I grew up in the North Georgia mountains, in the rolling, rural heart of the Deep South, and thus was thoroughly aware of Christianity from a very early age. The beliefs and mores of Christianity have long engrained themselves into that culture. My great-aunt and uncle and would take me to a back-woods independent church occasionally, while my mother would take me to the somewhat more bourgeois First Baptist Church downtown in our small community. It was at that church that, at the age of seven, I “walked the aisle” and repeated a prayer. I did it because that’s what was expected everyone should do eventually and because I had heard what happened if you didn’t… but it marked no significantly momentous change in my life. That would not happen until many years down the road.
As I child, I saw both my parents go through multiple marriages, all ending turbulently. This, mixed with other issues such as bullying and other abuses in school eventually wore on me, the beginnings of a long period of depression, one that I did not realize existed until many years later. My connection with the Church as a whole slowly died out (excepting Christmas and Easter visits) for several years afterward, due to a variety of circumstances beyond my control. Meanwhile, after a handful of strange experiences happened in my life, I found myself becoming more and more interested in ghosts, paranormal phenomena, and by and large the Occult in general.
As a child and teenager, my favorite modes of expressing myself were through writing stories and through visual arts such as drawing and painting. My gifts in both of these were recognized very early on by teachers and family. I was also an avid reader, reaching a twelve-grade reading level by fifth grade and by middle school digesting horror classics from Edgar Allan Poe short stories to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in my spare time. My interest in gothic literature and the eclectic taste in music and the arts certain members of my family had instilled in me led me to ask to see the touring production of the musical The Phantom of the Opera when I was thirteen. After seeing this, I was curious what else the composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, had written. My mother remembered a rock opera that her brother had listened to on LP growing up in the early 1970s, Jesus Christ Superstar. I got a copy and listened.
I was enraptured by the classic rock songs telling the story of the Passion of Christ, but there was much I didn’t understand. The last track on the album was titled “John 19:41,” but I had no clue what that passage was. I managed to dig out the bible from my childhood and look up the passage (it turned out to be describing the tomb Jesus’ body was laid in). That questioned answered, I kept reading in John and then Luke, trying to figure out what in the bizarre rock opera was actually in scripture and what was, as we might say, dramatic license.
Reaching high school, with this experience forever peaking my curiosity about the Bible and the Biblical world anew, I was curious to take a class at the Christian Learning Center, a released-time program in my hometown in which public high school students can take a class on the Bible and Christianity from a Christian perspective during one of a student’s free electives. I was able to take a class from the CLC for three out of my four high school years. Through these classes, I began to grow in faith and knowledge of scripture and the Christian tradition. The dark bonds of depression and my ties to the Occult began to slowly unravel simultaneously. As soon as I was able to drive, I began to attend the First Baptist Church I had gone to so many years prior, and was finally baptized at age 17.
Becoming a Christian, or returning to Christianity (however one might see it) made much positive impact in my life. I grew in my spiritual walk, and my continuous thirst for knowledge meant that I was soon studying theology constantly and grasping concepts that most Christians around me never touched. I also learned that I loved teaching the Bible, although I was still a fairly strong introvert. The CLC broke me out of the social shell I had put myself into, and by the time I reached college, I was stepping out into speaking publicly about my faith. As I entered college (then as an art major), I began to realize that this proclamation of the gospel was what I wanted to do with my life. A brief burnout with the visual arts caused me to switch to an English major, but also caused me to reanalyze where I was going with my life. As I became more and more active in the Baptist Student Union and Campus Ministry groups at my college, the pursuit of Christian ministry as a vocation become more and more present as the calling of my life.
What happens to my natural gifts in art and writing, though? I was very much a movie, book, theatre, and music aficionado, and still loved to write and make art. Typical reformed Protestantism, however, did not address these issues very much. If they did, they were encouraging me to take as incredible many forms of visual art, music, and film that were just simply bad art. When I moved to Louisville to begin attending seminary, I was surprised to learn that a new program had just been introduced at my school without my knowledge, the Master of Arts in Theology and Arts. I tried and loved the first class I took from this concentration and quickly switched over, the course of my life notably redefined. Heartbroken two years later when the program was canceled, I was encouraged to know that the five classes I had taken were enough for me to graduate with the degree, even if I would be the last to ever do so.
Meanwhile, I came to Sojourn Community Church and instantly fell in love with this family of believers. Since becoming a Christian, a strain of cynicism continually had grown in me because of the perceived fake-ness and altogether disunity of believers. At Sojourn, I found what really looked and felt like a family. While Sojourn’s engagement of the arts and creativity was refreshing and certainly a draw, the solidarity of the church’s beliefs, the ministry to the city, and the true bond that existed between the members of the church were what captured me and kept me with this body.
Three years later, I am finishing up my degree, and I am still growing in great ways in the Sojourn body. I feel a calling, one that will one day pull me from Sojourn Community Church. Churches centered on the Good News of Jesus Christ are to send out more churches that preach and live the same. I am being trained at Sojourn so that the message of the Gospel can once again go forward and reach those elsewhere. As part of a church somewhere, sometime, I am being equipped to reach the world around me as I have been reached, and to engage the culture through my gifts in the arts and creativity, though teaching, connecting, and loving. I will go forth proclaiming the Gospel, for God has done a great work in me through Jesus Christ and will bring it to completion, and he compels me to share his truth with the world.
(To pick up the rest of the story several years later, read “My Canterbury Tale” parts 1, 2, and 3.)