Return to Valley Forge

Jesus wants to rewrite the end of your story.”

My pastor spoke about the woman at the well this past Sunday, and he explained how this sinful woman had an intimate and life changing encounter with Jesus Christ, which in turn changed her life story.  When I heard him say, “Jesus wants to rewrite the end of your story”, I couldn’t help but shed a few more tears over the events of this past week.  Happy tears.

As far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to serve the Lord.  From birth, I had knowledge deep within my soul that I was set apart for ministry.

I enrolled in Bible College at Valley Forge Christian College in the fall of 1985.  My dream was to marry a pastor and serve the Lord using our gifts and talents to reach a lost world with the message of the Gospel.

I had broken off an engagement with a non-Christian young man and left the Theatre Dept of Syracuse University so that I could give myself and my life to full time ministry.  I did well in my classes, and was very involved in various ministries at the school.

The highlight of my time at Bible College was travelling with the drama group for the school.  I knew without a doubt that Christian Theatre was my calling.

In the summer before my senior year, I married a man who was studying to be a pastor.  I cast him in a lead role of a show that I was directing on campus during my Junior year.  He looked just like Tom Hanks, was funny, a good actor, and came from a very nice Christian family.  He reminded me so much of my dad.

We dated for a short time, and very suddenly, decided to get married that summer.  The deal was that since I had only one year left of school and he had two, I would go to school and he would work the coming year.  Then I would work after I graduated, and he would go to school.  After that, we would go into full time ministry together.  We were in agreement of this dream together.

As soon as we were married, things changed.  Gone was the charming Bible College student that I had married.  He immediately became withdrawn, and I prayed to God to help us, hoping his mood would pass.  He started smoking and drinking heavily, and announced that he had no intention of going back to Bible College and becoming a pastor.  In one chilling encounter, he told me that he would make sure I didn’t go into ministry either.  I had no idea at that time what he meant.

I tried to keep up my studies because I loved my classes.  I also worked two jobs.  I stayed as involved as I could in my voice classes as my first love had always been singing.  I knew my senior recital was coming, and I was so excited as I had just been awarded 1st place vocal scholarship.

I really believed that God could change my husband’s heart, and that this was only a test.

Then, suddenly, my life crashed in around me.

Right before my finals and my senior recital, my husband of only seven months announced that he had been unfaithful to me with an acquaintance of ours.  I was devastated.  It was the worst pain I have ever experienced in my life.  One of the most painful aspects was that he said he was not sorry.  He did it on purpose, and he wanted to ruin everything I loved.

My heart and my spirit were absolutely crushed. Not only was I mourning the hurt and betrayal of a man who pledged his love for me, I also mourned the death of a dream.  He was right, I would never go into ministry.

I cannot go into the details surrounding this event, or some of the events that happened afterwards, but suffice it to say that I was walking around in a half dazed state of being.  I really just wanted to die.

Somehow, by the grace of God, I made it through my voice recital, but the joy of that event was completely stolen.  I managed to get through my finals with decent grades- again; the hand of God was with me and cleared my mind to take those tests.

Then came my graduation day, the day I had looked forward to for four years.

I did not have the heart to tell my parents what had happened.  They had helped put me through school and I didn’t want to ruin it for them.  The day was filled with pain and pretence and it was as if I were in a painful fog that I couldn’t escape.  I smiled for pictures and pretended to celebrate, but I hated my graduation day.  I threw all my graduation pictures away.

When I opened my leather diploma cover, it was empty.  When I went to inquire at the school, they said I had an unpaid school bill of several thousand dollars.  My husband was supposed to have paid that.  He promised.  We were both putting money away and he said he would pay it at the end of the school year.

Until it was paid, I could not have my diploma.

Adding insult to injury, he laughed at me when I asked where our money was.  He bought a car for himself instead of paying my school bill.  He never did let me drive it.

By the end of October following graduation, our marriage dissolved into a potentially dangerous situation, and my dad came with a moving van to get me and bring me home.

Back in Syracuse, I lived by myself and worked two, and at times, three jobs for several years of my life to pay off my school bill.  When I finally made the last payment, I asked for my diploma, but please put my maiden name on it.  Now divorced, I did not want a memory of that name.

This is where communication with the school broke down, and I just couldn’t fight anymore.  I was no longer living as a Christian, and I certainly wasn’t going into any type of ministry, so what did I need my diploma for?

Nothing.

For seven years, I lived in darkness, away from God and hating my life.  This is my life now.  I’m chained to sin.  What I had at Bible College was a nice dream, but that’s all it was.  It was silly of me to think that I would ever be useful in the Kingdom of God.  No Godly man would ever want me now.  There is no hope.

But then…

One night while I was alone in my bedroom, the presence of love filled my room.  I knew it was Jesus.  I had not felt the presence of God in a long time.

“But Lord, you shouldn’t be here.  Please go…don’t you know what I am?  Maybe once I could have served you, maybe once I could have loved you, when I was in Bible College, when I was a good girl, but not now.  Not after all I’ve done…”  I actually said these words out loud.

Instead of leaving, the presence of love grew stronger, and it is the only time in my life when I actually felt Jesus hold me.

And not in an audible voice, but in my heart I heard the words, “You are my beautiful bride.”

I thought, “How can you still call me that?”

“You are my beautiful bride.”

I fell on my knees, and in a pool of tears, told the Lord, “If you take me back, I promise I will use my gifts and talents to tell others that there is always a way back home.”

And that is exactly what I have done.

Now, years later, I have a wonderful, Godly husband who I married on Christmas Eve, 1999.  We named our first born child, a beautiful daughter, Mercy.  We also have a son named Christopher.  We started a ministry called In-Step Ministries, and yes, I travel around the country with the message of God’s redeeming love in a drama called “The Story of Gomer” from the book of Hosea.

Several weeks ago, I sent in a funny story to Valley Forge Christian College from my freshman year, and about what I do now.

The director of Alumni relations responded that she might like to do a little story on me, and would I be all right with a phone interview?

Rich and I had a getaway weekend planned months before at a place only two hours from the school around Labor Day, so how about we meet in person?

We met the director at her office, went to chapel and enjoyed our tour of the campus which had changed so much since I attended.  Alicia was so sweet and gracious as she gave us the tour, but it was hard for me to go back to a campus that I had once so loved, and I cried through chapel.

During our interview, I mentioned that I never got my diploma.  I thought perhaps I would inquire, pay any fee necessary, and have it mailed to me.

I could never have imagined what would happen next.  Dr. Don Meyer, the president of the College, asked to meet with us for a few minutes.  Since he was not the president when I went to school, I didn’t want to bother him.  It was so kind of him to want to meet us.

Rich and I went into his office, and he heard a bit of my story.  I shared my testimony, how I had come back to Christ, yet still after 24 years, my graduation day was a painful memory, and that I never got my diploma.

Dr. Meyer excused himself, and what seemed like moments later, came back in fully dressed in graduation robes, with Vice president of Academic Affairs Dr. Kevin Beery, also dressed in graduation robes.  Behind them came in a parade of office staff, holding my robes, cap, and the stole in the colors I would have had at my 1989 graduation day.

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I sobbed.

Although I could barely stand up after the shock of this display of love and kindness, the office assistants, along with dear Alicia, director of Alumni Relations, helped me get into my cap and gown.

Dr. Meyer and Dr. Beery recreated my graduation day right there in the President’s office, formally presenting me with my diploma dated April 30, 1989 with the name Geraldine Marie Stepien printed on it.

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I even said a little graduation speech.

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Joel 2:25 says, “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten…” and in that moment that I held my diploma, I realized that God had indeed restored everything to me.

So Jesus really did rewrite the end of my story.

However, it doesn’t feel like the end.  It feels like the beginning.  It is hard to put into words, but it actually feels as though I just graduated from Bible College.

Maybe this is the start of something.  Only God knows.  Only the Lord knows the plans He has for us.

All I know is I am grateful for the Christ-like  and compassionate leadership of Valley Forge Christian College, and the next time I step foot on that campus, it will be to serve.

They gave me back my life and my dream, and helped me to remember once again-

There is always a way back home

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