My conversion to my life of faith as a self-identified Christian happened at a weekend youth camp conducted by what today we would call evangelicals. My family was Congregational but my main interest in going to our church until then was for friendship, i.e. girls.

The conversion was in response to a speaker who portrayed Jesus as a man for others, a man of justice, kindness, courage and healing who loved God and us. “He was shamed and abused on the cross and no one stood up for him.” The nails pounded into his hands and feet were described in excruciating detail. “And no one stood up for him. (Dramatic pause) Is there anyone here who would have stood? Raise your hand.” My hand went up on its own. I was embarrassed by it but glad at the same time. “Thank you. You can take your hand down now.”

After we adjourned I was approached by a college age guy who said he noticed that I had raised my hand. “Would you like to know more about Jesus?” he asked. What could I say? We sat together in the front seat of a pickup and he asked if I wanted to inherit eternal life. It was an interesting question but had nothing to do with Jesus and me as far as I could tell. Still I said I hadn’t thought much about it but supposed I would if there was such a thing. He assured me there was for those who “accepted Jesus as Lord and savior.” All I had to do was say his magic words.

“That’s it?” I asked. “Just say words?” It seemed all too simple but I thought to myself, “What can I lose, I please him and it may be so.”

Within months I moved away from magic words and the idea that Christianity was primarily about saving my own skin. But Jesus and I moved closer to one another and he has been there ever since guiding, chiding, comforting, challenging, defining life’s meaning, purpose and heart.

It was a conversion, a conversion of dreams if you will, from a dream of personal success to a dream of human brother and sisterhood and as I grew in the dream, a dream of oneness with the whole of creation and its creatures, human and otherwise. From him I learned to seek God’s truth in other faith traditions as well as mine. He is the one who leads me into deeper and broader understandings of reality and the mystery of God and love and what being alive means and feels like.

One other story about Jesus and me. A number of years after that youth camp conversion, after college and marriage, after Nancy and I had our three children, I ended an undistinguished five-year career in business and started seminary to become a minister in the Congregational Church, United Church of Christ.

One of the churches I served was in Berkeley, California. It was a large church near the University with worshipers coming from miles around. Few lived near the facilities. Our near neighbors included hundreds of homeless people. In the evenings they sought shelter where they could find it, some on our outside covered walk called the Cloister. It was screened from rain by the roof and from the street by a line of rhododendrons.

One of those who slept in the Cloister was a worn woman, fifty or seventy. It was hard to tell. She wheeled a grocery cart holding most of her worldly possession including a portable TV which she shared with whomever slept near her. She carried two small dogs tucked into unbuttoned spaces in her shirt. Her name was Betsy. In spite of my welcome she would have nothing to do with me. Not a look. Not a word. Be that as it may I had an unexplainable certainty that Betsy was Jesus. If we could not offer a bed to Betsy we had no right to call ourselves a Christian community.

Along with Betsy and her expanding number of Cloister-mates came stench and litter and dying rhododendrons from urine poisoning even though a porta-potty was provided. As you can imagine those were interesting times in the life of Berkeley First Congregational Church. But when the smoke cleared the troubled, challenged and Jesus-loving people of that congregation saw more than a problem in our homeless neighbors. A conversion – new eyes, new ears.

During the next year other congregations and the City Council joined the work. First came a rotating shelter in church buildings then two permanent homeless shelters built and staffed for those who chose their offer of hospitality. Not Betsy, she didn’t want to sleep indoors.

After I moved from there to Maine I heard that Betsy was found dead in an alley she had claimed as overnight accommodations. I’ll never forget her.

“Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” Mathew 25:40.

Bill Gregory is an author and retired UCC minister. He can be contacted at: [email protected]