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Bill before knowing Jesus
My unbelieving eyes stared down at the lifeless form in the casket. In a flash, my little brother was gone. He dashed into the path of a car and breathed no more. It was as if someone cut open my chest and squeezed my heart. Oh, how I wanted to talk with him again. Surely there had to be a God; we didn't just die and turn to dust. There had to be life after death. As a 10-year-old, I didn’t know God personally, but that day I believed He existed.
I had been raised in church, but to me God was a vague, mystic somebody who watched us from afar. My respect for the church faded and I changed from a youth who revered it, to a rebellious teen who actually broke into a church and stole from it.
I had great parents and a good home life, but within me was a desperate desire to be “part of the crowd.” Perhaps I had an inner rebellion against God for never giving my brother back.
I had always been skinny and began lifting weights to be like my older brother. During my junior-high days, I was proud to be a part of the Buhl Club's “Whiz Kids.” I was a member of this gymnastic team as we performed before audiences and finally on the Ted Mack's Amateur Hour.
Eventually I drifted from the Buhl Club and a good, moral life because of peer pressure. In spite of warnings from my sister and others, I began hanging around with the hoods and the rough kids from the West Hill. We had a shack known as “Rudge's Shack.” It was the highlight of the junior-high years. We held smoking and drinking parties, stealing contests, orgies, and gambling.
Near the shack was a huge abandoned mansion. One day, while down by the mansion, someone threw a rock through a window. This was the start of a long and destructive caper. We smashed most of the windows, tore down the banister, ruined a piano, demolished three huge stained glass windows, and did thousands of dollars in damage.
This went on for weeks and I wondered why the police never caught us. One Sunday afternoon I knew things were getting hot. A friend of mine from the East Hill, whose father was a doctor, wanted to go to the mansion. I stayed back and watched as he yelled, “Hey, Rudge, watch this!” Just as he was preparing to throw a brick through a large front window, a police cruiser came flying up the drive. Not knowing what to do with the brick, he threw it through the window. They arrested him along with a few others who gave the names of everyone involved. They rounded up more than 50 youth, but only 13 of us were prosecuted. I was 12 years old at the time. We received a year's probation and had to pay a fine. The officer who questioned me was a lieutenant. He took a quick disliking to me, and I did to him as well.
When I started high school, I was still hanging around with the hoods and so-called “bad” kids. Still being skinny, I decided I would become the strongest kid in the high school in order to change my self-image and to stop being pushed around. I would often lift weights three hours a day and was gradually getting over my weak image. I had many guys on my list on whom I was going to get revenge from past incidents.
I became involved with a gang in nearby Ohio. We were always looking for some trouble or some place to break into. I had a desire to do every crazy and dangerous thing imaginable. It was nothing for me to get high and race down the highway at speeds of more than a hundred miles an hour. At times, I felt that I was invincible and that nothing could kill me.
I did not really acknowledge God, but through all the crazy things I attempted He must have had His hand on my life. It is interesting that while in that gang I had a girl use cigarette ashes and a needle to put a tattoo of a cross and the word “God” on my arm.
My older brother, who was the muscular one, was now in Korea with the Army. He and his friends had always considered me a punk. But now one of the strongest guys in their group was just out of the Marines and a little crazy. When he realized my interest in weights and the strength and reputation I had acquired, he asked me to start lifting with him. He would pick me up and we would go work out at the Buhl Club for about three hours and then go out drinking or with some girls.
My dream of being accepted and a part of this really rough group of older guys was now a reality. Nobody could call me a punk or push me around. Although I was too young to drink in Pennsylvania, they took me with them and would always stick up for me if any trouble would arise about my age. We did things that could have hurt or killed others, things that could have put us in prison, but thank God that He was protecting me.
Many of my friends were killed in car wrecks after getting high on drugs or alcohol. One was shot and killed while robbing a place. Many others were busted for drugs or put in prison for violent and destructive acts.
While still hanging around with the older guys’ gang, I got into karate so that I would have even more ability for getting revenge.
I was only 18 and just out of high school when a new health spa opened in our area. Many applied for the job, but the owner from California quickly hired me. I loved being paid for something I enjoyed so much and did anyway. My physique was very impressive and caused me to be very well known. We would go to the beach and do pull-ups and push-ups to pump up our muscles and then strut around. We would even do back flips in the sand to get attention. I was able to get almost any girl and was involved with quite a few. One girl really impressed me. And not to lose her, after dropping her off, I would sneak out with others until all hours of the night.
One day the girl I really liked told me she was going to a concert. I said, “Fine.” When she got back at midnight she called and said, “Guess what Bill? I have become a Christian!” I said, “That's fine, I am a Christian too; I go to church.” But she said, “No, I found Jesus in a real and personal way.”
I thought it would pass and we would still be able to party and have fun together. But it didn't. In the weeks following, there was a tremendous change in Karen. She would not drink or party. I began to hate this Jesus and would literally sit at the health spa and plan ways to destroy her faith in Him.
Karen and her friends would tell me about Christ. I resented it and thought Christians were weirdos, yet I was not about to give Karen up for any religious nonsense. All her friends knew my reputation and knew that if I could become a Christian, anybody could.
I really had everything going for me. I was young and popular. I had a good job and although I weighed only 165 pounds I was bench-pressing over 330 pounds. Although I was an 18-year-old punk, many rich businessmen would see me on the street, and proudly say to their wives, “Hey, there is my fitness instructor.” I was planning to enter some physique contests. I was also excelling at karate and entering many tournaments. Everything should have been going well, and it was. Yet the change in Karen's life and the things she said were affecting me. I knew deep down I was really a fake and did not have it all together. I thought I would find what was missing in my life in some other part of the country.
A friend and I decided to hitchhike across the country and pick up a “hot” motorcycle in Albuquerque and ride it to California. So, I went on a search, and later learned I had really gone on a search for God –– until He found me.
You can imagine all the things two teenagers could experience on such a trip, and I think we experienced them all. As we left Sharon, Pennsylvania, I remember my parents trying to talk me out of the trip and Karen crying, but I was determined to go.
We received rides from all types of people. One was a businessman and before I knew it, he was talking to me about that Jesus I did not want to hear about. Another guy picked us up and hauled out a Bible. I thought, “Here we go again. I can’t get away from it.” But when he opened his Bible, there was a hole cut out of the center of the pages. A stash of marijuana was hidden there. Who would ever think of looking inside a Bible if picked up by the cops? We thought that was really cool so we all shared a joint together.
After several exciting days and nights on the road, we finally reached the hippie commune in Albuquerque, New Mexico where my oldest brother was staying. When I inquired as to his whereabouts, they told me he was not there, but had left the day before to go swimming at some springs a hundred miles away, somewhere in the mountains. They had no idea when he would be back.
Bill at age 18
We decided to head to Santa Fe which was about 50 miles north of Albuquerque. After walking about three miles, we hitched a ride that took us right into Santa Fe. As we listened to the radio, we heard that the temperature was going to reach an all time low for this time of year of about 25 degrees. We had anticipated warm weather out West. It was the month of May so all we had were short-sleeved shirts and light jackets.
Our ride dropped us off and we walked the cobble-stoned streets of Santa Fe to find a place to spend the night. It was getting dark and the whole town seemed to be closed down. Finally, we found an open bar, but were turned away because we were not of age. We asked again if we could just go inside long enough to find someone to put us up for the night. The person running the bar did not care and assured us that without proper I.D. we would not be allowed in the bar. Fear gripped our hearts as we faced the reality of a very cold evening with no apparent hope.
As it was getting colder and later, the bar seemed to be closing and no one wanted to help. Not knowing where to turn, our hopes once again came alive. Down that narrow street came four guys with long hair in a yellow car. A German Shepherd dog was sticking its head out the window. We began to wave and yell hoping they would stop. All of a sudden one of them started yelling, “That's my brother, that's my brother!”
Somehow, some way, when he did not even know I was in New Mexico and was supposed to be a hundred miles away, my brother saved our lives. Say what you like; even though I did not acknowledge Him then, a loving God had responded to our need. In His infinite wisdom, He knew that someday I would know Him and His love and forgiveness.
We all scrunched into that car and went to where they were staying. I completely forgot about God then, as we all smoked some marijuana and talked. My brother said that after getting back from the mountains they decided to return a car they had borrowed from someone in Santa Fe. He explained that he could not get us a motorcycle, so the next day we headed back to Pennsylvania.
We encountered many more incidents along the way, but were really happy to be back home. The first thing I did was call Karen and then went over to see her. Her response after our reunion was, “Bill, why don't you come with me tonight? There is going to be a fantastic evangelist speaking in Youngstown, Ohio.”
The last thing I wanted to do was spend my first night back in church hearing about Jesus. “Karen,” I told her in no uncertain terms, “you can take your religion and shove it!” “But Bill,” she pleaded, “this guy is really good!” I wanted nothing to do with her Jesus, but she looked so beautiful that I finally agreed to go.
Bill and Karen preparing to go to a Sadie Hawkins dance, before knowing Jesus.
I expected to hear the usual pitch about Jesus Christ. I would sit there and watch the stupid Christians walk down the aisle and pray. Who would ever want or enjoy that kind of lifestyle? Surely not I; that was only for the weak and the foolish –– not for me.
That night was different. He spoke on Bible prophecy and how we could know God in a real and personal way. The Holy Spirit was dealing with me in a way I had never known before. I had been searching for meaning and purpose in life for 18 years. How well I knew the futility of looking to alcohol, drugs, sex, or anything else for lasting happiness and peace. I had tried to change my self-image through lifting weights and karate. I knew that no self-development, or patterning my life after anyone else, could change or fulfill me.
Suddenly I realized the ultimate truth and reality of Jesus Christ. The words seemed to pierce my very heart and reveal to me that this was what I had in reality always been searching for –– to be restored to the God who created me through His only Son, Jesus Christ. Instead of being begged or dragged as many tried in the past, I willingly stood and made the long walk down to the altar. On the way I said, “God, if You prove Yourself real to me today, I will live my life for You.” I got down on my knees and was totally sincere for the first time in my life and said, “Lord, I am sorry for all my sins. I believe that Jesus Christ is Your Son and that He died on the cross for me. I want to give my life to You. Please forgive me.”
I am not an emotional person, but for 15 minutes I lay there and cried. I was really sorry for the horrible wrongs I had done and the people I had hurt. Many of the things then forgiven are known to no one but the Lord and myself, and according to His Word, He has not only forgiven but also forgotten. Those tears were the greatest cleansing I ever had . . . That was May 23, 1971.
During the service the following night the evangelist said to me, “Young man, last night there was a battle between heaven and hell. Hell wanted to keep you, but God won.” My whole life changed. Karen and I found a new kind of love –– a bond in Jesus that cemented our lives together in a way that I cannot explain. Now that I accepted Christ I had to grow in this new relationship with God. I was baptized and began changing from someone who only cared about himself and used people, to someone who really cared for others.
A few days later, when Karen was 17 and I was 18, we ran away and got married. Although we might have acted wrongly in this situation, God used it to prepare our future life and ministry together for Him. Karen took me to meet her family and I was shocked to discover that one of her uncles was the police lieutenant who so despised me when he questioned me for the ‘mansion incident’. Although it had been six years ago, he still remembered me. I do not know who was more shocked, him or me, but he did not have to worry. I was not the same person that he remembered. Jesus had changed my life.
No one could believe the change. Many who had before been concerned about me did not want me to go so far as Jesus. Many friends thought I was crazy and had finally flipped out. But they all had to admit and respect what had happened, especially the change God made in giving me the courage to live this new life in Christ, which I had previously mocked and ridiculed. Many of them came to me alone and asked more about Christ. Some responded, but they all admitted they wished they had the guts to accept Him.
The next week I went back to my old karate class and to an instructor I respected very much. He always liked me for my determination and animalistic sparring. They used to call me “Godzilla” because of my strength and size from weightlifting and my purposeful lack of control when sparring an opponent. The instructor remembered the times I hit or kicked a little too hard and the time I caved in the rib cage of a higher ranked student. He knew of my innate desire to hurt others and my strong desire to be the best. Whenever they needed someone to beat on or demonstrate with, I was often chosen because of my ability to withstand it.
One night he looked around the class and said to each of us, “I know you, I have been with you for two years now, and I know what you think and what you will do.” But when he came to me, he said, “Bill, you are different. I do not know you anymore; you have changed.” He was right. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things are passed away; behold, all things become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Bill & Karen start their ministry.
Jesus Christ had changed my life; I was a new person in Him. He had done instantly, when I sincerely asked Him, what no one or anything else ever did or could have done. Although I was not perfect, I began to grow. Through Him, I found meaning and purpose. Only through Christ could I begin to conquer all the problems I had throughout my life and my teen years. Through Him, I have found that all things are possible. He truly is the Ultimate and Only Truth. Those who knew me before cannot believe that I am now a minister, and those who meet me now, who do not know my past, cannot believe what I once was like.