Thinking about the upcoming reunion and running into so many wonderful old friends on Facebook has started me thinking about “the old days”. And the more I think about them, the more amazed I am with how God directs our steps even when we aren’t the most cooperative. How in the world does a hippy teenager from a VERY small town in northern Ohio end up living in the middle of Phoenix, Arizona, and singing in a Christian folk band. How crazy is that!
Since it’s hard to know where to begin, I’ll jump right into 1973. It was June, after my freshman year of high school. At the delicate age of 15 I was doing drugs, drinking like a sailor and clearly on the path toward a boat load of trouble. Somehow amidst all the wild parties and general delinquency Jesus found me, forgave me and set me on a new path and I am SO THANKFUL that he did specifically at that point in my life.
Soon after I met Jesus, He led me to connect with a couple of guys who were well known in our little town as “Jesus Freaks”. They were a few years older than me in age and faith. They took me under their wing and were like precious big brothers to me in so many ways. For one magical summer an older woman in our area allowed us to convert her garage into a welcoming hang out space with yard sale sofas, and brightly painted yellow walls. It was the perfect place to relax and have Bible Studies, ask questions, find answers, share with our friends and neighbors and just enjoy each other’s company. We spent pretty much all day every day there, learning and growing in our walk with God. We conducted baptisms in the lake behind the house, served communion, and performed foot washings. It was our own little New Testament home church.
Little did I know that soon something would happen that would rock my idyllic little world!
At the end of that delightful summer my mother unexpectedly announced that she would be leaving my father and filing for divorce. She was moving to Arizona and my dad was staying in Ohio. Since I was 15 at the time, they gave me the option to choose where I wanted to live. It was an easy decision for me. Vermilion was the place I was born, the only place I had ever known and I had NO plans to leave there EVER. This was where my dearest friends were. I was comfortable at school and could find my way around town blindfolded. I also knew that my dad probably wouldn’t be too occupied with parenting because he wasn’t very involved in my life anyway. He lived in our house and brought home the paycheck. That was pretty much the extent of it. My parents had always allowed us kids a lot of freedom (too much probably), so I wasn’t worried about supervising myself. My dad would be there if I needed something and I had my new “family” of Christian brothers to help me through the uncertain times. (First miracle: imagine what kind of trouble I would have encountered when my mom was gone if I was still following my path of partying.)
So for that whole sophomore year (at 15 years old) I basically parented myself. Fortunately, my friend, Gene drove me to and from school every day in his red Volkswagon Beetle convertible. Our friend, Scott was always there too. You see those two guys had been best friends for a very long time and I was privileged to be adopted into their circle. We all went to church together, went on driving adventures together, ate together, and just did pretty much every minute of our waking hours together. I knew I was more than safe with them.
One of the adventures that we went on together was a 2-hour drive to Akron, Ohio to visit a couple of Gene and Scott’s friends; Craig and Janet Yoe. Craig was a wild man. He was a creative artist who (among other things) compiled and distributed a free Christian newspaper entitled “Jesus Loves You”. It was edgy and funny and helped to spread the gospel to those who would read it.
Later in that year I met a new friend at church named Ernie. He was sweet, funny, smart and something about him drew me in. It wasn’t long before we started dating seriously (well as serious as a 15 year old can be).
It was right about then that God let me know that He might have OTHER plans for me...
In April of 1974, just days before my parent’s divorce was to be final, my dad drove over 2000 miles from Vermilion to Phoenix to reconcile with my mom. That was a good thing, right? Sure. I was glad that they would be together again. HOWEVER, I soon learned that one of the conditions that my mom set before she would agree to reunite with my dad was that they (and of course all of us) would move to Arizona! My mom was tired of the snow and cold and mud in this Ohio small town and she wanted to move to the desert. So, in order to save their marriage, my dad agreed to an early retirement and a 2000-mile move. I wasn’t consulted in the decision.
What in the world was happening! I had just met Jesus, met my dearest friends in all the earth AND met the love of my life. Now I was going to be ripped away from everything I knew and loved. Yanked from the gorgeous beauty of the rural countryside and sparkling lakes in Ohio and off to the desolate, scorching, dry, wilderness of Arizona where I knew no one but my few family members. Someone HAD to be making a mistake!
Now remember that I had only been a believer for less than a year and although I was learning plenty about my walk with God, this is what I talked myself into believing to be true. It was obvious to me that since my parents weren’t believers and not trusting God with their decisions, that God wasn’t going to force them to follow His “original” plan. He allowed them to make a huge mistake that would also impact my life. My hope was that when I graduated from high school and no longer had to live with my parents that God would help me put all the pieces of my life together again so I could go back to Ohio to follow the path that was originally intended for me. Needless to say, I went kicking and screaming to Arizona and was counting the days until I could go home.
Because of my inaccurate assumption about my situation and since I only needed to be in Arizona until I graduated from high school in 2 years, I decided that I wouldn’t bother making any friends there. I wouldn’t get connected to anything or anyone. I would just “do my time” and after graduation I’d get outta Dodge. I would continue to develop my relationship with my boyfriend, Ernie in Ohio via letters and long distance phone calls and we’d resume our dream a little later (remember this was before anyone had ever heard of Skype, the Internet or email).
And even though I was a bit frustrated with God for allowing this to happen, I didn’t really blame Him. It was still important for me to continue to strengthen my relationship with Him, so I found a church that was the same denomination as I attended in Ohio. Sadly though, most of the teenagers in the youth group had grown up in the church and weren’t very passionate about their faith. They were nice enough kids, but it just seemed like they were going through the motions. I realized that I wanted something more. I wanted to be with people who cared about their relationship with God on a daily basis and showed it on the outside. Plus, based on some of the choices I was making after my arrival in Arizona, I knew that I NEEDED to be around well grounded Christians who could help me to stay on course and headed in the right direction. So, I started my search for a place where I could feel connected and nourished.
|Apryl and Nancy attended Central High School together|
I visited a few churches and kept my eyes and ears open for something that would meet my needs, but I wasn’t sure what it would be. Then, quite miraculously, I received a copy of a “Jesus Loves You” newspaper in the mail from my friend Craig in Ohio. It was so nice to hear from home. Amazingly, as I was flipping through the pages, I realized that there was something special in this newspaper. This particular paper just “happened” to have a listing for a gathering place for young people in Phoenix, Arizona called “Hand in Hand”.
Now, how a newspaper from Akron, Ohio would get a listing for a music ministry in Phoenix, Arizona before the internet era, I will never know. Let’s just call it a “God thing” or better yet “divine intervention”. Needless to say, I was excited to make plans to check out this place on a Saturday night.
That next Saturday, when I walked through the door, I instantly felt at home. I loved the casual but energetic atmosphere, with dozens of high school and college age kids packed in like sardines, sitting cross-legged on the floor during the concerts. I was also very impressed with the original Christian music that was played there. Soon I fell in love with the passion of the people that I met. Many of them were new believers who were discovering the truth of God, just like me. As the weeks and months went on I totally forgot about my pledge to avoid new relationships. I had found a home that was full of life and the love of God.
At the end of every concert the good news of Jesus was shared, and an invitation to accept Christ was given. Then yellow and green comment cards were handed out throughout the crowd. It was there that a new believer could respond so that the staff could contact them to provide one-on-one follow up. It was also there that someone (like me) could say that they wanted to be more involved and volunteer to help in some way (which I did). What a privilege to help in the office and to be able to do one-on-one follow up with new believers.
Later I was joining my new found friends in large groups at CoCo’s, or Sambo’s or Bob’s Big Boy for coffee after the concerts. It was such a great time to get to know each other. We would nearly fill the place and often hung around so long that we were kicked out at closing time.
It was with many of the people I met at Hand in Hand that I was able to build deep and lasting relationships, some continuing over the last three and a half decades. During those early years, we asked hard questions, learned about discipleship and ministry, shared stories about personal pain, discovered grace, and challenged each other to find ways to serve God where we were. Friendships deepened, new relationships blossomed, and there were bumps in the road as well; all shapes and sizes of people came through those doors. But mostly God walked with us as we learned to embark on this magnificent journey with Him.
In 1975 one of my dear friends was a quiet musician who was the leader of the newly formed band, Glory Road. His name was Terry Hann. He didn’t have a car at the time and lived somewhat close to me, so there were various occasions when I would give him a ride home. It was then that we had a chance to get to know each other. On many evenings, we’d spend hours just sitting in the car talking. Because he was so quiet, I remember thinking of questions to ask him that he couldn’t answer with just a yes or no.
Even though I didn’t think he’d want to be in a relationship with me because I talked too much, in the fall of that year we had our first official date. In the months following, God continued to mature us in our relationship and weave our hearts together. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Sometime in 1976, I had the privilege of being asked by Bernie Rolfe to sing in one of the new bands he was forming. My guess is that he had heard me sing with passion and gusto on a Sunday night during our church worship time. I loved to sing! Unfortunately for him (and fortunately for me) he didn’t know how little training or knowledge I had about singing. I didn’t know the difference between a musical key and a car key and I had no idea how to sing in one key through a whole song. You see, I did most of my singing in the car a cappella, with no music to keep me on track. When I got to a point in the melody where the notes were a little too high for my range, I would just change keys without even realizing it. It sounded fine to me. Plus I had no idea how to find the harmony in a song. So needless to say, it was a fun, but challenging time for all of us.
Our band was called Shira, which means “song” in Hebrew. There were 7 of us. Lee Chesnut played guitar and sang tenor, his sister, Sharon Chesnut sang as well. John McDonald was our drummer and sang bass. Jay Haugen played guitar and sang too. Apryl Mott brought a gorgeous soprano voice to the group and I was also a vocalist. Last but not least, Dan Malmgren played bass and banjo. We were a folk group and Bernie wrote songs for us with rich vocal harmonies that were so much fun to sing. Three male and three female voices with just enough of the instruments to keep things going. I loved it!
It’s such a blessing to look back at that slice of the 70’s that drastically impacted the rest of my life and to thank God for bringing me 2000 miles from home to a place called Hand in Hand. For me it was a miraculous time where my faith grew and many deep and extraordinary relationships were born.
Thanks for joining me in my reminiscing. I’d love to hear your story too. Whether it’s lengthy or concise, joyful or heartbreaking, I’d love to get to know you better.