As a boy in Muncie, I didn’t go to church. Sunday was just a day to sleep in. My dad read his Bible a great deal, but otherwise spiritual things were unknown in our family. I liked my dad’s Bible. It had some nice pictures of Old Testament characters and of Jesus holding some lambs. However, the extent of my early scriptural training evolved out of the annual viewing of “The Ten Commandments,” “The Robe,” or “Ben Hur.”
Obviously, there were a lot of churches of all sizes in Muncie back in my youth. St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The High Street Methodist. I think Glad Tidings was getting things going. There were a multitude of smaller Baptist and Pentecostal churches. Even so, the only head-bowing we did was to put our heads on our pillows. I heard the words “Jesus Christ” and “God” but they were usually connected with other less respectable words and spoken with some anger.
I did visit a church for a couple of months with my mom after my brother died. I think Parsons Mortuary arranged for a local minister for the service and my mom started going there for a while after the funeral. I can’t remember the name of the place, but only that it was located near downtown somewhere just south and west of the corner of Wysor and Madison. My strongest memory of the place was that each Sunday some of the kids in my class were picked to light some candles in the main service and everyone got excited about maybe being picked. I did get to do it once…I felt very special that week. Soon, however, we fell back into old habits and Sundays became the day to sleep again.
My sister took me to church once. I think it was the Latter Day Saints church when it was out on Wheeling Avenue. She was mortified though, when my little niece wrote a word she had seen scribbled on a wall by her house on the chalkboard…a word that is four letters long and starts with “F.”
We never went back.
Sometime before my brother's death in 1969, we got some new neighbors. It could have been a little before then, or it could have been shortly after, but a new family bought the duplex next door and moved in. I made friends with the two boys, and my mom and dad became friendly with the man and woman. Emma, the young mother was a Christian and took her boys to church every Sunday. When Vacation Bible School at the Fairlawn Church of Christ rolled around, Emma took the opportunity to bring me along. This was the beginning of my involvement with church; an involvement that has now spanned over forty years.
This is Emma and her kids (Rex, Roy, and Ronda) in the picture below. Her simple act of being a good Christian neighbor changed the course of my life and had tremendous influence on many aspect of my family.
After my brother died, my mother was distraught for many years, and Emma did what she could to be a good neighbor and help. Mom spent several stays at Ball Memorial Hospital. During one of those stays, Emma arranged for her minister, a guy named Ron Miller, to visit her. Ron became a sort of counselor for my mother leading to more hospital visits and several phone calls. Eventually, they conspired to sic the youth minister, Mike Runcie on me. The conversation in my memory went something like this:
Youth Minister: “Mike, you should ride the church bus to church on Sundays.”
Me: “I sleep in on Sundays.”
Youth Minister: “If you ride the bus and come to church, in the summers we go to Kings Island, Cincinnati Reds games, and then we go to camp for a week.”
Me: “What time will you pick me up?”
Basically, he had me at Reds games. I wasn’t going to get to go to those places any other way. Church on Sundays seemed like a reasonable trade off. I became a “JOYbus” kid. The JOY stood for: Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last.
By high school I had my nephew and my niece riding along with me most weeks, and I was paying attention. I did have one experience in my earliest years that pointed me toward God when at about the age of three, my dad told me that the most important thing I could ever do is love God. That stuck with me. So, on those Sundays as I sat on the hard wooden pews inside the little brick building at 13th and Monroe listening to either Ron Miller or Billy Harris preaching about Jesus, salvation, and baptism…I was paying attention. On October 11, 1976, that youth minister that bribed me to ride the JOYbus baptized me and I became a member of the Fairlawn Church of Christ.
Frankly, I’ve got to tell you that this changed the whole course of my life.
I was a pudgy, self-conscious, insecure young guy coming from a family where both of my brothers had been in serious trouble; one spent time in prison and the other committed suicide. My mom had retreated to her bedroom after my brother’s death and had medicated herself heavily to ease the anguish. It was my dad and me at home, and we weren’t on the same page a lot. I was at a fork in the road. I could follow my neighborhood friends down the course of the alcohol, sleeping around, and for some….drugs. Or, I could pursue this church thing.
I chose the latter.
A few months after the baptism, I began to devote myself to the youth group and became a church boy. Sunday morning, Sunday night, Monday night youth group, and Wednesday night class. Plus, the summer activities: Camp Indogan, Reds games, Kings Island, youth rallies and conferences, etc.
I grew up over the next few years. I dated a cute girl named Toni. I slimmed down. I made new friends. And, I gained a sense of self-respect that helped me to eventually overcome my insecurities. I even learned to do a little public speaking…which has come in quite handy in my career in industrial sales. It wasn’t quick and it wasn’t easy, but the love I received at church and the challenge of being more for God drove me to push through my personal obstacles.
I suppose I can trace most of the best things in my life back to that little congregation on Monroe Street. I met my wife there. I learned to push beyond myself there. I gained personal strength there. I grew the roots of my faith there.
And, I learned that sleeping in on Sundays isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Some related links:
My Muncie Boyhood story that discusses my brother's death...
My post about how my dad instilled my initial seed of faith...