Shawn grew up in a Christian home where his family attended church regularly, but he says his life was far from normal. In 1962, his mom Beverly, then 14, was in a bad car accident. John, her boyfriend at the time who later became her husband, was at the wheel when a pick-up truck hit his car, sending it spinning backwards and sideways. John banged his head on the side window and Beverly hit her head on the dash. Emergency personnel helped John out of the car and later determined he had suffered a concussion; Beverly didn’t wake up for 3 months. While she was in a coma, John graduated from high school and contemplated what to do. The accident opened his eyes and he gave his heart to the Lord. When Beverly finally opened her eyes, she had partial amnesia. “Her motor skills never fully returned,” says Shawn. When Beverly was 16, John gave her a promise ring and went off to Korea in 1963. They were married before John was deployed to Vietnam. Shawn and his mom lived with John’s parents until he came home in June 1967 and the family moved to Indiana.
Shawn says his mom, whose general disposition was usually gentle and sweet, would fly into profanity-laced tirades and fits of rage. Their home was piled high with dirty laundry and garbage because his mom was unable to clean. Sometimes dinner consisted of half-cooked meat or spoiled milk. A moment of frustration might lead to his mom hurling a knife at Shawn, his brother, Troy, or their dad. On several occasions, Shawn’s mom tried to jump out of the car on the highway while he and Troy struggled to keep her inside. “When you’re born into a family like this, you don’t know any different,” says Shawn. When he was 10 or 11, he realized something wasn’t normal after visiting friends’ homes. Their houses were clean and there was no volatility. Soon he began wishing he lived in any home but his own. “I later realized that these homes I wanted to move to had problems of their own,” says Shawn. Life was difficult and at one point, Shawn saw his mother being led away to a mental institution. “Doctors never had an answer for her condition,” he says. Shawn’s life was affected by his mom’s volatile behavior. “I grew up with deep insecurities,” says Shawn. He kept most of his feelings to himself but calls his mom his “spiritual hero.” “I learned a lot through her,” Shawn says. “She led me to Jesus.” Beverly was a Sunday school teacher who read her Bible every day. “What I saw in he chaos was that my mom loved reading her Bible and praying,” says Shawn. “That drew me to the Lord.” She particularly loved the biography of Joni Eareckson Tada, a woman who suffered a diving accident when she was a teenager that made her a quadriplegic. (Today Shawn serves on the board of Joni & Friends Foundation.)
One day Shawn’s dad pulled him aside to show him articles he had been reading about Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) which was first identified in the mid 1980’s. This was an “aha” moment for the Thornton family. The diagnosis helped Shawn and his family understand his mother’s condition. In April 2000, she fell in the shower, hit her head and died. Shawn’s dad found her when he got home from work. Shawn says he realized theme of his mother’s life: she loved God and she loved the marginal people. “I realized that most broken people are the ones who need fixing the least,” he says. John never shared the story of his home life during the course of his 20 year career in ministry. (He is the senior pastor of Calvary Community Church in Westlake, CA.) “It was a pain in my heart that I kept close and deep. I hope my story brings hope and healing to others,” he says.