Growing up in rural Michigan in the 1940’s and 50’s, my family wasn’t exactly churchy. And very few men in the community were churchy at all. There was something slightly unmanly about it in those days…. (And today?)

But my mother made sure my sisters and I went to Sunday School, became familiar with the Bible stories, which, of course, we took as the literal truth. No questions about that.

The whole thing became much more serious, however, when my mother got deathly ill. The minister, Reverend Stein, made regular visits to our house, and some heavy praying started to happen. About a year into her illness, my father confided to me that Mom (now in Ford Hospital in Detroit) wasn’t going to come home again.

The praying intensified. Lives were surrendered to God in exchange for my mother’s restored heath, and lo and behold if she didn’t recover. Almost overnight. Never fully, but enough to live a number of more years, even to have another child, my brother, Jon.

College is where one’s childhood faith is often surrendered, and my experience was no exception — even though I attended a Christian school (Alma College) and even though I started out as a pre-seminary student, intending to keep that promise I had made as a kid. But I didn’t really want to be a minister. It would be too cooped up, it felt like. Too much image to uphold. Too tame.

I remember the exact moment I bolted. I was on the basketball team, on our way home from a road trip to Ohio. I was only a freshman, but was getting a good bit of playing time, had scored six points at Youngstown State.  I was feeling good about that, but not so good about a lot of other things.  We’d driven down there in cars, and the captain of the team drove the car I was assigned to. Socially, psychically, I didn’t flow well with my teammates. We were appreciative of each other’s basketball skills, but off the court they were a bunch of rowdies, drinkers, and word had gotten around that I was a theology major. Pre-thee, it was called, more often than not with a hint of derision, a pretend lisp.

It was mighty tight (and often unfriendly) quarters all the way to Youngstown and back, six of us crowded in a small car. As a freshman, I had been delegated to the middle back seat. Crossing the state line into Ohio, only my second time out of the state of Michigan, I had made the mistake of asking the guy sitting next to me, probably the biggest macho on the team, if he was “comfy?” I never heard the end of it.

There was another way I wasn’t fitting in, as well. Alma College was expensive, and to be able to afford it, I lived with my grandmother and great aunt in Perrinton, nineteen miles to the south of Alma.  While all the others were hanging out together in dorms and frat houses, I was sitting in the living room with Gram and Aunt Em watching “Bonanza” and “Sing along with Mitch,” or in the kitchen writing needy love letters to my high school girlfriend back home. Then, suddenly, to make matters much worse, she broke up with me.

Already isolated and now broken hearted revealed a big hole in me that I wasn’t equal to.   Week-ends were nightmarishly long. Grandma and Em were caring, attentive, (how deeply the memory of them still moves me), but their generosity seemed to bring only greater awareness of my not fitting in, now intensified by an unrelenting heartache. The only relief available was to shut myself in my room and cry under the pillow.

At school I sat alone between classes in the student union. Everybody was locked into their various little groups, and off-campus students were simply outside of the social loops. After basketball practice, as the other players jovially headed off to eat dinner together in the commons, I drove my ’55 Ford down the country roads, through a bevy of darkish Mennonite farms, “home” to Grandma’s, “home” to Perrinton, this dying little town without so much as a grocery store.

My only other small relief was preparing for my classes. Not that I related to what I was studying. Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, etc. were way over my head. New Testament Greek was a matter of meaningless memorization. In Philosophy of Religion, I had no idea what anyone was talking about. If I didn’t fit in on the basketball team, it was worse among the pre-thees, who were the campus intellectuals. My call to religion had been born out my emotions — had little to do with theology, I was discovering.

A minute was a day, a day was a month. I saw no way out of the dark hole I had fallen into. No way out of this unadorned me. Nobody I could talk to about it. Nowhere I could go without taking me along — certainly not a long basketball road trip to Ohio in a crowded car. I might as well have been in hell. Maybe earth is hell, I remember thinking at the time.

As we neared Alma that Sunday evening, I asked the team captain if he would go slightly out of his way to drop me off at my grandmother’s. It would have entailed a small route deviation, at most five minutes extra for them. He wouldn’t do it, said that, as it was, they could barely make it back to campus before the dining hall closed.

Maybe so, but it hit me like an exclamation point of how not a part of the team — any team –I really was.

. . .

At the intersection of the of US 27 and M 57, there was a public phone from which I called Gram to have her pick me up. No answer — unusual since she and Aunt Emma almost never left the house. I tried a few more times with the same result, so I decided to just walk home.

I was maybe a mile down the road when a car full of Mennonites stopped to offer me a ride. Their friendly faces were like a drink of water to a man dying of thirst, especially the smiling eyes of a nice looking woman in a Mennonite bonnet, as I scrunched in next to her. Soon she was asking me about myself, where I was from, all that, and, finally, if I had Jesus in my life.

I could see it coming, but the question surprised me anyway. I said that I once thought so, but didn’t know anymore. To that, all of their eyes (even the driver’s eyes in the rear view mirror) fell on me with a warm concern, like a invitation, like a pathway into another world. For a moment I imagined I could disappear through those eyes out of my world into their world and never return.

Part of me so much just wanted to go.  And part of me, damn it, knew I wouldn’t belong there either. When they stopped at the Perrinton road to let me out, the bonneted woman asked me if they could pray for me. “Do you mean right now?” I asked. “Yes,” they nodded to me, all six faces at once. I paused a few seconds, and though it seemed as if it was someone else’s voice speaking through me, I said, “No, but you can pray for me after I’m gone if you’d like.”

Walking from their car (they didn’t drive away right off) the remaining quarter-mile to Grandma’s, my scorching isolation pressed on me as never before.  But at the same time, I can’t explain why, I knew that the minister thing was at long last sliding off my back.

Gram and Aunt Em were both home, I was surprised to see. They’d been in the house all afternoon, waiting for my call.

Next day, in my Philosophy of Religion class, we were just starting the chapter on Agnosticism. It was the first discussion that I could intelligently step into, and I did just that.


















  1. jamesralston@hotmail.com

    Debbie. I just figured out that this Debbie Thompson is you, the former Debbie Adams. Hey, thanks for responding to my blogs. Yes. I wondered how that would be interpreted. And the way you describe it is kind of how I think. If they had answered (Somehow it never rang in), that so memorable experience and life changing moment wouldn’t have happened. Seems like the “universe” was up to something here. I kind of like the irony that as I declare myself an agnostic I am having this unexplainable experience.

    1. Debbie Adam Thompson

      Yes, I agree. I love that aspect of your experience. It’s funny the way life-changing incidents come about, never the way we imagine they might happen.

  2. Debbie Thompson

    Jim, I was with you in that dark hole of isolation as I read this. Very painful. I went through my own period of isolation the year of 7th grade. For six years of elementary school, I had been the queen bee, always the teacher’s pet, school bus patrolman, star of the 6th grade play (a huge deal), and the center of attention always. For 7th grade, at the age of 11, we were thrown into the huge high school in town. I felt invisible in the halls filled with juniors and seniors. It was traumatic enough just finding my next class, never mind the fact that I hated my classes and teachers. Not only that, kids in my classes that had come from other schools were smarter than I was, shattering my belief that no one could ever be as smart as I was. I was so intimidated. I hoped I could just curl up into a ball and die.
    At this same time, my mother was hospitalized for a few weeks, and when she came home she seemed different, and she and my dad started having trouble. Besides losing my wonderful school life from before, now my perfect, secure home life was also falling apart. My only comfort was locking myself away in my room and listening to my little transistor radio every night, in hopes of hearing a Beatles song. Mostly I heard “Goldfinger” and “The Boy from New York City.” I don’t remember ever doing homework. I was too disjointed to concentrate, too miserable and sinking fast, with no one to talk to. I wouldn’t have known what to say anyway; I didn’t understand it.
    About what you wrote, I’m intrigued about the part that your grandmother and aunt had been home yet had not answered the phone when you tried calling. Do you believe that some forces were in motion so that you were destined to meet up with the Mennonite family? I do believe strange things like this happen.
    Thanks for sharing,


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