Tony's Journey to Jesus                      




I was raised in a devout Roman Catholic family: altar boy, real midnight mass, Catholic school, the works.  And my family remains devoutly Roman Catholic today.  My testimony is not a testimony against the Roman Catholic faith.  Far from it.  My testimony is intended only to tell the story of my personal faith journey. 

I fell away from the Catholic Church, and consequently God, when I went to college.  I went to a small, liberal arts college that was nominally associated with a mainline Protestant denomination.  On campus I didn’t have anything to do with religion other than to take the required course in World Religions.  But I did go to church every week – I was paid to sing at a church in the downtown area of the city I lived in and so was there every Sunday morning and Wednesday night.  But that experience was pretty pointless, both musically and faith wise.  I mean, most Sundays I could sit in the choir loft behind the pastor and do my homework or read a book or something else, so needless to say I was not connected to what the pastor had to say, though I do not ever remember him preaching from the Bible or speaking about salvation.  But who knows.

At school I knew some “Christians.”  Of course, most of my energy went to denigrating them while not understanding what it was they stood for.  I also looked for ways to prove their hypocrisy.  This particular skill was a holdover from my family where being a Bible beater, or “fundamentalist” was frequently talked about with scorn!  Looking back now it is easy to see that I was searching for something to put my faith in but also I was searching to fit in. 

I would sporadically go to meetings for Fellowship of Christian Athletes because I thought I knew some of the people, but after standing at the back of the meetings, time after time after time and not ever getting talked to, I figured I must have got this much-espoused “Christian” fellowship wrong and left and didn’t go back. 

I also vividly remember a couple of guys in my dorm who were “Christians.”  They were into the things I was in to – travel, adventure sports, the outdoors, etc. – and one night I was hanging out with them in their room and they were talking about Jesus as Lord and Savior and I was just kind of listening and taking it all in and those guys seemed so cool to me.  However they very obviously had their own little group of friends that was really close knit and tight and I desperately wanted that feeling of connection to other people!  So I asked them what I needed to do to be in and be a “Christian.”   They told me to pray some prayer and I would get it.  So I ran down to my room and prayed this perfunctory sinner’s prayer and then running back up to this guy’s room desperately trying to be “in.”  Well, suffice it to say, I wasn’t “in”.  Not with those guys.  When I told them what I had done they just looked at me like I had three heads coming off my neck and didn’t really have anything else to say.

But I wasn’t an easy person either.  Sure I was searching.  And like a lot of college kids I “found” acceptance or whatever in partying and being more “out there” then others.  My natural bent towards rebelliousness found a lot of fellow rebels and we hung out.  Drinking, pornography, pre-marital sex, and swearing were commonplace.  Some of my friends were into drug use.  Homosexuality was deemed to be okay, if not glorified, by many.  After all, I was involved deeply in the “arts” culture.  If someone was for something, most likely I was against it.  I don’t say these things to brag.  I am so ashamed of them that I am not sure that I want to even leave these parts in.  But I write them and put them out there for you, the reader, to make sure that you understand where I was coming from.  And so that God may be glorified. 

I had a double major – English and Music – and, as my dad like to tease me about, you can’t do anything with an English and Music degree, so before my fifth and final year of school, I enlisted in the U.S. Army through the Delayed Entry Program – I would leave for basic training following my college graduation. 

Through all of this I was dating this really amazing girl.  She had a rebel streak to her as well and could really stand up for herself.  She was beautiful and funny and smart and adventurous.  We dated for five years, made it through a few breakups, her studying abroad for close to a year and just the general chaos of college.  But the February before I graduated she came over one night for dinner and asked me, quite matter-of-factly, what were we going to do.  She knew that it was about that time – to marry or not.  She also knew that she could not marry me because I was not a Christian.  She admitted then and admits now that she did not live her Christian faith in actions during college, but nevertheless, going forward she knew she couldn’t marry someone who was very much a non-believer.  We parted as friends and that was that.

I left for basic training at the end of May.  The Army is a different world.  During basic training, you get one semi-free time during the week – Sunday mornings.  It is semi-free because you can either go to church services or clean the barracks where 60 plus smelly guys had spent all week.  So I would go to Catholic mass every Sunday.  I even sang in the choirs a few times.  But it meant nothing to me and eventually I stopped going and figured buffing floors was a better use of my time. 

Basic training came and went.  I was successful taking home awards and honors for leadership, marksmanship and feeling destined for great things.  Advanced training follows right after basic training.  It is where you actually learn the job that you will be doing for the Army.  In my case that job was human resources work.  My advanced training location was right across the army base from where I had gone through basic training. 

One thing that is often not mentioned in stories about the military is how much they strive to separate you from the old.  All personal effects – clothing, CD players, reading material, etc. – are taken from you when you first arrive, locked up and sealed away by the drill sergeants.  Even letters from home come with a sense of separation – you had to do ten push-ups for every letter you received.  This continued through your advanced training.  So, by the time we get to the meat of my story (below) it had been about 12 weeks since I had sniffed personal freedom in the form of “civilian” clothes, music, time, etc.

A week after I started advanced training they had a sign-up sheet going around for a retreat weekend off base.  Essentially you could sign up to go on this retreat and while off base you could wear civilian clothes, swim, relax, eat home cooked food, etc.  The only hitch was that you had to go to a Bible study on Saturday night and church service on Sunday morning.  I wanted to get off base and back to a sense of “normalcy” so I signed up.  The retreat was to be in a few weeks.

Advanced training came with more leadership responsibilities.  I was really getting this soldiering thing down!  Shortly after it started I ran into some of my platoon buddies from basic training in the dining hall.  They asked me what I was doing on Sunday morning and I told them nothing – which by this time, was true because you got Saturday afternoon and Sunday mornings free, really free, in advanced training.  They invited me to hear their drill sergeant preach at the chapel across the street from the barracks.  I told them I would be there as it sounded like a good chance to reconnect with those guys.  So Sunday morning came and I was up and dressed in uniform and headed across the street from my barracks to the chapel.  I walked in, no buddies.  What I had failed to realize was that they were living in different barracks further down the road and there was another chapel there – that’s where the drill sergeant was preaching.  But I was up, dressed and over at this chapel already so I decided to stay. 

From my recollection it was a non-denominational Protestant Bible service.   The chaplain was the one who played the guitar and led the songs.  There were maybe 10 of us in the chapel.  Then he started to preach from Isaiah.  I am ashamed that I don’t remember the specific passage or topic.  What I do remember is that everything the pastor said was hitting me like a sledgehammer.  Remember that my faith background was in the Roman Catholic Church.  In that church I very rarely actually listened to the sermons and in fact if the sermon (homily) went any longer than about ten minutes I started to get real antsy and then would complain in the car on the way home about the length of it!  But this pastor preached for about half an hour and I was hooked!  I had never really opened the Bible before but I did then and I was writing notes on what he was saying as fast as I could.  It was as though the pastor had written the sermon just for me.

I left that service kind of in a daze but challenged about God and if I even knew Him.  The next week I tried out the Bible.  I had a Catholic Bible in my barracks room because the only reading material you could have was either religious material or Army training material.  That next week, every time something was happening or going wrong I would randomly flip open the Bible and randomly rifle through the pages and randomly put my finger down on a verse.  Let me tell you.  It was amazing.  Every single time I did that my finger landed on some verse, or series of verses, that spoke directly to my current situation – and not just generally either.  These verses were like rifle shots aimed right at my situations!  It was incredible.  I knew then that there was something to relationship with God and reading his Word that I didn’t understand but that was really powerful.

The next Sunday I went back to the same church service.  It was more of the same with the stories from the Bible and the sermon really hitting home.  The following week I started getting up early, before lights went on in the barracks, to read a little bit of the Bible.  I would get up, read by flashlight a random selection from the Bible and then get ready for the day.  What happened that week was also amazing.  During the course of my days I would run into problems and, each time I did, the verses that I had read that morning out of the Bible came to my mind.  Sometimes I was able to recall them specifically, sometimes just generally, but they always fit the situation I was going through.  

By the third day I had this sense of imminent action.  I just felt like something was going to happen.  I didn’t know what and I didn’t know when but my head felt like it was in a whirlwind.  I became more and more convicted of my sin and brokenness so much that I didn’t think I could ever be loved.  It was a hard time but I recall also, as I mentioned above, the sense of imminent action.  Having grown up around the story of Jesus I knew that I needed Jesus but I wasn’t sure if he loved me or could love me and I wasn’t sure how to make sure of that. 

The weekend after this week was the weekend of the retreat.  I was really excited to see my duffel full of my portable CD player, CDs and civilian clothes come out of the locked storage cabinet.  I joined about 12 other soldiers in front of the chapel awaiting transportation.  When the driver showed up in a big fifteen passenger van I helped him load the bags while my buddies all climbed aboard the van.  The only seat left was the front seat next to the driver, an older gentleman by the name of Buddy.  I took it a little reluctantly because, although Buddy seemed nice, I had wanted to spend the 45 minute drive out to the retreat center with my buddies in the back. 

The drive out to the retreat center ended up being great.  Buddy was easy to talk to, treated me like a real person (something that didn’t always happen in basic training!).  I learned that his wife was from my home state and that they had been in ministry for his whole career.  In short we made a quick connection through talking but I really couldn’t wait to get to the retreat center, get into my swimsuit and relax and hang out before dinner. 

That afternoon I spent swimming in the lake, relaxing, reading, taking a walk in the woods around the retreat center, talking with my friends, playing card games and a variety of other things.  After dinner that evening we all reconvened in the retreat center dining room for the required Bible study.  I didn’t know what to expect as I had never been to a Bible study before.  I have since come to realize that it was less a Bible study and more of a mini-worship service.  We started with a few hymns, which I knew from my time in college singing in a Methodist church.  Buddy then got up and started his sermon.  Buddy taught us right from the Bible and illustrated the truths that we are all sinners and in need of salvation and that salvation only comes through faith in Jesus Christ.  I was blown away.  It was exactly the answer I was looking for!

At the end of the study/service Buddy asked that we all put our heads down and close our eyes.  He then said that if any of us wanted to know more about accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior than we should raise our hands.  My hand shot up like a rocket.  Buddy acknowledged our hands and said that if we had raised our hands than we should talk with a staff member after the study.  I was quivering with excitement.  I didn’t really know what had happened but I knew something had changed in my life forever.  As I spoke with Buddy after the service I got a better understanding of salvation and the working of Christ.  I prayed and prayed and my heart was filled with joy as I realized that I was fully loved and fully saved by God through Jesus Christ.  Since that moment my life has been one of continual growth in Christ Jesus and letting myself be molded by him.  

The following morning I was up early to get back over to the building where the church service was going to be held.  I was so on fire for the Lord and for getting to know him better and I wanted to share the news with everyone that Jesus is Lord!  The only people I could think of to share the news with, that weren’t immediately around me, were the girl I dated in college and her immediate family.  They were the only “Christians” I knew at the time.  I called the girl, again, early on a Sunday morning and told her, without much introduction that I had realized that I was a sinner and needed Jesus as Savior and that I had accepted his grace and forgiveness.  Needless to say she was shocked.  But the Lord had been working a mighty work in her life and she was able to receive my call with rejoicing.   As a short side note we ended up reconnecting after I got home from basic training and over a short period of time saw that God had a plan for us to be together.  Currently we have been married for over ten years and have two amazing little children.  God is indeed good to those who love and fear Him!

I grew around the church and knew about Jesus but accepting him and putting my faith and trust in his saving power changed my life.  I left all my old things behind and, though I still battle with sin every day, I know that Jesus loves me and died to save me from those sins.  When I repent of those sins and turn back to Jesus he is filled with joy.

I pray that if you are reading this that you would know and understand in your heart, not just your head, that Jesus is real and that he loves you and that he died for you too.  This story is all about God and bragging on Him.  He is good!  He took me, someone totally unlovable and a true sinner, and redeemed me – not because of anything I did but simply because of his unending, amazing love.  If you feel unloved and unlovable I am here as living proof to tell you that you are not.  God loves you and he wants you to know that love.  Talk to him.  Tell him honestly how you are doing.  Ask him for forgiveness.  The Bible says that the Lord draws near to us as we draw near to Him.  Trust in that.  He won’t let you down.