In the spring of the year I turned 9, our family moved to Alvechurch, a small village in the heart of the Worcestershire countryside.
The village school was Church of England and connected with the church of St. Laurence, which stood on a hill, keeping watch over the surrounding countryside; a silent guardian; as it had done for at least eight centuries.
One day, into the flock of rosy cheeked English children, came a rare bird of exotic species; an American girl!
She was a flamingo in a flock of starlings. We all wore school uniform.The boys wore short gray trousers, knee socks, shirts, ties and black blazers and we girls, either red and white, or blue and white striped cotton dresses, with cardigans or blazers. She looked so sophisticated when she arrived in a neat pleated green skirt and white sweater. And she spoke with an accent that we had heard on television but never in person! She was pretty, blond, with blue eyes, and she had an air of assurance and worldly wisdom about her.
She was only at the school for a short time, and her name is lost somewhere between my brain and the tip of my tongue, but I do remember the shock when she calmly announced to us one day that she did not believe in God and that the story of Adam and Eve was just a myth!
Our family did not attend church but I had always had a strong awareness of God. I never doubted his existence. The school, where every day started with prayer and hymns, and we were taught religious knowledge, reinforced my faith and spirituality. It was disturbing, and even scandalous to me, to hear another child say that God did not exist.
We lived on Bear Hill. The lower part of the hill was a mix of half timbered Tudor, Georgian and Edwardian houses that teetered at odd angles. The upper part, where we lived, was part of a council estate--rental social housing, affordable for the general population. On our street lived ten families who grew up together, some over several generations.
We children played outside together on the street in the long summer evenings, drawing Hopscotch squares on the sidewalk with chalk, skipping, bike riding, tree climbing and exploring the surrounding fields, hedgerows and streams.
Two doors up from us lived the Hawks family. They looked like their name; sharp of eye and feature, with quick bird-like movements. They were lean, thin people. The father and sons wore drainpipe jeans, and their hair was greased and slicked back in the style of Teddy boys, a British subculture of the fifties. They walked hunched over and carried cigarettes over their ears or hanging from their lips. Occasionally they provided entertainment for the rest of us by having an all out screaming fight in the street, with harsh, guttural swear words.
Valerie Hawks was my age and we played together as we grew up side by side on the street. One day when we were about 11, she said that she and her mother and some friends had been to "meetings" at a "chapel," and got "saved. "Are you saved?" she wanted to know.
I was bewildered. This sounded like a foreign language to me, what did she mean? I knew that I believed in God, wasn't that enough?
I went on with my life, with God in it always, to various degrees. Sometimes he was only a recipient of my prayers for protection from the shadows that lurked in the dark, but he was there. It never occurred to me to do anything but move toward him if an invitation to do so was given.
Then one day, at 16, I went to work in an office where the office manager was also pastor of a church that met in a little ramshackle building behind some gas pumps in a nearby town. He invited me to a Billy Graham movie being shown at a local college and I invited a friend to go with me. When an invitation was given at the end of the movie, to go forward for "salvation," even though I didn't really understand what I was doing, except saying, "Yes," to God; to the song, Just as I Am, we both walked to the front.
My journey of faith has continued and deepened with every one of the 42 years since walking towards God with my friend at the college. I have learned that you can't put a faith journey in a neat box tied with a bow of particular phraseology. God calls and woos us in ways unique to who we are. I can't explain why some people sense his presence from the very start, some have a startling epiphany and others seem so blind and deaf to him, never finding him. But I thank him every day that he made himself known to me.
I wonder now if the American girl ever changed her mind. Who knows? Perhaps she will read this and let me know!