From his sleeping bag on the floor of his parents' trailer, his 8-year-old ears were flooded with the sounds of destruction: His drunken father's screaming, things smashing, breaking and shattering in the kitchen, and his mother's sobbing.
"The next morning, I walked to the edge of the kitchen," Donahue, now 37, recounted. "It was a disaster."
The refrigerator had been shoved across the room and overturned, its contents spilled out on the floor. The kitchen table was broken in half, cabinets torn from the wall, drawers empty, pots and pans lying in the yard. A knife was stuck in the wall.
"My mom just sat there in middle of that with a broom and dustpan," Donahue said. "She said, 'You kids can stay home today and help me clean up or go to school."
It was not the first time something like this happened, or the last. Donahue's father, an alcoholic with a violent temper, subjected him to years of abuse, both physical and sexual.
Donahue's emotional scars ran deep. He felt like an outcast among his peers, alone in his suffering. He concealed his pain by becoming the class clown.
"If I could make people laugh, they wouldn't know the hurt that was going on in my life," Donahue said.
"I perceived everyone else as having a perfect family, so I thought there was something wrong with me," he said.
When Donahue was 14, his mother left his father and began the divorce process, which she would complete the next year. Donahue briefly lived with his mother at a shelter for abused families before being sent to a psychiatric hospital for three months to help his emotional wounds. After that, he went to live his high school years with his grandmother, since his mother could not afford to provide for him.
Then, at the age of 18, he was invited to church by one of his friends. Over several weeks, the youth pastor led him to Jesus. In July 1991, Donahue accepted Christ, and the healing began.
"After I accepted Christ as Savior and asked Jesus to forgive me for my sins, I began to learn what a quiet time was, how to spend time with Jesus," Donahue said. "What I learned was that the more I spent my life focusing on Jesus, the more healing was being brought to me in my heart."
But as Jesus healed him, Donahue felt the Lord leading him to face his greatest hurt.
"One day, as I was having a time of prayer, I realized I had not truly forgiven my dad," he said.
Donahue wrote a letter to his father, detailing all the abuse, drunkenness, rage and insults. He wept as God brought him, with every word, to let go of it all.
"I wrote, 'I want you to know that I have been forgiven of my sins because of what Jesus did for me on cross, and I want you to know I love you and forgive you for what you did to me,'" Donahue said.
His father responded that he knew if Donahue could forgive him, Donahue could find peace.
Donahue's father died of cancer in 1998. Though he doesn't know if his father ever accepted Jesus, Donahue was by his father's bedside telling him about the forgiveness Jesus offers during his last moments.
Donahue's great passion now is ministering to teenagers and their families. Having a troubled past himself, he wants to help struggling teens from the viewpoint of someone who understands their pain.
"Someone needs to be able to stand up and say, 'I've been through it,'" he said. "I understand what being a hurting teen is like, because I was a hurting teen."
Having encountered many hurting teenagers during his years of ministry, Donahue said he has developed some practical methods to bring healing through Jesus. Desiring to help other student pastors, he offers these methods in a four-hour seminar titled "Broken Homes, Broken Families, Broken Hearts: Mending Hurting Teenagers in a Broken World."
The seminar's lessons are drawn from Donahue's own experiences as a troubled teen and the students he counsels as youth pastor at First Redeemer Church in Cumming, Ga. He emphasizes that the seminar doesn't go into deep psychology but offers practical things student pastors can do.
"These are things we've implemented in our student ministry, and I've seen them work," he said.
Part of the seminar helps student pastors handle common situations Donahue has seen. For example, a student may suddenly pour out his or her heart to a student pastor but then leave the student ministry just as suddenly. Donahue calls it the "Cry Then Fly" syndrome.
"I've experienced that and overcome it by helping the student understand this is a process," he said. "If they stick around in the student ministry, Sunday School classes and Wednesday nights, if they keep growing in Christ, God is going to bring them peace."
Other parts of the seminar help equip student pastors for their roles as shepherds and to build family friendly student ministries that help parents mend their families.
For Donahue, the seminar reflects the urgency of reaching teenagers. He wants youth pastors to know "their kids are hurting."
"Every one of their teens knows what it's like to cry on pillow and think, 'Nobody gets me. Nobody understands me,'" he said.
Although Donahue's seminar is mainly designed to equip youth workers, he believes parents, whom he calls "God-given youth pastors," must be involved for hurting teens to find healing.
If parents are the source of their teens' hurt, Donahue said the parents must be honest about it, show humility and a growing relationship with Christ, seek reconciliation with their children, and pray more than ever.
If parents aren't the cause of their teens' hurt, he suggests that in addition to showing Christ in their own lives, parents should make sure their teens are in a solid youth ministry where they can learn about Jesus.
For parents who don't know if they are the cause, Donahue suggests they ask family members, others in the church or even their own teenagers for honest opinions.
"We know that God has not created anybody perfect, and parents are not perfect either," he said.
Donahue hopes his seminar and any other advice he gives will point to Jesus, who healed him from a broken past and gave him the ability to minister to others. He believes if hurting teenagers can be shown the Great Physician, God will do incredible things through them.
"They will catch a fire for the Lord that is not quenchable," Donahue said. "Despite what comes their way, they will look to Jesus, because He brought them through so much. They will overcome their troubles because they know Christ will carry them through."
John Evans is a writer in Houston. Joe Donahue offers a seminar for youth workers titled "Broken Homes, Broken Families, Broken Hearts: Mending Hurting Teenagers in a Broken World." For more information about Donahue, his seminar and his ministry, visit youthevangelist.com.
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