I started my freefall into the mystical universe 45 years ago when I was 17 years old. On campus at the University of Arizona for my freshman year as a mechanical engineering student, I was captivated by the street preachers and started attending daily Bible studies in the grassy area outside of the student union. Like a dry sponge I soaked up the radical teachings of Jesus about forsaking all to follow him and loving God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. I found in this radical house church group a satisfaction for the spiritual longing which had been growing inside of me, and the approval that I had missed out on growing up. It turned out to be not such a good combination. I fell deep.
I pretty much checked out from my family of origin, and two years of Bible school and a wife and three kids later, I took everybody to Kazakhstan to be missionaries in the Muslim world. The more extreme I became, the more approval I received from the church. My marriage was terrible. We hated each other. But the missionary work went well. I became a leader in an exploding church movement of Muslim background believers. I was a rock star. I loved my life (except for my marriage, which I dreamed of going back home and ending).
Things began to unravel in about my third year there. Turns out the missionary team leader was a complete fake. I saw darkness in the heart of this Christian missionary group that blew my mind and almost destroyed my life. Continual ruthless attempts at destroying the lives of anyone who could be seen as a rival or blow his cover were routine, with final count being up in the 40s. As an insider, I knew things. Things involving multiple occasions of child molestation that were covered up by the mission board and then reoccurred because no one knew about them. A teacher in the missionary kids’ school owning up to enjoying the company of small boys and having them spend the weekend with him. Things so dark that I didn’t know what was real anymore.
All of these “born again” people doing such horrible things. This was on top of my own ruthless dismantling of my understanding of the Christian faith to remove everything that I considered cultural, man-made trappings, in order to give birth to a pure spiritual movement, not one corrupted with American Christianity. It seemed that so much of what I believed was based on a cultural understanding of ancient writings that didn’t really make sense in this nomadic culture of Kazakh Muslims. My faith was coming apart like an orbiting planet with the gravity turned off.
After news of the schoolteacher was finally made public, I knew it was time to get my family out of there. My days as a Christian rock star were over for good. The teacher had been my son’s teacher. To my knowledge he had not been abused sexually, but his sensitive spirit had been damaged. After an agonizing and desperate attempt to save my marriage, I realized it was over and filed for divorce. Six months later my son committed suicide. I was alone and in darkness. With strength that came from an unknown source, I parented my two daughters and kept going to work. The only support I got from church was an occasional beating and warning that I should come back to God before something worse happens.
I walked away. I was free falling through darkness. On a spacewalk without a space suit or a lifeline, feeling only the inhuman, icy cold and my overpowering grief. I held onto one thing. The existence of God, and that he/she must be good. After three years of survival and being everything I could be for my daughters, one day I realized that my son was okay, and that it was time to start living again. And to re-create my understanding of what is real. I took up yoga and meditation, and began spending hours in solitude, sitting on the floor in deep contemplation. One by one, deeply entrenched spiritual and psychological constructs began to gently come apart. And in their place new understandings were born.
While in general avoiding Christians like the plague, I kept my eyes open for a spiritual community. I missed it. I missed my friends and all the social activities. I found a cool church over 10 years ago that seemed to get it, but the pastors appeared to be so wounded that they had no energy to give and the church didn’t survive. So as far as spiritual community, I’ve been alone since 1997. I stumbled onto Sojourn on one of my increasingly infrequent Internet searches for “emergent” or “progressive” churches. It became clear to me that they “got it”.
With a still-forming understanding of God and the meaning of my life, a few things have become a little clearer. I believe now in maximizing my experience in this life, and finding God in her/his creation all around me. Some of the things that help me do that are nurturing the bonds of love in my family connections, deep friendships and vulnerable communication, realizing deep and lasting change in my own life and continual growth, absorbing natural beauty and the arts with all my senses, and surfing.
I’m not the kind of person that enjoys sitting in chairs, so you may not see me too much on Sundays, but I’ll be around at the social and the service activities. I’ve gotten to know Mathew Mitchell pretty well – we have lunch together regularly. We fly to the outer reaches of the atmosphere together. I find our lunch conversations exhilarating. I’m looking forward to getting to know others of you.
About the Author
Steve is the author of “Why Do They Hate Us? Making Peace with the Muslim World.” He served as a missionary in Kazakhstan from 1992 – 1997. In 2015 he transitioned out of his management career in aircraft design engineering into a full-time peacemaking role.
He founded the American-Muslim Friendship Foundation, which provides Muslim awareness workshops to churches and civic groups and facilitates friendship dinners and mosque visits.