About a month before my 21st birthday, on Sept. 19, 1971, I felt drawn to a television broadcast of a Billy Graham Crusade. I watched it three nights in a row, and on the second or third night the lights came on for me. I thought, That man’s telling the truth. That’s what I’m going to give my life to.
After the lights came on–and that’s the only way I know to describe it–I went down into my room in the basement of the house where I lived with my mother. I got on my knees and said, “God, if You’ll show me who You are, I’ll do anything You ask.” That was my confession prayer.
My childhood had been rocky. My mother was a believer who had married a non-believing man. My father was an alcoholic and proved to be unfaithful and abusive. My earliest mental images are of seeing my mother being beaten up by my dad.
When I was about 7, my mother couldn’t take it anymore. She divorced him and we went to live with her mother in Queens, N.Y. At that time, Mom started taking me to my grandmother’s church.
When I was about 12, I went forward after our pastor preached a sermon. I remember thinking, If I go forward, it will make my mother cry, and that will be really cool. So, I went forward and said a prayer. I went through the pastor’s baptism class, got baptized and became a member of the church. But I am convinced that I was as lost as a duck in the desert.
When I got into high school and college, the drug scene had hit, and I jumped right in. I was immoral. I dabbled in Eastern religion and philosophy and a bit of the occult. I wanted truth, but more than truth I wanted power. Everything came to a head for me one day when I went into a store and tried to shoplift a music album. I had money in my pocket, but I wanted the rush of trying to get away with something. Albums were large, not small like CDs. I tried to stuff that thing under my coat, and I got caught.
Because I had a clean record, the store security let me go, but they told me that if I went anywhere near that store again, I would be arrested. That scared me into sober thinking. The shoplifting incident, along with a few other events, made me realize that something must be seriously skewed, or otherwise I wouldn’t be in this situation.
A few months later, I watched the Billy Graham Crusade and heard the Gospel. It wasn’t what Mr. Graham preached that got to me. It was more the realization that this was the truth, in contrast to all the stuff I had been looking into.
Right after watching the telecast, I called a man who had been a spiritual mentor to our family. I said, “I think I’m being called to be a minister.” He said, “I’ll be right there.” He left his house, drove the 20 minutes to my house and sat down with me. I asked him about all those books I had been reading. He told me to start reading the Bible.
I asked, “How do I know if I’m being called?”
He said that only God can call you into the ministry, but he added, “You know because you can’t rest doing anything else.” As soon as he said that, my question was answered.
I had been an art major at Queen’s College in New York, but after my conversion, I was so motivated that I shifted to Religious Studies and graduated with honors. Later, I went to Denver Seminary for a Master’s of Divinity. Recently, I earned a doctorate at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis.
I knew I was going into the ministry, and I thought I should probably have a spouse, so I started dating Christian girls. Frankly, I think I scared them all away, so I prayed, “Lord, don’t let me get serious with another woman unless she is the one.” Meanwhile, I had started leading our church’s youth group, teaching a college class and learning to evangelize. Within three months of that prayer, I went to work at a Christian camp for physically handicapped children, and that’s where I met my future wife, Cheri.
Our first pastorate was a church in Tucson, Ariz. After serving there for nine years, Cheri and I felt led to come back to New York. We had four children at the time and wanted them to be near their grandparents, so we settled in Oneonta, Cheri’s hometown and the place where our fifth child was born. We started attending Cheri’s home church.
One Sunday, the associate pastor resigned, and the pastor asked me to take that position on an interim basis.
After three years I accepted a call to serve Union Center Christian Church, in Endicott. There were 98 people in worship on my first Sunday. The church had been through some serious division, and many Christians were wounded and had hurt one another. I started teaching basic Christianity, dealing with such topics as, What does it mean to walk in the Spirit? What does it mean to be free? What does it mean to forgive? How do we have victory over bondage? Soon God started adding to our number. We’ve now grown to about 1,000 in Sunday attendance.
I have been able to share things from my past with my congregation so they can see God’s healing and forgiveness in my life. I have people in my church, as all pastors do, who hide their dirt, or they feel trapped and hopeless and are not getting anywhere in their faith walk. The only way to be effective with them is to help them see what God can do in a person’s heart and life.
People sometimes think that preachers are born into a sinless environment, but many of us have lived right down in the same trenches they live in. The power of the Gospel can change whatever life situation a person is dealing with. It did for me.