TYLER, TX (KLTV) - As a coach, pastor, and foster parent, Reverend Jerome R. Milton has touched the lives of hundreds of East Texans.
On December 12, 2012, his devotion to spreading the word of God earned him an invitation to lead the U.S. House of Representatives in prayer as guest chaplain. After an introduction by East Texas congressman Louie Gohmert and then-Speaker of the House John Boehner, Milton began the session by praying that lawmakers would find common ground to work for the common good of the nation.
He prepared for that experience through deep reflection. "God said to my heart and my spirit, 'I'm with you and when you go there. They will hear my words through you. They will hear my through you.'"
Walking the halls of Congress is one of the highlights of Milton's life, one that found its beginnings in a dark place. "When I was in the orphanage, I hated God," Milton said. "How could there be a God that sits high and looks low and allowed children to go through what they were going through?"
Abandoned as a child, Milton and his siblings were taken from a motel in San Diego, California to Hillcrest Orphanage. He said his brother and sister took their own lives after years of abuse in the foster care system.
Milton's early years were spent in 14 different foster homes, where he says he endured bad food and poor living conditions. "A lot of times I got whippings because I wanted to learn. A lot times I got whippings because I had this innate ability to want to pray."
He says his prayers for a different future were answered when a nun at his school fought in the juvenile courts for his release."I hugged that Catholic nun and the one thing she said to me, 'Do one day what I have done for you for a group of children what I had done for you.'"
Eventually, Milton was taken in by Datie Florence Brown, an Arkansas native who didn't read or write. In her lifetime, she raised 44 foster children. At that point in his life, Milton says he was hurt and broken, questioning God.
Brown refused to give up on changing Milton's heart, he said. "That's where she led me to Christ. In spite of my darkness, in spite of my trials, my burdens, my tribulations, that God loved me and had something special for me."
Gohmert shared Milton's spiritual walk while introducing him before his 2012 visit to Capitol Hill. "Mrs. Brown would not heed Jerome's pleas to leave him alone. She kept praying for him every single day by name. She said she knew there was good in him, but prayed that God would not let him end up in jail or prison because she knew God could do something very special with him."
Milton's life would take a new path, earning a spot on the UCLA track and football teams. He also competed at the Olympic trials for track and field. After entering the seminary to become a pastor, he also coached track on the high school and collegiate levels.
"My abuse did not become my excuse. I went from foster care to people care, to child care."
In his 25 years as head track coach at Bishop T.K. Gorman Catholic High School, he earned 10 state titles and helped more than 175 athletes earn college scholarships. "I wanted them to believe that they could do what no one thought they could do. And you have to coach them and motivate them from the inside out."
Guiding others to live by the Gold Rule, Milton and his wife Charlene are making good on that childhood promise to bring hope to children. They adopted six of their nine children from Smith County Child Protective Services. "I tell them all the time, I don't have a million dollars, I may not ever touch a million dollars, I may not ever see a million dollars, but if I could make a million dollar difference in some young man's life, some young lady's life, then my living would not be in vain."
For more than 29 years, Milton has ministered to his family in faith as pastor of Greater New Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Tyler. His life experiences help shape his message of hope. "Don't put God in a box. Put God in every aspect of your life. Allow him to walk with you, talk with you, and talk with you. And you can share with him in anything and everywhere."
Milton dedicates much of his time to work in the community. 30 years ago, he organized the annual first Martin Luther King, Jr. march in Tyler. The Datie Florence Brown Children's Home is named in honor of Milton's foster mother.