The smile on Tracey Armstrong’s face tells of a long, long journey. The ear-to-ear expression floods his face often. Sometimes his smile is accompanied by a slow giggle. At other times, a forceful laugh bursts from behind his teeth.
On the back cover of his book Followership, released in 2010, Tracey’s picture shows him smiling confidently. An old clip of him hosting a locally broadcasted show for The Bible Network (TBN) has Tracey beaming as he laughs through an interview with the show’s guest. And as he sits on a couch in his second floor office of Citadel Church, the church he pastors in Des Moines, Washington, he continuously smiles. It seems like he can’t help it. Smiling simply comes with waking up.
That smile, however, wasn’t always there. That smile didn’t come out until he was 20 years old. That smile replaced the dark and somber look of a teenager on trial for assault with a deadly weapon.
When Super Bowl Sunday arrived in 1988, Tracey jumped into the passenger seat of a buddy’s car. As the two drove through Tacoma, Washington to a local market, they chatted about what to get for the day’s football watching party. Mostly, the discussion revolved around getting booze. So, when the two sauntered into the store, they went straight for the beer aisle. Tracey perused casually, looking for the best deal, and checked to see if he had enough cash. He did. But it didn’t matter. His buddy had already started to shove some beers into his pockets.
The next sequence of events have been seared into Tracey’s memory for the rest of his life.
the rest of his life. The waltz down the beer aisle set in motion a year of seismic life-altering moments.
“And my friend is just putting beer in his pocket," Tracey says. "He is just stealing beer. I don't why he is stealing, because I had money."
A clerk spotted Tracey’s friend and started shouting at them to stop. They rushed for the front and ran through the doors. Barely 25 feet into the parking lot, Tracey looked back and saw the clerk sprinting after them, shouting with every step.
Tracey needed to do something. He didn’t want the situation to get out of hand, so he stopped dead in his tracks and turned around. After pulling out a large knife from his waistband, Tracey pointed the tip of the blade in the clerk’s direction.
“I told him that we were going to go down the alley,” Tracey says. “And if he followed us, he wasn’t going to make it out of the other end.”
Police sirens sounded in the distance. Tracey suddenly realized that about 20 people were in the parking lot watching the whole scene. He lowered the knife and made a beeline for the alley. He and his friend ran as fast as they could with the clerk still in pursuit. Tracey’s promise to the clerk about not getting out of the other end of the alley came true. But not because of Tracey’s knife. None of them made it through the alley because the police got there first.
The arrest report accused Tracey of assault with a deadly weapon. Cuffed and booked into the Pierce County Jail, Tracey paced back and forth in the large, crowded jail cell. I had money. We didn’t need to steal anything. All of this could have been avoided, he thought. Another man in the same cell saw the wiry young criminal seemingly on the verge of doing something stupid.
The middle-aged man motioned for Tracey to come over and sit next to him. As Tracey walked over, he immediately recognized the man. This man’s face had recently been plastered on the sides of billboards, bus ads, and milk cartons as a “wanted man” all over Washington.
He began trying to calm Tracey down, but nothing worked. Anger pulsated from Tracey’s gritted teeth. So the man resorted to something he didn’t practice himself but had seen work throughout his time in different jail cells.
“So he said, ‘If you pray, God will get you out,’” Tracey remembers. “And then we prayed right there. Him and I prayed. And after three hours, I was out of jail.”
An officer came up to the cell and called Tracey’s name. He told him he could go home.
“My aunt came and bailed me out of jail, which she never would’ve done [before],” he says.
As Tracey walked out of the county jail, a fleeting thought ran across the 19-year-old's mind: I think God is real.
That thought stuck with him as he went to bed that night and again as he woke up. He couldn’t shake that simple concept. I think God is real. Unfortunately, he also thought about the very real court date that was set for a year after his bail.
At that time, Tracey’s day-to-day saw the likes of inconsistent part-time jobs, drug use, and drug dealing. On-again, off-again relationships with an array of females. And a general distaste for direction in life. He was a menace to society, but now he had a nagging thought in his head that God was real. This realization, however, didn’t change his routine. He still smoked marijuana frequently during the week, had a tendency to snort cocaine on the weekends, and drank in between. All the while, he dealt drugs in order to get money for more drugs. Tracey lived this life since his early teens, and a simple thought about God didn’t change that.
The two things it did change was how he woke up in the mornings. And how he went to sleep at night.
“I would wake up everyday and I would say, ‘Thank you for getting me through the night.’ That was my introduction to God,” Tracey says. “That is how I started to approach God. And then I would say, ‘Thank you for letting me get through the day.’”
These prayers happened every day for about six months. He didn’t expect anything to come from it. It didn’t make him feel different inside. And these simple prayers did not change his perspective on the world. He said the prayers because he felt like it.
Little did he know that a small prayer—even one sentence in length—could eventually open him up to feel the tangible weight of God’s love.
On a Wednesday night in 1989, Tracey and the girl he lived with had a blowout argument. He stormed out of the apartment and went for a walk to let off some steam. The apartment complex bordered an institution called Northwest Bible College. As Tracey wandered around the neighborhood, he saw the entrance to the school grounds and remembered that a friend of his studied at the school. So Tracey wandered onto campus in hopes of bumping into him. After questioning a few roaming students, he got pointed in the right direction and eventually found his friend. Tracey ended up hanging out with him and some of the other students.
He spent the next few hours with them. At times, he didn’t talk much. At other times, they all focused on him. Within an hour, Tracey grew to really like them.
Eventually, they told Tracey they had to cut the night short because they needed to get to a mandatory chapel service.
“And within a couple of hours, they have to go church. It is a Wednesday night, and they have to go to chapel,” Tracey remembers. “So they said they had to go, and I was like, ‘Well, I want to go to church. Why can’t I go?’”
The students smiled and gladly escorted him to the sanctuary. The A-frame building had high ceilings, rows of chairs, and a small stage to house the band. Tracey sat in a row toward the center of the sanctuary. His eyes peered back and forth at the people in the room and the people on the stage. After a few songs, a guest speaker jumped up on stage. As he took the mic, Tracey’s ears honed in on what he said. The speaker talked about a parallel life to Tracey’s. Drugs, streets, and poverty. And then he told the story about discovering Jesus. But the moment Tracey leaned forward in his seat was the moment the speaker talked about a time when God revealed a set of numbers and a street name to him. When the speaker woke up, he went to the address that he saw in his dreams.
“And that was intriguing to me,” Tracey says. “And he goes and knocks on the door of this house. It is a crack house, and there are all of these people shooting heroin and getting high. And he says that they all receive Jesus. And the first thing I think is, ‘That is way cool.’ And then a thought hit me: I am still doing drugs, still selling drugs. I am praying every morning and every night, but I am still in the drug world. If [God] can help them, then [God] can help me. Because I don’t shoot up drugs. I smoke and I snort, but I I don’t shoot.”
Tracey reflected on his life and thought, if this Jesus thing can help people who inject heroin, it can definitely help me.
who inject heroin, it can definitely help me. Another prayer swam through his head: God, if you want me to do this whole Jesus thing, this preacher has to call me up right now.
The very next statement out of the preacher’s mouth challenged anyone in the room who wanted to know Jesus, to get up to the front of the room.
Within 30 seconds, Tracey jogged up to the front, hunched over in front of the stage, got on his knees, and cried uncontrollably. As his shoulders shook from sobbing, a very distinct feeling of being hugged came over him. It enveloped his whole being. It felt like a very large blanket landed on him and kept him in one place. God’s tangible love had landed.
“One of the guys was a pastor’s son and he was up there. He had a huge smile and he said, ‘Welcome to Jesus. This will be the most adventurous life you could ever live,’” Tracey remembers. “And I remember saying, ‘You have such a goofy smile.’ And I remember thinking that these people smile so much, and I will live this adventurous life, but don’t make me smile like that.”
The students that had brought him to the service quickly asked the dean of the school if Tracey could stay with them for a while to help him process what had just happened. The dean agreed to let Tracey stay in the student dorms for three days. The group of students knew that wasn’t enough time, so they devised a system of sneaking him around to different dorms for the next two weeks. Each night, Tracey learned from them. He listened, he asked questions, and he began to understand what had actually happened in that sanctuary.
Tracey discovered that once he walked up to that stage in an attempt to know Jesus, he opened himself up to complete forgiveness from his past wrongs, past hurts, past criminality, and past life. Tracey felt a burden lift from his conscience. His perspective on the world completely changed and as he walked off of the Northwest Bible College campus two weeks later, a very large smile spread across his face.
he walked off of the Northwest Bible College campus two weeks later, a very large smile spread across his face.
Instead of dealing drugs, Tracey talked to his friends about Jesus. Instead of finding himself in unsavory places at all hours of the night, Tracey slept early so he could wake up and read the Bible.
A complete transformation had occurred. A young man once deemed a menace to his community now walked the streets with the sole hope of introducing the same thing that completely changed his life. Jesus.
Only one problem still remained. Tracey’s court date loomed and he still had to go to trial for assault with a deadly weapon.
“The lawyer said, ‘You need to plea. And we can get it down to nine months,” Tracey explains. “And I said, ‘I don’t want to do to prison at all. I have seen movies. I don't want to go to prison.’”
All Tracey could do, at this point, was pray. He read a verse in the Bible where Jesus told his disciples that whatever a person asks in prayer, he or she will receive, if they have faith, all in accordance to God’s plan.
“I stood before the judge and I told him that I want to go on to be a minister [and] I am not living that way anymore,” Tracey remembers. “And it is one of those moments where he leans back and he says, ‘So your life has changed?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I want to serve Jesus.’ And then [the judge] asked if the guy chased me. And he said that if he was chasing me, how can that be assault? And he dropped all of the charges. I knew God was in that. And I felt that God had moved his heart and all of that went away.”
Walking out of the courthouse a free man, Tracey’s complete turn from a life of drugs, slum living, and hopelessness became very real. He firmly believed that a person’s life could change in one instant because it happened to him. This realization birthed his life’s work of telling as many people as possible about this reality.
All too often, the cause for a kid’s corrupted approach to life gets traced back to something. Did he or she grow up in a broken household? Did he or she grow up without a mom, or a dad, or both? Did he or she start using drugs at an early age?
But not as often do people investigate the cause for someone’s transformation. For Tracey, the reason for his change remains singular and very specific. He had a radical moment with Jesus.
In 1993, a few years after being acquitted of the assault charges, Tracey moved to Southern California. In 1994, he married a young Dutch missionary named Nathalie. She remembers meeting him and being bummed out. She wanted to commit her life to being a missionary and being single. That way, God could send her anywhere He needed to, and she would have nothing holding her back. But the moment she met Tracey, she could see how much he loved God. A connection formed after just a few days of friendship and the two began dating shortly after. Three months later, they were engaged.
“What I love the most about my husband is that he is extremely fearful not to please his Father,” Nathalie says. “My husband has such a heart for the Father and he runs really hard.”
Tracey and Nathalie have been married for 19 years. They homeschool their three children—Tristen, Yoseph, and Sophia—while pastoring Citadel Church. Tracey and Nathalie travel often but always travel together, with the kids right alongside.
kids right alongside. He asks them every year if they want to attend the local public school, and they keep saying no. They like seeing new places and different people.
Tracey feels like a father to not only his kids, but also to a younger generation of Christians who want to see people transformed through a relationship with Jesus. He recently began developing an online multi-media channel set to be called Destiny Channel. The online channel will stream 24-hour programming with content inspired and created by people that follow Jesus. Tracey has the vision and know-how to run the project, but he would rather have young creatives run the channel. He wants to guide them, help them through the difficult moments, and ultimately see them run after a life of giving people the opportunity to experience that big blanket of love.
Tracey has become a world-traveling, miracle-seeking, teaching, and preaching example of a life filled with Jesus. And it all came about because he roamed onto a college campus where a group of kids decided to just hang out with him.
From that night, until this morning, Tracey has been smiling brightly. And smiling often.
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