Before going to Gordon, I used to believe that all you needed to be a Christian was to go to church and be really involved, but now I know that there is a deeper more meaningful connection in your heart that God wants you to have with Him. It has been four years since I first came to Gordon as a full time freshman student and I thought I was ready to conquer the world. I felt prepared for this new learning environment. Man, was I wrong! I was raised in a great community. I went to a Catholic church from the time I was 5 until about age 13. My dad’s side of the family is Catholic and my mom’s Protestant. Neither of them went to church, but my Grandma, my Dad’s mom, wanted me to have my first communion and learn about the church. So, I went to Sunday school, which was on Monday nights and we went to Mass on Sunday. The church was large and I didn’t get to know many people. In Sunday school, I saw kids from my classes at school and I enjoyed going and learning about the importance of why this and that happens in a service and the sacraments. When I was 12 my mother’s mom took me to her small protestant church and I just fell in love with it. It had only 85 people and they welcomed me with open arms. So, I went to both Catholic “Monday” school and Protestant Sunday school. There wasn’t too big of a difference in my eyes, only that one community was small and wanted to know me. So, I did both for two years. When I turned 13, my Sunday school at the protestant church was getting ready for confirmation. I always thought that I could do both Catholic school and Protestant school, but I knew that I had to make a decision. So, I chose the Protestant church. My parents were really supportive. They stopped going to church since I just went to Monday school. My Dad’s mom was a little confused, but as long as I was going to church it went over fine. My little church is the best family a girl could ask for. I have sung in the choir, taught Sunday school, helped out at numerous events, name it, I did it. This church helped shape who I am today, gave me plenty of leadership opportunities and has supported many of my choices, especially my choice to go to Gordon. Although, some parts of my family weren’t so happy. When I was accepted they were like “You want to go there? Just make sure they don’t brainwash you and watch out for the born-agains who will ask you if you’ve been saved.” Don’t get me wrong I love my whole family, but this was crazy. I brushed off what they said and knew Gordon wasn’t really like that. Yes, there are people who are really intense about it, and others whose parent’s made them come, but there is a large in the middle where people are down to earth, listen, and respect your views and beliefs.
So, here I was on the first day of moving in, the van packed to its full capacity and me standing there looking over campus on the Hill thinking, yes I am finally here. About two weeks after classes started, I was so lost and confused, not about where my classes were, but I felt like I didn’t belong here. Everyone seemed like a “better” Christian than I was. At Gordon, people prayed in so many different ways I wasn’t used to and a lot of them had been talking about when they were “saved by Christ.” I had no idea what that meant, I had heard some family members warning me about it but I had no clue what it meant. During my Old Testament class, we were learning how people prayed to God and some prayed to Jesus. I was so lost. I went up the Professor, he was a pretty cool guy and seemed trust worthy enough for me to ask this could be dangerous question. I said that I usually say God, instead of Christ when I prayed. I didn’t really understand the whole: “I was saved by Christ” thing. He tried to explain it to me and then he asked me if I was a Christian. At this point, I had no idea. I was so overwhelmed by everything I wasn’t so sure anymore. I was scared, worried and confused, so I just said maybe. Had all my years of Sunday school and being with my church family even mattered? I was so upset, so I asked the one person who might know the answer, the one person who could understand, my RA Alden. She was the coolest person in the world to me and I knew I could trust her with asking these tough questions. She understood what I was going though and told me that sometimes especially at first it gets overwhelming here, at Gordon with the God stuff. She told me not to compare myself spiritually with other people, and there were no magic words. I felt a lot better and at least back to normal, but I still had this odd feeling, so I investigated further. I got books on faith out of the library, asked my roommate all these questions about why being “saved” is necessary/important. Some books were rather frightening saying that if I didn’t I would not be allowed into Heaven. Others didn’t really mention it at all. It wasn’t until my third month at Gordon, that someone answered my questions in a way I could finally understand.
Alden’s roommate Jessica and I were hanging out with the Basement Boys (they were called that because they were freshman and all lived in the basement) together on the weekends and we formed a bond over the discussions of boys we liked or movies we watched. She invited me to the church she goes to called; Calvary Baptist and I went with her throughout my Gordon career. One night Alden was at a sleepover, so Jessica invited me to stay with her since we had to get up for church anyways. We began talking about our so-called love lives of middle school and high school. I felt comfortable talking to her; she wasn’t judgmental and she was genuinely listening to what I had to say. The subject of God and faith came up. I told her all about how I was confused and freaking out about the whole “saved” thing. She thought for a second and then explained to me: “‘saved’ means that you let Jesus into your heart. He gave us the gift of salvation by dying on the cross. God wants us to be saved. He wants us to have a personal relationship with Him. It’s a personal decision to live the life Jesus’ wants us to live, to trust in Him, and do what is good in His eyes.” “That’s what is making me worried,” I said. “I don’t know if I can live the life the way Jesus wants when I go home for breaks and summer. I think that if I’m not at Gordon, I would not be able to be as good as Jesus wants me to be.” I was nervous because my home friends like to get together and drink. Not a big party or anything, just the four of us girls, having a sleepover. I was worried that if I did this over the summer or on breaks I would be hurting God. Jessica said not to worry. Just be smart and if you feel uncomfortable then you shouldn’t do it, but if you do make mistakes, and you will, God is a forgiving god and if you ask for help and forgiveness, then you will be ok. Not all the time, of course, like if you’re getting drunk all the time, but be reasonable and think before you do anything, “What would God say?” She also said, “If your friends make you do something that you don’t want to do and do not understand when you say, “God wouldn’t like it” then you need new friends.” I was quiet for a good solid 10 minutes. Billions of thoughts were going through my head. She turned and gave me a cuddle, “What are you thinking?” She asked. “I’m not sure. Everything.” I said. “You know. She said. You don’t have to stand in front of a whole church to be saved, you can pray it by yourself, or we can do it together.” I thought about it for another five minutes. I knew deep in my heart I was ready and even though I was worried about messing up in God’s eyes, He knows everything about me already, He knows what I fear and He understands. “Ok, I think I’m ready, but can we do it together?” I asked. “Sure.” So, at midnight on November 11, 2007, I snuggled up close to her, she wrapped her arms around me in a sisterly way and we prayed. I know many people from my CCC class (its like a freshman seminar) would not believe that I felt something when I was praying. They don’t like it when I say something about “the feeling.” But I did feel something. I was nervous, but happy. My heart felt light and relieved. It was as if my heart knew all along and waited for a long time to have Jesus come in. After that night I didn’t drastically change or anything, but I felt different. I finally understood why God wanted me to come to Gordon and why He places certain people in your life. I still make mistakes and mess up sometimes, but having that deeper connection with God I know that I can get through anything.
I wrote the above part of my testimony 4 years ago and reading it now, makes me want to cry at the basic faith I had back then. Unfortunately, during my senior year I went off the deep end and rebelled. I started smoking and staying out late, skipped class, slept all day, and stayed up all night. I stopped going to chapel and barely went to church. I graduated that May with a heart of hurt and stone. That summer I continued smoking and it was slowly starting to make me sick. I stopped talking to God or going to church. I felt like my protestant church beliefs were so different from mine now. Who was right? Did it matter? In August, I decided to try to find a new church. I remembered a young guy named Andy came to one of my youth ministry classes and talked about Hope. When I asked where the church was and he said Newburyport, I was really surprised. A Gordon-like church, near home?! So, I stopped in and got involved right away. I met Andy and became a leader with the youth group, I got to lead 6th grade. The first day I was really scared. I wasn’t that much older than they were and who knows if I would be accepted. I wandered around saying hi and watching people play ping-pong; I wandered into the Loft where I saw a group of girls’ loudly giggly playing foosball. I joined in and from there it was all God. I had wandered into a group of girls called the Chain gang. I don’t know why they call themselves that but they are amazing fun loving young women and being friends with them has reminded me of that need to just be a kid some times but still be older to help, mentor, and be there for them. The next week was my birthday. I didn’t tell anyone but Facebook did. Those lovely girls brought me cupcakes, balloons, and this 2 by 4 piece of wood that said, “Happy Birthday Keri! We love you!” With all their names on the back of it. I was so surprised! No one has ever done anything that nice for me and have only known me a week. Another week I joined Nancy’s bible study. Nancy was one of the girl’s moms, but all the girls call her Mama Snyder. The group of ladies is so wonderful and even though I am young I still learn an awful lot from them.
Things were looking up but I had not stopped my smoking habits and because of my depression and anxiety it only got worse. Soon, the kids could tell something was off and before I knew it I was breaking down. Andy talked to me and said that I needed to get fed too and that how could I pour into my girls and kids when my cup was so dry and empty. I cried hard. This was it; youth group was all I had, my last thing. I knew Andy was right and I knew I had to step down to take a break, but it still hurt and I was worried about my kids. I thank God that they understood I needed to take a break and that they still love me. Nancy and I decided to do a class together and we needed a mentor so we decided to be each other’s. Mama Snyder has been such a blessing and has helped me realize that God stills loves me and always has but it is my choice to want to live the life that He wants for me. It has not been easy, especially when my anxiety and depression is really high. Since I have turned my back on Him, have been through the ringer and back, I would like to recommit my life to Christ tonight. You ladies have shown me strength, love, and hope in the ways you pray for one another, call, check in, keep tabs on each other, and even though you’ve gone through the ringer many times you still hang on to God, you still make an effort to share, pray, and come to church. I admire that. I am ready to get back on the road with you all tonight. I want to walk the way Jesus did and I want my life to be so that when someone notices they see Christ instead of me.
I am happy to report that I’ve quit smoking and on the road to recovery and sobriety even though it’s hard some days I get strength from God’s word and reassurance from other believers. There is more to my life story than just this little glimpse and more struggles that may be more relevant to you so soon I hope to share more, but for now I wanted to share this and thank you all for your part in me coming back to the Lord.
Blessings and love in Christ,
Keri-Jean Pennell March 28th, 2012