Gary Sinise: September 11th was a tragic, terrible catalyst for me to get going in this service life. And as I did more, I would see more need, so I wanted to do more.
The Journey from Self to Service: Gary Sinise & Dr. Derwin Gray – Episode #206
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. Today we talk with two men whose lives have been changed by a commitment to serve God and serve others: actor and humanitarian Gary Sinise, and pastor and former NFL player Dr. Derwin Gray.
We caught up with actor Gary Sinise in February of 2019 to talk about what moves him to live in service to others. For nearly forty years, Gary has stood as an advocate of America’s service members, starting in the 1980s with his support of Vietnam veterans groups and the creation of Vets Night, a program offering free dinners and performances to veterans at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. Since the attacks of September 11th, 2001, Gary was moved to do more for our nation’s active duty defenders, veterans, and first responders. His portrayal of Lt. Dan Taylor in the landmark film Forrest Gump formed an enduring connection with servicemen and women throughout the military community. He shares the story of how he found his way to becoming an actor and why helping those on the front lines, who defend and protect our country, is so important, which he details in his book Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service.
[I am] the founder of the Gary Sinise Foundation, which is a military and first responders service organization. We serve and honor the needs of our veteran community in active duty, our Gold Star families, our wounded, our first responders. So I’ve been very, very active with supporting that for many, many years.
[I am the] founder of the Lt. Dan Band, which entertains our troops and first responders, and raises awareness and raises spirits on military bases all across the country and overseas. So I’ve been pretty busy with all that.
A Kid With a Dream
The story of my family’s service in the military, where I’m from, where I came from, where my ancestors came from [starts with] my being born on the south side of Chicago, living there for many years, and then moving to the north side and falling into a bit of a troubled situation as a young person, struggling in school academically. And this was the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. So there’s some bad behavior going on then with me. And then I discover acting, and I fall into it almost by accident.
I was playing music from the time I was in fourth grade all the way up until my early twenties. So I was playing music in high school and in the high school band. I happened to be standing in a hallway with the band members, and the drama teacher walked down the hall, and she looked at me and she told me to come audition for West Side Story because she thought I looked good for a gang member.
So I ended up going in and auditioning for the play, and I got in the play, and it turned my whole life in another direction, it completely turned my life around. All of a sudden—the kid struggling academically, who was having nothing but trouble and getting very close to being kicked out of school and all these things—his life started to turn around. All I wanted to do was theater from that point on.
As soon as I got out of high school, I started a theater company with kids. That theater grew into Steppenwolf Theater of Chicago, which is now forty-five years old. We own four buildings. We built two of them from the ground up and renovated the other two. We’re about to break ground on another one.
This is a great American success story where you simply start out with a passionate desire to do something, and a love and a commitment and a perseverance and a determination just to work hard and get in there because you love it. And it turned into an internationally recognized theater company with many, many prominent actors coming out of that company over the years.
So I look back at that and I go, Wow, I wonder how other eighteen-year-old kids feel when they walk into this building, and they see these pictures up on the wall, and they see these kids and this whole big giant theater institution in Chicago started with just kids with a dream?
And of course, from there I moved into television and movie business, and I got some significant parts that changed my life and changed the course of my life yet again.
And then there’s a significant advance of September 11th, 2001, when our country is attacked and our men and women start raising their hands to deploy in reaction to that terrible event. And I just felt compelled and called in a certain way to serve. And so you go from this singular focus on self to this broader focus on serving others. So a lot of that is in the book, Grateful American.
“September 11th, 2001, our country is attacked and our men and women start raising their hands to deploy in reaction to that terrible event. And I just felt compelled and called in a certain way to serve. And so you go from this singular focus on self to this broader focus on serving others.” – Gary Sinise
A Legacy of Service
I am a grateful American. I’m grateful for so many things. I’ve had a lot of bumps along the way, a lot of challenges, a lot of difficult moments—not only in my career life, but at home, in my personal life. And I document some of those in Grateful American.
“I am a grateful American. I’m grateful for so many things.” – Gary Sinise
The service life has taken over so much of what I’m doing now that I wanted to track that journey and how I got there, and I think it’s good telling the story of a kid who’s really kind of on his own, trying to figure things out, as somebody who’s developed into a full time advocate for our veterans.
I come from a family of veterans. My grandfather served in World War I. He was an ambulance driver in France during the Battle of the Argonne, which was one of the most devastating battles our country has ever faced. Over 26,000 Americans killed, and many, many more wounded.
My grandfather drove an ambulance on the front lines, back and forth with our wounded. He had three sons. He came home, went to work on the railroad on the south side of Chicago, and had three sons. My dad was the youngest. His two older brothers served in World War II. One was a navigator in a B-17 bomber over Europe. The other was on a ship in the Pacific the last year of the war. So he was actually there when the Japanese surrendered in the Pacific. My dad served in the Navy in the early ‘50s.
I met and married my wife Moira, and through her I met her brothers, who both served in Vietnam. One was a combat assault helicopter pilot, another was a West Point graduate who went as a platoon leader, a lieutenant to Vietnam, and then came home and then went back again as a captain—a company commander. He came home and taught at West Point as a major. And then he was teaching at Fort Leavenworth as a lieutenant colonel when he was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in 1983.
My wife’s sister served in the Army. She met a Vietnam veteran who stayed in the Army for twenty-two years as a combat medic. They had a son who served in Afghanistan, did two deployments in Afghanistan.
[There are] a lot of veterans in my family, so all the veteran work kind of begins with the family. I started supporting Vietnam veterans in Chicago in the early eighties in various ways. Then, when I found out I could audition for Forrest Gump to play a wounded Vietnam veteran, I very much wanted to do that. I jumped at the chance. I got the part. I played Lieutenant Dan.
That led me to an association with the Disabled American Veterans Organization, the DAV, that goes back twenty-five years now to 1994, when I attended their national convention and befriended many, many wounded veterans who had served in various wars going back to World War II.
September 11th: The Catalyst for Life of Service
After September 11th, when we were attacked and the buildings came down, so many died. So many people raised their hands to serve their country.
September 11th was a Tuesday, and then President Bush declared that Friday was going to be a national day of prayer for the nation. Churches and synagogues—I mean, you name it, everything was packed. Everywhere, people were pouring into the churches all over the country. We went to our little church and there was no room to sit. Everybody was standing against the wall. [I was] with my kids and my wife, and we’re standing against a wall that is packed.
And I remember I needed something that day, and the priest gave me everything I needed. And I came out of there with this feeling that I was going to be called to do something to help this situation.
And having veterans in my family, having been involved with supporting Vietnam veterans, I just knew where I was going to employ my services, and it was going to be to help our men and women get through the next phase of deploying to the war zones and helping them and their families get through that. And that just that lit a fire under me.
“Having veterans in my family, having been involved with supporting Vietnam veterans, I just knew where I was going to employ my services, and it was going to be to help our men and women get through the next phase of deploying to the war zones and helping them and their families get through that. And that just that lit a fire under me.” – Gary Sinise
I knew that service would help heal that broken heart that I felt. And I got that message from the priest that day, somehow that message came to me. I can’t remember everything he said, except the first thing he said, which was, “This has been a tough week.”
We all know what he was talking about, because it was a tough week. And it was a tough time. But the more I got active, the more I gave, the more I healed, the more I wanted to do. I didn’t know where it was going to go. I didn’t know how it was going to evolve. I just knew that I wanted to be a part of supporting the men and women who were reacting to that terrible day.
“The more I got active, the more I gave, the more I healed, the more I wanted to do.” – Gary Sinise
One man I met on one of my first trips to Iraq was a firefighter and a former Marine. I sat down next to him, and he had a button on his shirt, and the button had a picture of two people on it. One a firefighter, the other a police officer. And I asked him, “What’s the button?”
And he says, “Those are my sons. And they were both killed on September 11th.”
He was wearing a button of his sons. He gave me the button, and he reached into his backpack and pulled out a FDNY hat, and I took my USO hat off and put the FDNY hat on. And he invited me, after the tour in Iraq, to come to Brooklyn to visit the firehouse where his son was stationed. They lost six people that day from that firehouse.
So I went there, and I befriended a whole bunch of folks from the FDNY, who are still some of my best friends. This is back in 2003, and I started supporting them in various ways, just trying to help them through that. One of the things I got involved with was raising money to build a big 9/11 memorial in Brooklyn called the Brooklyn Wall of Remembrance. And it has the faces of 417 first responders on the wall that were lost that day. And I helped to raise money to build that.
I just started raising my hand wherever I could to support multiple military charities that were trying to serve the needs of our veterans, our military community, our wounded, our Gold Star families, first responders, and I ended up supporting maybe thirty different military and first responder support organizations.
Through this ten-, fifteen-, sixteen-year period, I just kept doing more and more and more, and it all evolved and manifested itself eventually into the creation of my own military veterans and first responders’ support organization, the Gary Sinise Foundation.
I remember feeling, Service work would be a great healer for the broken heart that I’ve felt for our country, and for the people who were deploying in reaction to September 11th, and for those September 11th families who lost loved ones. I was just grieving for all of that and needed to apply myself in some way.
So I just started reaching out to all the different organizations who were doing a variety of things. We’re going to do a variety of things, because I’ve seen the needs in all these different places and I want to try to continue to help fill those needs. And now that we’re going public as a public charity and public nonprofit that the American people can support by making their donations, I want them to know that their generosity is going to help a lot of different people in a lot of different situations. So that’s why we’re here, to serve and honor the needs of our men and women who serve our country.
“I’ve seen the needs in all these different places, and I want to try to continue to help fill those needs.” – Gary Sinise
Narrator: Gary closes his time with us by reading a passage from Jesus Calling that speaks to how God works through us to bless others.
Gary: [June 13th]
I am creating something new in you: a bubbling spring of Joy that spills over into others’ lives. Do not mistake this Joy for your own or try to take credit for it in any way. Instead, watch in delight as My Spirit flows through you to bless others. Let yourself become a reservoir of the Spirit’s fruit.
Your part is to live close to Me, open to all that I am doing in you. Don’t try to control the streaming of My Spirit through you. Just keep focusing on Me as we walk through this day together. Enjoy My Presence, which permeates you with Love, Joy, and Peace.
Narrator: To learn more about Gary’s work with military veterans and their families, or about his book Grateful American, visit GarySiniseFoundation.org.
Stay tuned to hear from pastor Dr. Derwin Gray after this brief message about the important work that is happening with the Gary Sinise Foundation.
The Gary Sinise Foundation works to keep our defenders and their families strong each and every day. Join us as we show the pride and gratitude of our nation to all of its heroes. While we can never do enough for our defenders, veterans, first responders and the loved ones who sacrificed right alongside them, we can always do a little more. To make a donation, visit GarySiniseFoundation.org.
Narrator: As a young boy, Dr. Derwin Gray grew up in poverty, in a home where substance abuse and violence was all around him. When he discovered football, he found a way of escape. After earning a football scholarship then later being drafted into the NFL, Derwin thought he was living the dream—until he realized at the peak of his dreams there wasn’t the success and glamor he thought would be waiting for him, only emptiness. With the encouragement of a teammate, Dr. Gray gave his life to God and found the purpose he had always been searching for, which led him to found Transformation Church, a revolutionary community aiming to unite and serve people from all walks of life.
Dr. Derwin Gray: My name is Derwin Gray. I’m the founding and lead pastor of Transformation Church in the Charlotte, North Carolina area. And in a former life, I was a professional football player. I played football for the Indianapolis Colts and the Carolina Panthers. My NFL career was from 1993 to 1998, and I am shocked and as surprised as anyone that I am a pastor and an author.
I grew up unchurched, didn’t own a Bible. I knew nothing about Jesus, and I was a compulsive stutterer. Plus, I didn’t like to read books. But when Jesus called me, when Jesus loved me, when Jesus met me, He literally put things in me and brought gifts out of me that I didn’t even know was possible. So I’m just blown away by God’s grace.
“But when Jesus called me, when Jesus loved me, when Jesus met me, He literally put things in me and brought gifts out of me that I didn’t even know was possible.” – Dr. Derwin Gray
Discovering Football as a Way Out
I grew up in San Antonio, Texas. My mom was sixteen when she was pregnant with me, my dad was seventeen, and so they were children trying to raise a child. Both of them struggled with various issues. My grandparents primarily raised me on the west side of San Antonio, Texas, where I’m from. It was a very hard area. There was poverty, there was substance abuse, there was violence. But when you’re that young and that’s all you know, you think that’s normal. I had normalized dysfunction.
At about age thirteen, I realized that football could get me out of where I was. And I got really good. I got a football scholarship to Brigham Young University, met my wife-to-be second semester my freshman year, became a great football player, and got drafted to the NFL. And I was like, Okay, all my dreams are gonna come true. I’m going to have the good life. I’m really going to be happy. And by my third year in the NFL at age twenty-five, I said “There’s got to be more to life than this.”
“By my third year in the NFL at age twenty-five, I said ‘There’s got to be more to life than this.’” – Dr. Derwin Gray
I dealt with incredible unforgiveness towards my dad and family. I dealt with unforgiveness for myself. I realized I didn’t have the capacity to love my wife because I didn’t really love me. I struggled with fear of who I would be one day when I [couldn’t] play football anymore.
And so God put a guy on the team named Steve Grant, and every day after practice, he would take a shower, get his Bible, and share with my teammates, “Do you know Jesus?” It was like the strangest and coolest thing all at once. And over a five-year process, his words and his actions coincided.
And as I was going through the things that I was going through, from injury to guilt to shame to unforgiveness—August 2nd, 1997, in a small dorm room at Anderson College in Anderson, Indiana, it was my fifth year in NFL training camp. After lunch, I called my wife on the phone and I said, “I want to be more committed to you. And I want to be committed to Jesus.” And that’s when I was born again. I literally felt my body change. I felt God’s presence. I felt God’s love. And I literally wept for three days, and I haven’t stopped loving Him since.
It was at the peak of my football career where I found Jesus, because I climbed a mountain, only to find that the things that I was looking for weren’t there. It was like I was chasing my shadow and I finally caught it, but realized it went right through my hands, and I was looking for things that only Jesus can give. No matter how much my wife loves me, she can’t love me like Christ. And the football fans only loved me if I played good. My identity could not be just a football player, because I wasn’t going to be that my whole life, and I needed a purpose beyond simply being good at football and making money.
“It was like I was chasing my shadow and I finally caught it, but realized it went right through my hands, and I was looking for things that only Jesus can give.” – Dr. Derwin Gray
And so Jesus gave me those things. He gave me unconditional love. He gave me a new identity: beloved child of God. He gave me a new purpose, and that is to know Him and to make Him known through every facet of my life.
“He gave me unconditional love. He gave me a new identity: beloved child of God. He gave me a new purpose, and that is to know Him and to make Him known through every facet of my life.” – Dr. Derwin Gray
A New Purpose and Identity in Jesus
So I never wanted to be a pastor, even when I came to faith. I didn’t know what ministry was, I just started sharing everything that Jesus was doing in my heart, and my wife would do the same thing.
I got invited, the year I retired in 1999, to speak at a youth event in Columbia, South Carolina. And I argued with God about going to speak, because I said, “I’m a compulsive stutterer.” And in the midst of me crying, I just sensed God saying, “If I can raise my Son from the dead, I can raise your tongue to talk.”
And so we went down there—myself, my wife, and our little baby girl—and I did the best I could. A bunch of kids got saved, and then people just started calling me all the time. And as I was traveling around the country speaking, I started to notice that churches were very segregated. Like, you’d have churches that are predominately white, churches that are predominately black. I never ministered in a multi-ethnic church.
When I read the Bible, I’d see that the early church was comprised of Jews and Gentiles. They were very multi-ethnic in the church. Not only was a relationship with Jesus based on love, but now enemies became family, foes became friends because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that God promised Abraham a multi-ethnic family. And Jesus fulfills that promise, that Jesus’s blood not only forgives our sins, but He gives us a family with different colored skins.
“Jesus’s blood not only forgives our sins, but He gives us a family with different colored skins.” – Dr. Derwin Gray
I began to ask pastors, like, “Why aren’t there more multiethnic churches?”
And God said, “Well, do something about it.”
And so ten years ago, we planted Transformation Church, and we are an intentionally Jesus-centered church. We preach the gospel, we preach grace is love, is transformative power. And we’re a church that looks like the new heaven is going to look: every nation, tribe, and tongue. We’ve seen thousands of people come to faith. We’ve baptized thousands of people. Also, our church is probably leading the city of Charlotte in understanding mental health. We have a mental health ministry. We’re on the front lines of teaching racial reconciliation through the gospel.
And so God has been very, very generous to us. We’re seeing people transformed in beautiful ways by Jesus. And we’re just thankful to be a part of it.
Narrator: Inspired by his beautiful church family, Dr. Gray reads about the all-encompassing way Jesus loves us in a passage of Jesus Calling.
Dr. Derwin Gray: Jesus Calling, November 5th:
YOU CAN LIVE as close to Me as you choose. I set up no barriers between us; neither do I tear down barriers that you erect. People tend to think their circumstances determine the quality of their lives. So they pour their energy into trying to control those situations. They feel happy when things are going well and sad or frustrated when things don’t turn out as they’d hoped. They rarely question this correlation between their circumstances and feelings. Yet it is possible to be content in any and every situation. Put more energy into trusting Me and enjoying My Presence. Don’t let your well-being depend on your circumstances. Instead, connect your joy to My precious promises: I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go. I will meet all your needs according to My glorious riches. Nothing in all creation will be able to separate you from My Love.
Helping Others Reach for The Good Life
My new book is called The Good Life: What Jesus Teaches About Finding True Happiness. And basically, what I want to do is I want people to sit down with Jesus, let Him call them near. And so I wrote The Good Life so people could experience the happiness they were created for and the holiness that they were meant for. That happiness and holiness are two sides of the same coin. As we’re more satisfied in Jesus, we reflect His holiness. And as we reflect Jesus’s holiness, we begin to develop His kind of happiness.
One of the things that’s so beautiful about Jesus is that He will allow us to hit rock bottom so we can discover that He is the rock. And so often we are so self-sufficient that we can’t be God sufficient. So often we’re so centered upon ourselves that we can’t be Jesus-centered. The reality is this grace only works in a broken heart.
”So often we are so self-sufficient that we can’t be God sufficient. So often we’re so centered upon ourselves that we can’t be Jesus-centered.” – Dr. Derwin Gray
And so it’s about a posture of the heart of saying, “God, I need You. I need Your strength. I need You to do this.” And we live in a world that’s based on competition, that’s based on achievement, that’s based on measuring up, that’s based on being good enough. And we wear ourselves out. And Jesus is saying, “I am your good enough. I am your measuring enough.” Everything that we would ever hope to be is found in a person of Jesus Christ. Jesus doesn’t need us to do stuff for Him. Jesus wants to live in us. Jesus wants to live through us. So He gave His life for us to give His life to us, to live His life through us.
I believe that there needs to be more talk about Jesus and what He’s done. Let’s talk about what we have to do, because, well, we understand what Jesus has done. When we understand His grace, His mercy, His love, His kindness, His presence, His power, that’s like rocket fuel that moves us to love the world.
Narrator: To read more about Derwin’s story, mission, and book, please visit derwinlgray.com, and to see more of the work that Transformation Church is doing in their community, please visit transformationchurch.tc.
If you’d like to hear more stories about people using their lives to help others, check out our interview with the NFL’s Mark Herzlich and his wife Danielle Herzlich.
Narrator: Next time on the Jesus Calling Podcast, we talk with mixed martial artist Paige VanZant. As a fighter, Paige stretches herself to go beyond her comfort zone, and recently stepped outside of the ring to try new opportunities like competing on Dancing with the Stars and Food Network’s Chopped. She shares why she uses her God-given abilities this way.
Paige VanZant: I think it’s extremely important to push yourself to try new things, because God’s giving you all these talents. And why waste them? I want to feel like I’m really living up to my full, God-given potential. And I’m going to go for any dream that comes my way.
Narrator: Do you love hearing these stories of faith weekly from people like you whose lives have been changed by a closer walk with God? Then be sure to subscribe to the Jesus Calling: Stories of Faith Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like what you’re hearing, leave us a review so that we can reach others with these inspirational stories. And, you can also see these interviews on video as part of our original web series with a new interview premiering every other Sunday on Facebook Live. Find previously broadcasted interviews on our Youtube channel, on IGTV, or on jesuscalling.com/video.