The following is a selection of different ‘life stories’ of how people have become Christians.
Sylvia Sands (nee Smith)
As a child and young teenager, I cycled past the “Tin Tabernacle” every day on my journey to muck out, feed, water and ride the horses belonging to Whittle’s Riding Stables at the top of South Road. It was a building that hardly registered on my reality map; until, that is, the bright Easter Sunday when despairing of my several years of wild rebellion and reputation as “the black sheep” of the family, I wandered in to the Evening Service. I describe what happened on that night in my first book, The Battle of Love:
“To this day I cannot remember what the Minister said. I became aware of a Presence I could only assume was Christ. I saw nothing, heard no voice; sat there, indeed, with my eyes tight shut, my hands clenched, hardly daring to breathe. I was overwhelmed by Love. I have no idea what Thomas felt when Jesus showed him his wounded hands and feet and side – the marks of man’s hatred and God’s love – but I can only assume it was something akin to my experience in that small and humble Church. A personal encounter that was totally overwhelming.”
That experience happened over forty years ago – but it was the first step of my Faith Journey; a journey which was to lead to seven years of working with gangs and street girls, mainly in London; and to nearly thirty years of Peace Work and caring for marginalised people, (specially those with AIDS) in Belfast.
Part of my vocation has also been writing (two books published and I have just finished my third), and regular religious broadcasting for seventeen years with BBC Radio Ulster; BBC Radio 2; BBC Radio 4; BBC World Service and RTE Radio in Dublin.
The “Tin Tabernacle” was an odd, funny, bizarre building, but for me it was where I first met Jesus of the dusty feet … and therefore remains in my memory as a truly sacred place.
Gill Rokins (nee Connolly)
I was born in 1960 into a Christian family, two brothers, Peter John and Ivor awaited my arrival and two more followed shortly after, Kevin and Paul. Being the only daughter had benefits but in my early years I seemed to be very outnumbered by the boys all the time.
Family life seemed to centre around the church (Horsell Evangelical Church). Some of my earliest memories are of Sunday School teas and playing in the church garden. I was always very happy to go to Sunday School and never really thought that it was not the normal thing to do. I think one of the proudest moments I can remember was receiving a Bible and a little red bag to carry it in, for reciting the 23rd Psalm. I looked forward to the prize giving each year, knowing that there would always be one for me, because we never seemed to miss a week. I loved singing the choruses; “Marching beneath the banner” was my favourite, probably because we would sing very loudly and get a bit carried away. I would sing lots of these choruses but never really understanding what I was singing.
I was very happy with my life until it came time to grow up and go to secondary school. I had to make all new friends, as I was not going to the local school. It was also the first time having an older brother helped, as Ivor was only a school year ahead and the girls in his class looked after me. I made friends quickly and for the first time I realised that people do live very different lives to the way in which I was brought up and that I had choices. It was also the first time I was embarrassed to tell people that my Dad was an evangelist, I would just say that he sold books, which was true!
In the summer holidays each year a group of young people from the church would pack up their camping gear and go to Pioneer Camp. This was a camp for kids aged 11 to 18. I loved camp and would look forward to it each year. I made lots of friends with whom I still keep in contact. I think it was just the games and the freedom (if you can have freedom with your brothers on the same camp) not the Bible Time which drew me back each year.
When I was 14 my eldest brother, Peter John, died suddenly, this really shook me. I could not understand why he at only 18, just about to start his first job, had to die. I was upset that people seemed to be saying that it was okay because he was in heaven and that we would see him again when Jesus returned or when it was our time to die. I had sat in church services for as long as I could remember and had heard that Jesus had died for me at Calvary’s cross so that I could go to heaven to meet Him and that all I had to do was to ask for His forgiveness for the sin in my life. I was troubled because I knew I had never done this and what if I was next to die? I knew I was not right with God but I was still not ready to make a commitment to God.
At school I seemed to get pulled further and further away from the life I knew was right but I was happy, or so I thought. The following year at Pioneer Camp, I was sitting at the back of the big marquee in the Bible Time meeting, not really listening to what the leader Pastor Jim Jones was saying, I was day dreaming, when it suddenly occurred to me that I could die at any time and I also needed a Saviour. I started listening again just as Jim was saying that we could ask Jesus into our lives at any time.
He then went on to pray, as he said the words out loud, I said them quietly to God asking Him to forgive my sins and to come into my life. After Jim had finished praying he said that if we had prayed the prayer with him we should tell our tent leaders. As I walked out of the marquee my friend Pam joined me and asked where I was going. I told her that I had to see our tent leader because I had just asked Jesus into my life. Pam smiled and said that she had done the same. We went together to our tent leader who sat us down and explained what we had done and how this should change our lives. We had a prayer time together. For the first time I felt at peace with God.
When I was 20, I met the man God had chosen for me, John! John was working with one of the members of the church, Owen, who had witnessed to him many times. John realised his own need of the Saviour and turned to God. He started to attend our church with Owen and the youth group, and the rest is history! We were married in 1983 in the church hall as the church (the Tin Tabernacle) was about to be pulled down. Seveteen years later we have two daughters, Leah and Charis, and John is outnumbered!
My Christian life has had its ups and downs, times when I have found it hard to keep close to God but God has a plan for each of our lives. Sometimes it is hard to understand why certain things happen. My brother Paul is now quite ill with a kidney disorder after spending time in the Gulf War. With Christ on board, knowing that He knows; He loves; He understands and He cares because of the agony He suffered at Gethsemane and Calvary, I just have to remind myself: “Be still and know that I am God.”
I doubt if one should dare to be very precise as to when God by His Holy Spirit begins a work of grace in a believer, nor when preparations for new initiatives are set in motion. I could pinpoint a particular spiritual crisis in the Summer of 1956.
From a young age I had attended Sunday School and a Church of England church but later also Congregational and Free churches but without a real sense of personal accountability to God. A tract from a friend, entitled, “I would like to believe, but” caused me to think particularly about this issue which led me to visit the church whose minister was the author of the tract.
Conviction of sin sprang from the consecutive preaching of the Gospel (from Revelation), the testimonies of converted young people and of course the work of the Holy Spirit.
Confession of Christ as Saviour was quickly followed by a number of dramatic changes in my life. I met Elvina, who became my wife, when we had both been invited to teach in a Sunday School. In those days we had two full hour Sunday schools, i.e. morning and afternoon in addition to a young peoples’ service in the afternoon. I was selected as a Management Trainee on British Railways, which after our marriage led to our re-location in Woking and Horsell Evangelical Church. Through our association with this church we were led to our first home.
Apart from being in various positions of oversight in the Church over a period of 40 years, I served on a number of missionary societies. My first acquaintance with the world of Islam was over 50 years ago when serving in the army in Egypt. Shortly after my conversion I became aware of the spiritual issues involved and the work of the Red Sea Mission Team, formed in 1956. It was not until 1974, following an “urgent” visit to Algeria, that the Lord specially challenged me about becoming personally involved. As a consequence I served on the London Council of the North Africa Mission, the committee of the Fellowship of Faith for the Muslims prayer ministries and finally developing a training course to equip ordinary people to engage in friendship evangelism among Muslim neighbours and people they might meet or work with.
One can only look back and marvel at the Lord’s preparation and leading in all these matters over many years.