From Whence the Seed of Faith?
I have vague memories now of that time during my youth, when I was attending Jefferson Elementary in Ionia and would cross the street to attend a Bible study class for elementary grade children at the Lincoln Baptist Church. And I remember rare occasions of attending the same church with Grandpa and Grandma Kline, my paternal grandparents. Maybe occasions with my Uncle Larry and Aunt Bea, as well— it’s all fading memories now, it was so long ago.
And I have vague memories of my mom having a Sunday morning TV preacher on maybe a handful of times playing on the TV— personas including Billy Graham, Robert Schuller, and one other one whose name eludes me as I type this. I suppose she believes in God in her own way— and that’s really between her and God— or maybe she was wanting answers or reassurance that provided the answers we all seek in this life. But she never taught us anything as far as God, the Bible— Jesus. For that, she would send my brothers and me off to Sunday School so she could “have some peace and quiet.” Or, AWANA, which would come later.
So, I really can’t credit my mom directly for instilling faith in me, although her desire to have her “peace and quiet” opened the door for me to learn about God, the Bible, as well as Jesus and many other things.
It was much the same with my dad. He was huge on Christmas— but for him the holiday was about the Christmas tree, gifts, and taking his kids to see Santa Claus so we could get our picture taken with Santa and tell him what we wished for. I never saw him with a Bible, and I don’t recall him even owning one in the years of the divorce between him and mom.
I have no memories of either my mom or my dad taking us to church with them, or teaching me at least what they believed, walking me through the Bible and its grand message. And that’s sad, as I think back on that loss.
So, all that I knew was what I was being taught at that afterschool Bible study class in elementary time, occasional visits to Lincoln Baptist with either my dad’s parents, or his brother, Larry and aunt Bea, and that was pretty much it during the early years of my life.
How did I come to believe, if not because God caused me to believe?
During those years, I should add, I don’t remember ever taking more than a casual interest in the Bible or church. I simply believed that God existed and that Jesus loved me enough to die for me so I could be a child of God and go to heaven when I died. On the Sunday mornings I went to church, the pastor would speak mostly of matters involving our relationship with God, the coming Kingdom of Christ, and personal improvement as a follower of Christ, but it didn’t connect with me much, beyond the basics, which— when summed up— amounted to doing unto others as you would have them do unto you and keep one’s self spotless before God. Obey mom, obey dad. Obey teachers and policemen. I’m sure you get the idea.
A Dark and Stormy Night
It’s strange to not remember when my parents divorced, apart from knowing that it was when I was still very young. Stranger still, I don’t remember dad’s presence in our home at all. I mean, obviously he and mom were still together if mom had my two younger brothers, so, reasonably, it had to be before I was six years old.
One lingering memory I have— although the details are fading like so many others— is waking up to a storm in the darkness of night and my mom carrying my brothers and me downstairs from our beds, water running down the stairs because the roof had been removed by construction workers hired by the neighboring insurance agency (Coleman Insurance, I think?) who had purchased the property to expand their business. The workers had already dug down to the foundations of the house by this time in preparation for leveling the house. This was when I lived next door to the Lincoln Elementary School in Ionia and, believe it or not, where the house last stood when I was a second grader… there’s now a parking lot. The insurance building which was there after our house was torn down is now torn down as well.
Where the house last stood when I was a third grader… there’s now a parking lot. The insurance building which was built there after our house was torn down is now torn down as well.
The next memory after this is us living in a duplex on Second Street in Lake Odessa, next door to a rowdy and rough family.
I can say with near certainty that dad and mom were divorced by this time, which evidently left a need for a father in my life because I asked a man named George that my mom began dating shortly after we began living in Lake Odessa if he would be my new daddy. Little did I know at that tender age what a cruel man George would prove to be, to my chagrin.
This was also the time of the Bicentennial and Jimmy Carter became president of the United States of America.
It was the time when I had this amazing purple (!) Huffy bicycle with a drag-racer wheel on the back that let me spin out on the gravel that always seemed to end up on the sidewalk from the driveways of the homes there on Second Street— and let me leave these awesome long black skid marks if I could get going fast enough and then throw down a hard slam on my brakes.
Life seemed to be good for me as I adjusted to the change in school and enjoyed hanging with the Mexican family across the street from us and surely entertained them with my pitiable attempts at learning Spanish from them. I even had a wonderful Mexican friend named Feller, whose mom made these delicious, piping hot, homemade tortillas for him and I.
Still, my life was about to change, along with the world that I had known to this point in my life.
Nightmares can come true or, Be careful what you wish for
I mentioned a moment ago that the family we lived next to in the duplex was a rowdy family, as we would often hear them carrying on through the wall, loud and at times angry.
The youngest son became my arch-nemesis for reasons that I never understood. He wouldn’t be the first bully I would encounter, but he was a grief for me— no question about it. And antagonistic!
It got to the point one day that he was beating me up while his older brother held me down. Having your air knocked out of you is like death for a kid as young as I was. You can’t take in air, and primal instincts pretty much kick in at that point and somehow I managed to free myself and run for our door. Somewhere in that moment I remember telling him “I hope you die!” before escaping into our side of the duplex, hurt and beyond enraged.
That night, I dreamed I was watching him fall out the backseat of a car and getting run over. It was a haunting, real event that still summons shudders out of me when I reflect back on that day and what became a fateful night.
What I remember of what happened is that he had been picked up for a weekend visit with his dad that night (so this must’ve been on a Friday), and somewhere along the way to his dad’s house that night, he had opened the rear door and fell out (seatbelts weren’t worn in those days by anyone I knew then) and then he was dead. Just as I had wished upon him that afternoon and just as I had dreamed that very night.
This had a profound effect on me, especially at that age. I never wished anyone dead after that, and I discovered the power words have.
Even so, I would continue to have disturbing dreams that afterwards happened until my early 20’s, as well as nightmare encounters.
We moved sometime after that into the rotunda that was behind the duplexes on 2nd St., into another duplex there, across the drive from a family that we became fast friends— and I wish I could say that that inexplicable wish-come-true preceded by a nightmarish prophetic dream was the worst thing that would happen to me before we moved, but that is far from my story.
The Devil and Bill Krueger
There was a man who lived a few doors down from us while we lived on 2nd Street in Lake Odessa. His name was Bill Krueger and he lived by himself in this little one-bedroom duplex.
The man fascinated me during that time in my life, and if you were to ask me why I’m not sure I could tell you. He was a quiet man, soft-spoken. About my parents’ ages, first signs of balding settling upon his head. I remember how he always seemed to have a cup of coffee nearby— not the flat mug style that I’ve seen in greatest use today, but the tapering style cup like I continue to be fond of to this day, because of this man. I seem to remember that he worked at a furniture factory, but I can’t be certain of that.
I met him one weekend morning, I was out riding my purple Huffy bike with the extended rear U-frame I could lean back on, and that slick drag wheel I used to leave bike signatures along the sidewalk and Bill was setting up a small yard sale. I came to discover that he would go to auctions looking for odds and ends to offer from his weekend yard sale for the neighborhood. I was fascinated, and loved when I was able to go with him to an auction on a single occasion.
I must’ve befriended him because it came to where I would come over to help him set up his yard sale on the weekends, dutifully toting what I could at that age (mind you, I was a lanky, somewhat tall lad at this time and stronger than I looked as well!) from where he kept all his carefully-labelled boxes in a corner of his bedroom. Not so many as to overwhelm the room, either. A cluster of maybe a dozen boxes of various sizes.
He never made back what he’d spent, but for him it was something he enjoyed doing and offering to anyone who happened to stop by and find something worth taking home with them. And what he had would change frequently because he would need to replenish his neat little pile of yard sale boxes he brought out every weekend.
There was a peace, a serenity when I was around Bill that I was already missing in my home life in the wake of my parents’ divorce and what would prove to be a downward spiral of violence at the hands of my mom.
But before I get ahead of myself…
It was a milestone for me to get permission to stay over at Bill’s, with his permission as well as my mom’s. I prided myself on being able to stay up until the channel went off-the-air for the broadcast day and they’d go to the closing of the day with the national anthem, then the test signal, and finally: white noise, when I’d finally have to relent and fall asleep on the couch— Bill himself having gone off to bed a couple hours earlier, leaving me to my TV fixation.
It was a taste of freedom in the world that existed outside of my home, and I felt so grown-up.
Looking back, I realize now that being around Bill was a reprieve, a sanctuary from the coming and growing dark clouds that would settle over my life for nearly a decade… and far beyond.
I can’t tell you whether Bill came into my life through God or Jesus working in my life— as I mentioned earlier: while I was drawn to the Bible from the time I could stand and reach for the enormous, large-print, ivory-colored family Bible which sat atop a table, I can’t say that I was much more than a basic believer who otherwise just enjoyed life and living as a third-grader. While I was drawn to the Bible, inexplicably drawn to the Bible, the things which I was to believe about the Bible, God, and Jesus came through the various Sunday Schools and the Vacation Bible School I’d attended to this point in my life. I was taught things like humans going to heaven to be with Jesus when they died, and that we are sinners whom Jesus died for so we could go to heaven. Be kind to others and do unto them as you would have them do unto you.
I had no real awareness, is how I should describe it. God was an abstraction— something out there I couldn’t see but was watching everything about me.
Jesus seemed more real to me than God was, because Jesus had been put to death, then was raised to life, as a human. People saw him, grieved for him.
What can I say? I was a second- or third-grader and what do they know?
Very, very little, I would come to discover.
While home life would continue in its downward spiral into violence and abuse in the time I lived on 2nd St., and the neighbor, Bill, offered a brief reprieve for me with permission to stay-over on occasion, it was my being raped by a grown man and molested in other ways I will not recount here that forever changed my life, leaving me with scars that run deep and far.
I was eight or nine when I met the devil.
It was a 20-something who, I discovered to my chagrin, showed up suddenly at Bill’s place. I learned that it was the son of a good friend of Bill’s whom Bill would let crash as a favor from the friend— the 20-something’s dad.
From the start I felt something was bad about the son, and he reeked of alcohol. Just bad vibes.
Like I said, I’d met the devil.
With the standard fare of “if you tell your mom, I’ll kill her and then kill you, too” promises, he subjected me to nightmarish violations and pain on multiple occasions, until I was simply too terrified to come over to Bill’s anymore (I never told mom or Bill or anyone for years), and I settled for the escalating abuse of my home life.
My innocence was stolen, and my sense of powerless was enduring.
I was eight or nine. A third-grader.
Maybe it was punishment for my wishing that neighbor kid dead after he beat me up that day. I’ll leave the matter to the historians to sort out.
What I began struggling with was the conflict between what the Sunday Schools and VBS programs said about how Jesus loved me, and was always there with me— and my being sexually abused again and again by the 20-something. Why didn’t Jesus stop the guy?
I don’t remember when we moved into one of the duplex units that were on the rotunda behind where we lived on 2nd Street, and I hadn’t dared to go over to Bill’s place in a long time since that series of horrific events, but we moved and there became friends with a family that lived across the driveway from us. A single mom who seemed to get along well with my mom, and her three daughters. The two moms saw to it that us kids caught the Sunday School bus that came into the rotunda on Sunday morning, and off we went to Lakewood Baptist and later Nashville Baptist churches, as well as attending the AWANA program.
Among my childhood photos you’ll find pictures of my brothers and the Hoffman sisters cheerfully posing with our Bibles.
A far cry from life only one street over, but again my world seemed upright again in what passed for normalcy in my particular life. I was taking a much more probing interest in the Bible now, taking it more seriously, along with what I could glean from the churches I was able to go to— trying to piece something together to help make sense of the world I now found myself living within. A frightening world. And at times, terrifying.