The Plainfield man, now 26, said he was sitting in his friend’s basement looking at a mirror and could not see his face. Then the walls shook, and Brunker heard a calm voice say, “Be who I made you to be. Stop trying to blend in with the crowd.”
“I tried quitting drugs that day,” Brunker said. “I tried to become a Buddhist for a couple of months. I never reached enlightenment, so I gave up on that and got high all the time. From there, everything started to spiral. I ended up being arrested eight times in the summer I turned 18.”
Brunker is the lead vocalist and lyricist of the rock band Over the Sun. He also is the author of “Where Was God?: Memoirs of an Ex-Atheist,” which is available for 99 cents on Amazon’s Kindle. One reviewer called it “honest” and “poignant.”
Brunker’s mother, Diane Brunker, feels stories like Joe’s need to be told, “so people can find hope in their lives,” she said.
The domain of darkness
Joe’s out-of-control behavior had its roots in childhood. Joe said he was bullied by his classmates. The family moved when Joe entered middle school. That’s when he decided to become someone else, and not his best someone else. He became a person who stole and used drugs.
Diane recalled one particular incident in high school that escalated Joe’s behavior. Joe had enjoyed acting, she said, but after one performance, a student slammed Joe’s head into a locker.
“And that’s when he went downhill,” Diane said.
By age 18, Joe was in deep trouble. Joe said his parents, Diane and Richard Brunker of Plainfield, gave him a choice.
“They said, ‘We’ll get you a lawyer if you go on a missions trip,’ ” Joe said.
So Joe joined a group of high school youth from Crossroads Community Church in Aurora to help rebuild houses and replace roofs in Kentucky. Joe said he worked, read his Bible and occasionally wandered off to buy cigarettes.
Donnie Stubblefield of Oswego, the youth pastor at the time at Crossroads, said Joe’s work partner was the 74-year-old pastor of the local church. Pastor George was “just a good ol’ boy preaching the gospel to a little church of 80,” while Joe was “all attitude,” Stubblefield said.
During one conflict, Pastor George put Joe on the ground and then reached down and helped him up, Stubblefield said. This was an important moment for Joe.
“That was the first time someone ever extended grace to him,” Stubblefield said.
Near the end of the trip, Stubblefield baptized Joe in the lake at Joe’s request.
Nevertheless, Joe continued making poor and dangerous choices, to the extent that someone wanted to kill him, Joe said. At one point, Diane begged God to either take Joe to heaven or to raise him for her.
“I had such faith in God I had to give Joe to him,” Diane said. “I did not want to lose him to drugs.”
Diane said people have since asked her how she, as a parent, survived this out-of-control period in Joe’s life, especially since her own mother was dying at the time, too.
“If it wasn’t for our faith in God, we couldn’t have gotten through it,” Diane said.
By October 2009, 18-year-old Joe was homeless and ready to jump off a bridge. He called his mother and wound up in the hospital. Stubblefield came to visit him.
“He told me, ‘Joe, you can’t live on two sides of the fence,’ ” Joe said. “ ‘You’re either all in or all out.’... I realized I needed help and I needed God. I needed God more than ever.”
Joe said his parents sent him to a faith-based rehabilitation center, Teen Challenge in Peoria.
“I started picking up the word of God and reading it. It formed me from the inside out,” Joe said. “I started writing worship songs. I felt this amazing power in me I never felt before.”