Wednesday, April 17 2024 - 7:00 PM

Sharing Christ Through the Arts

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The Long Way Home

We interviewed Bill Church about his journey to God and his interest in music. He has quite the conversion story of how God brought him through some very crazy and dangerous years to a place of sanity and hope.

Editor —Bill, I first got to know you near Hilo, Hawaii, where you were involved in nurture and outreach ministry in your local church. Right away I saw that you had a passion for telling others about Jesus. What was your life like before you became a Jesus follower? What kind of person were you?

Church —Being born and raised in the LA area, and later in San Diego, we ran the streets, bars, and nightclubs, looking for fun and adventure, which sometimes ended in jail, or a few times in the hospital. One time my partner in crime shot me in the leg, but that’s another story. Most of the people I hung out with were “friends” or “co-conspirators.”

Editor —When you say “we” ran the streets…are you talking about siblings or friends?

Growing up as a kid, we seldom attended church, except for Easter, once or twice. And the only times I actually remember being in church with the whole family was a great embarrassment to us all. My dad was drunk both times, and his Southern Baptist character came out in a most vocal and annoying way. Every time the pastor commented, my dad would jump to his feet and shout, “Hallelujah,” and, “Amen,” and “Glory to God,” while the rest of us tried to evaporate. Of course, being small, I was able to simply duck. But not knowing when his next outburst would occur, we all held our breath. Looking back on it now, it makes me smile.

As for my friends, starting school I had very few friends due to my inability to participate in sports. So, I hung out with my older brother, and by the time I was around 12 years old, I was already smoking, drinking cheap wine, and cruising around in hot rods. A friend had a 1940 Ford coupe, so we would cruise the drive-ins in L.A. and Orange County. Anaheim was our favorite town, and The Bean Hut was the hangout. I usually stayed in the car because of my inability to walk right.

We moved to San Diego when I was 14 years old. Even though I was skinny as a post, I learned how to defend myself. I usually lost the fights, but at least they knew I wasn’t afraid to throw blows, and that gained me a little respect.

I worked for my dad painting tract homes, but he didn’t pay me. His attitude was, “Hey, you have a roof over your head, a bed to sleep in, and food to eat. What more do you need?” I learned to steal cigarettes out of vending machines and stole hubcaps for my brother’s friends. 1957 Oldsmobile spinners were in great demand, so I earned enough to buy myself a 1935 Ford. Bicycles were also easy to steal and resell, as were Lambrettas and Cushman motor-scooters. I had a few guys helping me fence the goods, and a few later became my “co-defects.”

Editor —You mentioned that you weren’t able to walk or play sports very well. Please elaborate on that?

Church —While an infant, I developed polio, and the achilles tendon in both legs shrunk drastically. The doctors weren’t sure I would live, so they put off treatment for almost a year until they thought I was strong enough to endure the process of stretching the tendons—to the point where I could move on my own. They used a form of hydrotherapy, which was very painful but effective. Additionally, I was aided by special therapeutic shoes until I was in junior high school. By the time I reached high school, I played football, but I couldn’t run very well. But I was fierce on the line! My enthusiasm made up for my affliction.

Editor —You were fortunate you did so well. Many who have had that disease aren’t able to remedy it. As time went by your journey into crime increased.

Church —Yes. Soon we were stealing cars. All we needed were two alligator clips, a few pieces of wire, and we were on our way. We would strip some of the cars for parts and sell the others with the promise of getting the title later. But, of course, we never did. Eventually, the police showed up at my door, demanding to search my car, where they found stolen parts. So, off to Juvie hall I went. It was either that or be sent to CYA (California Youth Authority). I chose Rancho Del Campo in east San Diego. I was fortunate I didn’t get caught selling Marijuana (which I had been doing with a friend), or I would have had to do time in prison. Even back then, in all my foolish behavior, the Lord was looking after me.

I had stolen my mother’s car on a few occasions. The first time she let it slide, but the second time, my friends and I had been drinking and speeding, and instead of taking us in, they impounded the car and took me home. My dad had given me a lot of beatings by this time, but this time he kicked me and punched me until I was unconscious. When the cops arrested me a few months later, I was glad to go to jail because I knew what I would get if I went back home.

Most of the guys I hung out with back then are dead and gone. A few friends are in prison, and a few are friends on Facebook, where I can share Jesus with them.

Over time, I realized something was missing in my life—especially after a night of drinking and drugging. So, I went to a church but couldn’t understand anything going on. So I went to another church down the street. They had a little too much excitement for me, so I gave it up. But one thing stuck with me; I loved gospel music.

Several years later, still looking for peace but getting more involved in questionable activities, I found myself in Nevada State Prison.

My first night was spent in prayer and self-evaluation. Realizing I had wasted my life with foolish behavior, lust, and self-destructiveness, I attended all the Bible studies I could find in prison. I was a biker, so all my bros shook their heads whenever I’d try to get them to join in or share Scripture with them.

Once I was released from prison, I went right back to jail to give Bible studies to the very men who had been my partners in the drug business in Las Vegas. Once I became active in the Church, I involved myself in every ministry available, including radio ministry, which after almost 25 years, I still enjoy today. I love sharing Jesus with all who will listen. I helped the Samoan brothers in Hawaii build and fill their church. I traveled with a singing group, going into prisons sharing the good news of the soon return of Jesus—through the spoken word and music. I’ve now been in the Philippines for several years, where I was invited to assist with evangelism. There is so much need here, helping with the church, producing a radio ministry, and providing warm lunches for around 300 students. God is good to us and has provided for all of our needs. I praise His name.

Editor –What a journey! You mentioned your love for music. Tell me more about that.

Church —My dad liked to drink, but he loved southern gospel music. He bought instruments for my sisters, including a five-string banjo, a mandolin, and a guitar. My oldest sister learned to play quite well and appeared on television a few times. The man who later became her husband invited her to join his country music band, which took her to bars and dance halls all over LA, Big Bear, and other places. I was about 13 at the time, and my parents sent me along to chauffeur the drinkers. Dad had a 1953 Pontiac, and I was so short I had to look through the spokes of the steering wheel just to see the highway. It was all I could do to drive down the road from Big Bear with a car full of drunks, singing gospel music at the top of their lungs.

Years later, I learned a few chords on the guitar and began singing on my own. In the ’60s I heard Rusty Goodman sing, Who Am I, and it really touched my heart. Twelve years later, when I was invited to join the Heaven Bound Singers, it changed my life. I realized how powerful gospel music was and that it could be used to draw people to Jesus. So I was glad to be able to sing for the Lord. Our group opened for Heritage Singers a few times in the ’80s, and their bass singer, Jim McDonald, became a personal friend. He has been a friend and a great mentor for many years.

Editor —You have been one busy guy! It’s a miracle you survived some of the stuff you’ve been through. We wish you the very best as you continue working there in the Philippines. The people there are fortunate to have you. May God bless your efforts!

If you wish to contact Bill, you can reach him at: [email protected]

Rich DuBose, Editor and Director of ASA, interviewed Bill Church via email.

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About Rich DuBose

Rich DuBose

writes from Northern California.

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