By Angela Cutrer
GW Tolley wrote his first book, “Comforting Messages From Heaven,” in honor of his mother, Jean Tolley, who died on September 26, 2014. It was the start of something big.
But that’s not how it started.
Tolley was just an ordinary Elizabethton child, although he always seemed to have problems with his ears. Even after his tonsils were removed, the health problems persisted.
“I had ear problems from birth and that continued until my second year of high school [in Elizabethton]’ said Tolle. “I was constantly at the doctor and… the problems came right back, sometimes worse than before.”
With a name beginning with “T,” Tolley was at the back of the class, where he couldn’t hear much in the front. “I’d be bored and I’d scribble, and my mind would wander everywhere,” he added. “For me, getting a D+ or even a C- was a big achievement for me.
“My mother would work with me with flash cards. “You’re smart and you can do whatever you want. There is always a way around, over or under any situation and sometimes you just have to get through it.” [she would say]. My mother was loving, kind, intelligent and business savvy. But if you messed with her family or her kids… Well, that’s another story.’
Because of his own suffering and the kind care his mother gave, Tolley said he is proud of what he ultimately conquered and where it took him. “Wear your scars with pride — I do,” he said. “We can’t have testimony without a test.”
Tolley’s most important test came when his mother took him to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who found that the boy had 95 percent hearing loss in one ear. “I had surgery and tubes to fix the problem,” he said. “My situation was so bad that they did the surgery right away. They brought in a machine that resembled a large vacuum cleaner. There was a large needle and … the liquid [that exited his ear] was almost black.
“They couldn’t numb my ear and I just had to be a big boy and hold out. My mom was right there with me. She said, ‘Be strong; I’m here with you.’ I did well and she wiped the one and only tear from my eye All this has taught me to keep moving forward and be an ‘overcomer’ [who would] ‘Reach for the stars, but don’t forget to keep your feet on the ground.’”
Tolley grew up and, like everyone else, tried to determine his direction in life. He had attended church in his youth, but as many youth will do, he took a different path. He had many ups and downs, including homelessness. He spent more than 20 years trying to make sense of life, which, he said, led him into a 10-year odyssey of learning.
Things got better and he ended up in business. There were good times, but some mind-numbing. He knew this was not what he wanted to do with his life, but then his mother died and all seemed lost.
“I had to pray for faith, broaden shoulders, strength and see others as God’s children and not judge,” he said of his boarding journey to find God again. “I also had to learn to forgive. By giving situations to God, I began to watch my words; a few kind words can change someone’s day or life. This process involved learning to be like Christ, to have selfless and unshakable faith, hope, and love. Listen to God and be obedient.
“L [had] wanted to do what l wanted to do. Free will… but that got me in big trouble. God was always there. I discovered that it is all about a relationship with God. When I hit the bottom, God was the rock his the bottom. He was there when no one else was. ‘God does not call the equipped, He equips the called.’”
An unexpected consequence was that Tolley became an author. “If someone had said I was going to write a book – or even thirteen books – I would have laughed at them and said no, not me,” he said amusedly. ‘You were wrong, you have the wrong man. English, spelling grammar, punctuation….that’s not me.”
But, regardless of those impediments, it was.
Tolley used to write thoughts on sheets of paper. Quite by accident he found all these papers again and realized that those thoughts could help others. So he got a good editor, kept an eye on God and self-published them in the book “Comforting Messages From Heaven”. And he dedicated it to the woman who made such a difference in his life.
Flash forward to 2020. After winning the top prize with his company – and subsequently being fired due to COVID-19 – Tolley took a trip to Israel, all alone, for profit.
“It was my first international trip,” he said. “What a great experience! While I was there, three other books were in the works. “A modern job” was revealed in the city of David.” He is currently working on book 17.
He has indeed been busy.
Book 16 sold well in the United States, as well as internationally: Germany, United Kingdom, Canada, India, Brazil, Australia, Japan. “That surprises me,” Tolley said, laughing at his success.
Now Tolley has 3 million social media followers who enjoy his work. Five-time Grammy winner Matthew West has hosted Tolley on his podcast. He has found himself and his purpose by telling “it is the way it is, even if it hurts sometimes,” he said.
“If you have a story that is going out of you – whether you like it or not – and it feels like you’re about to explode, then to have to get it out of your system,” he said. “Let it go and get it out. That’s what happened to me. The stories had to get out [along with] the pain, the pain, the shame, the tears of sorrow and joy. Write even if it’s uncomfortable, because one of the best ways to heal is to get it out.”
“When you… have yourself under control, that’s powerful. Never let people, [or] where you come from or your circumstances determine who you are and where you are going,” he said. “You have a goal, I have a goal. We all have a ‘Kingdom Purpose’.”
In addition to being an international author, host of a TV show called “What’s Your Story” and a self-publishing coach, Tolley is also a hearing-impaired deaf advocate who leads Chanan Ministries, which works with elderly foster children. and homeless.
Life is round. Tolley has been in Elizabethton – where it all began – since September 3 to visit his father, sister, brother-in-law and nephew.
Tolley talks a mile a minute, but says “it’s not about me; it’s all about people helping people.” And that attitude now brought filmmakers into the mix: There’s a movie going on, one called “I am JOSIAH.”
“My trials have become my testimonies and give God all praise and glory,” Tolley explained. “My life has been restored and blessed and God has made his masterpiece from my mess. But here I am; I have stopped fighting my calling. …[to] just embrace God’s love and His mercy.
“I share my stories through my trials, tribulations and testimonies. I want people to see Him, not me, and for God all the praise and glory.”