this question: “Do you understand the power and influence you could potentially have?”
From there began a long conversation that would actually go on for years. Jonathan was never one to mince words. Lots and lots of words.
We became very good friends. We talked about everything — both our successes and struggles — in life, faith, fatherhood, and politics. He was a frequent guest in my home and came to know my wife and children. He gave me the catchphrase I use to describe my show: “Fear God, tell the truth, and make money.”
I didn’t always agree with him. Though many considered us professionally inseparable, we disagreed plenty, usually in private between the two of us. Unless it was at our monthly poker game. Then it could get really heated and really public really fast. Both of us hated losing more than we loved winning.
We also attended church together, working to help with racial reconciliation in the Christian community in Des Moines. With his contacts and encouragement, this white boy from the suburbs even preached in predominantly black local churches. He would refer to me as his “brother from another mother.”
I respected him as much as any man I’ve known before or since, even when I thought he was nuts.
He made me a better man by challenging me to think broader and see the bigger picture. He was a black Democrat who was to the right of me on several issues when we first met. For example, he was more stridently pro-life than I was back then. He was the first person to alert me to the racist history of Planned Parenthood. In response, I once asked him, “How can you be pro-life and in the Democratic Party that celebrates child-killing?”
His response was to turn it back on me, asking, “How can you be a Republican and in a party that admits abortion is murder, but funds the murderers at Planned Parenthood anyway?”
Touché. Classic Jonathan.
Jonathan taught me the art of turning a hypocritically false premise against itself, which has served me well on many a cable news appearance. He was a true iconoclast, refusing to conform to any stereotypes.
He remained a Democrat most of his life despite one brief flirtation with the Republican Party, because he was convinced that the GOP really didn’t want outspoken folks, whether black or white. Nevertheless, he frequently crossed party lines to work with conservatives like me on those dreaded social issues — life, marriage and education.
The parlaying of my statewide radio platform into political activism originated in a conversation we had in the parking lot of a suburban movie theater. It was there he convinced me I could do more than just a radio show. I could do more than just curse the darkness into a microphone. I could use that microphone to be salt and light. He wanted me to believe in my potential as much as he did.
He challenged me to consider that I had two daughters, just like he did, and what kind of world would I leave behind for them after the microphone went away? I thought about that conversation the day after he died. I took our family to that same movie theater and parked near the same spot where he challenged me all those years ago.
Shortly after that challenge, I made the move to news talk, and my first foray into using it as a tool of activism was to help Jonathan get elected as a change agent to the Des Moines school board. For years it had been dominated and corrupted by bureaucracy. And though talking about local school board elections was hardly a ratings winner, I turned my show into the only asset his campaign had other than his name ID and shoe leather. But it worked. He shocked the system and got elected.
I would go on to emulate what we did in that school board election for the rest of my time on that station, from Mike Huckabee’s upset win in the 2008 Iowa caucuses to my state making history by removing three state supreme court justices for attempting to defy the rule of law. All that success began with one phone call from Jonathan Narcisse.
Others ultimately took notice of that success, and I would eventually be given a chance to move on to national media. Then, with family and career occupying my time and energy as never before, Jonathan and I lost touch. There was no falling-out. We were just running in different circles, and guys are usually terrible about staying in contact when we’re not in each other’s immediate circles. A couple of times through the years he sent me notes to say he was proud of my steady success and once joked “even I’m surprised you haven’t sold out by now.”
I kept promising to get together and catch up, but never followed through. Then I got the call that he had passed away, and it was too late.
Yet if I know Jonathan, he would tell me not to feel guilty because I was focused on the future and my family — which were the two most important things to him. However, I can’t help but regret that I didn’t get one more chance to thank him for the invaluable role he played in my life and the lives of others God has allowed me to influence.
Jonathan taught me to learn from my own mistakes and the mistakes of others. To not repeat those mistakes, but to make totally new ones.
Jonathan named his two daughters Integrity and Perseverance. Those weren’t intended to be just names, but prophecies that contained his hope for the women they would become. I haven’t seen them since they were little, but since I missed one final chance to bless their dad, I’d like to close by blessing them.
Girls, your dad wasn’t perfect, but he was persistent. He could fall hard, but he always got back up. He was a real man. Jesus tells a parable of a man who goes to the temple and despite his sin beats his fists against his chest and begs God to have mercy on him.
God hears the humility in his plea and forgives him his trespasses.
Your father was such a man, as his final Facebook status update proved one last time. He finished his race. It wasn’t a clean race, but he won it nonetheless. So many times he would talk about how much he loved the two of you and was striving for you to have a better world than he did.
I encourage both of you to honor his legacy by being even better than he was. Your father was one of the most competitive men I’ve ever known, so he would take great pride in knowing you bested him in such a way.
Remember — he didn’t just give you names. He gave you a mission.
As for me, I am wiping away a few tears as I recall the many, many times and ways in which Jonathan influenced me. I am renewed in thinking of it, and I promise to complete the mission Jonathan once gave me:
“When you’re done on this earth, Steve, you want demons in hell to wipe the sweat off their brow and say, ‘Damn, I’m glad he’s gone because he was a real pain in our ass.'”