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The holiday season brings some people the gift of faith

Steven Andrews declared at a young age that he did not believe in God. Now, he’s pastor of Parkville Presbyterian Church.
Steven Andrews declared at a young age that he did not believe in God. Now, he’s pastor of Parkville Presbyterian Church. Special to the Star

Oh, come, all ye faithful.

It’s the beginning of a Christmas hymn, but it also captures the spirit of the holiday season.

Those who believe, whether in a religious way or through an inspirational feeling for humanity, are likely to reflect more on faith this time of year. Is it a recognition that something exists beyond us? A higher meaning or calling? Or is it just knowing that we are all in this together?

For many believers, faith has brought meaning to the holiday season that wasn’t there before. Some have journeyed to Christ from socialism, atheism or apathy. Or, for one woman interviewed by The Star, from weak Christian ties to a strong call to Judaism.

The season’s holy days bring more than large meals and vacation days. These faithful have found spiritual peace.

While belief brings meaning to the holidays, the season also brings some people to faith, said Randy Cloud, chairman of the department of Christian ministry and formation at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe.

Some feel a sense of duty or obligation to attend a religious event, he said, acknowledging that his views come from a Christian perspective.

Or, he said, “a person might feel a sense of regret that the year has almost closed and they had hoped for a positive change, and they look for it in a faith setting.”

For others, a fear of isolation can set in, despite a whirlwind of parties, open houses and dinners.

“They feel like they are alone in the world, and a church or faith-based community could provide a bit of comfort and belonging,” Cloud said.

Nostalgia calls some as they remember attending church with family.

“We are looking for peace of mind and peace of heart, and faith is something that doesn’t move, and religious tradition takes a little unnecessary worry off the shoulders,” he said. “It gives a sense of looking for roots in a society that has less and less.”

Some people, of course, find the holidays difficult because of expectations, family struggles or lost loved ones. Faith can be a balm for them, too, said Brother Forestal Lawton, a deacon with Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City.

The pain of losing loved ones resurfaces around the holidays, whether the death was recent or years ago, Lawton said. Memories of family get-togethers and other traditions can reopen the wound.

“Faith gives them something to hold on to, so they aren’t overcome with grief,” said Lawton, who has been a member at Metropolitan Missionary since 1959.

While some are caught up in material gifts, Lawton said, others try to escape to a faith community. People appreciate their well-being and feel a strong desire to help others who need them.

“Faith helps connect you with a giving spirit, even if it’s just a giving of time,” Lawton said.

Thomas Strenge found his faith home shortly after finding his wife.

Strenge was born in East Germany in 1974. His parents divorced when he was young, and he and his mother escaped to West Germany. His mom didn’t emphasize religious tradition. Instead, she wanted him to check it out for himself.

“In socialist countries, you are supposed to worship the state, and church attendance was not encouraged,” he said.

Strenge’s stepfather, whom he refers to as his “dad,” was an American stationed there with the Navy. The family moved to the American East Coast when Strenge was in high school.

Unsure of what he wanted to do in life, Strenge applied to the U.S. Naval Academy. After the Navy, he moved to Kansas City.

One night at the Power & Light District, he met Karen Donnelly, and they were engaged a few years later.

“We joke that we met the old-fashioned way — in a bar,” Strenge said.

As the two decided to marry, Strenge explored the idea of converting to Catholicism. Donnelly had a Catholic background, and they wished to be married in the Catholic Church.

“But we wanted to get married in church for more reasons than it was a pretty building,” he said.

They called parishes so that Strenge could start conversion classes.

Surprisingly, he found it difficult to begin the process right away. Many churches had seasonal calendars and outlined courses for prospective converts.

Then Strenge connected with the Rev. Paul Turner at St. Anthony’s parish in northeast Kansas City. He started classes and sought other support through a spiritual guide, Jordan Schiele of Jerusalem Farm.

It’s not that I hadn’t been exposed to religion,” said Strenge, who had combed through religious texts and discussed beliefs with people of different faiths. “I was never against it. It just wasn’t something for me at the time.

“When you make the right decision, things fall into place. Do I think God is a man with a long, white beard? No. Do I think there is a force or energy that pervades? Yes.”

After traveling around with his family and with the Navy, finding a faith home coincides with creating his own home with Donnelly. The two got married in October.

“This is the first time I’m really putting down roots,” he said.

Before, he would recognize Christmas in a traditional but secular way, exchanging presents with friends.

This year, they decorated for Christmas in anticipation of the Catholic Mass. They will attend Christmas services at St. Anthony’s, a diverse congregation where many worshipers trace their roots to Vietnam, Latin America, Africa, Ireland and Italy.

Strenge will turn 40 on Christmas Day.

“It’s about community and people across the spectrum coming together for one ideal,” he said.

Barbara Gutierrez knew she was Jewish years ago.

Gutierrez, 54, lives in Kansas City, Kan., attended J.C. Harmon High School and now spends her days as a teacher’s aide at West Middle School.

As a girl, she walked to a Christian church near her home, but her father was not religious and they later stopped attending. She did visit other churches, though.

“When you are a child, you just go with your friends.”

Gutierrez had a deep belief in God as a little girl and enjoyed worshiping and praying.

In the mid-1960s, her grade school performed a Christmas program each year, back when even public school programs had a religious undertone. One of the mothers would dress as Santa Claus, and Gutierrez remembers brown paper bags containing a candy cane and an orange. Her little brother starred one year as the Little Drummer Boy.

Gutierrez said she honored her Christian roots, but “I had my doubts.”

“I knew from the time I was a teenager that I was Jewish in thinking, but I didn’t have a way to connect with that,” she said. “I waited longer than I wish I did.”

Meanwhile, her daughters attended Catholic school and were confirmed in the church.

Health issues provided the nudge Gutierrez needed. A colon rupture sent her to the emergency room, and it took many months — and many surgeries — for her to recover.

“I decided I wanted to stop waiting for things to happen,” she said. “I had a second chance at life.”

The timing seemed right. Her daughters were grown. She spoke with her husband, Jesus, who offered his support. In the summer of 2013, he noticed an advertisement about a community course on Judaism. Gutierrez started the classes and began learning basic Hebrew.

The couple started attending the Beth Torah congregation in Overland Park and would share ideas after services. She officially converted last summer.

“I like the idea of a covenant and partnership in God in creating the world,” she said. “I have a responsibility and I also have an intimate relationship with God and community, and service means a lot to me.”

Even earlier, Gutierrez had been moving away from Christmas traditions, celebrating instead at a meal with her daughters. Last year, the couple celebrated Hanukkah and invited their daughters over several nights for a meal, songs and the dreidel game.

Her husband has accompanied her through her spiritual journey and attends temple with her.

“He’s totally accepted (at Beth Torah), and we enjoy going,” she said. “He’s learning Hebrew.”

Gutierrez has found more than a spiritual home.

“I’m my more true self and a weight has lifted,” she said. “It’s a real happiness.”

The pastor at Parkville Presbyterian Church thought he had the answers as an elementary student.

He was a smart, well-read kid from Fort Wayne, Ind., who declared in fourth grade that he didn’t believe in God. Looking back, Steven Andrews considers his stance a reflection of the turmoil surrounding him. He describes his childhood as one scarred by abuse and instability.

“I wouldn’t have said it this way at the time, but what I experienced in the world — and the idea of a loving God —wouldn’t have made a whole lot of sense to me.”

He also was stuck on the idea of religious justice.

“It didn’t seem fair to me that one religion was better than the other,” he said. “It was important that people be treated fairly.”

Throughout middle school and high school, Andrews was the argumentative non-Christian, a move he now sees as perhaps an attempt to hide insecurity. He read Bertrand Russell, a philosopher and social critic, and Robert Ingersoll, an attorney known for defending agnosticism.

“I wanted to prove how smart I was and how I had figured this out already.”

As Andrews journeyed from atheism to belief in Christ, books and spiritual experience guided his way.

“I could sense the movement from where I had gone from believing there is no God to open to the possibility to really believing there is something out there,” said Andrews, 31.

It became clear when he attended Wabash College in Indiana that perhaps a larger plan was in store for him.

“So many things happened to me, and they brought me to a particular college and particular fraternity, and I met people who I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” he said.

He became more curious about religion and began attending church.

“It was just clear that something had orchestrated all of this and then, step by step, I came to (find) faith in Jesus Christ.”

The leap to ministry took a bit more time. An English major and aspiring writer, Andrews was shy about the idea of preaching sermons.

After graduation, he took a job teaching adult ex-offenders on home detention. It was there that he overcame his reticence about public speaking. That experience helped him decide to pursue ministry.

He earned a three-year master’s of divinity degree at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., spent two years as a hospital chaplain in Atlanta, and then earned a master’s degree at Yale Divinity School.

Andrews became pastor in Parkville this fall.

“There is certainly a difference in the meaning of Christmas before (I believed) and now,” he said.

Although the secular can be holy in “being with family, gathering over a table and giving and receiving,” he said, “now (to me) it is the celebration of Jesus becoming the life that the world has not seen before.”

Sharing that with the faith community amplifies his Christmas experience.

Andrews’ faith history sets him apart from others who were raised attending church and who inherited faith like genetic traits.

“We live in an age where a lot more people are not growing up with a faith tradition, or they are leaving for a time,” he said. “Having that perspective, I might be able to see what they are hoping for when they get to a church.”

A knock on the door opened a new world of faith for Charles Moore.

Moore, 60, of Platte City, says faith became a way for him to close the gaps that drugs and alcohol had once filled.

Born in North Kansas City, Moore moved around throughout his life. As he grew up, his family rarely attended religious services except for Good Friday or Easter Sunday or when a great aunt took him to her church. He wasn’t brought up to read scripture. Nor was religion talked about in his family.

Even into adulthood, Moore’s default prayer was “Now I lay me down to sleep...”

He married young, at 19, and although he and his bride exchanged vows in a Baptist church, the family didn’t attend service together after that. Moore left it up to his children whether to attend Sunday school.

Meanwhile, Moore spent his free time going to bars and using drugs recreationally, a habit that started as a teenager. He sometimes drank at lunchtime and on the weekends.

When Moore moved to Platte City two years ago, poor health had him feeling low. Osteoarthritis brought him much pain, and he was sick. Doctors had detected a mass on one of his lungs.

He spent the Christmas before last fearing the inevitable. But only a few weeks later, a scan showed the mass was gone. Moore embraced a new future.

A few days later, while taking pain pills, he heard a knock on the door. Two women from Bethel House of Prayer stood on his doorstep.

“Would you like us to pray for you?” they asked.

“Yeah,” he said, before asking them into his home.

“I would have never invited anyone in,” he said, but something nudged him.

The women checked in on Moore a few more times over the next year. In April, Moore suffered two strokes and decided it was time to start going to church.

“It’s been an amazing journey,” he said. “I’ve been truly blessed.”

Through the church, he started volunteering to help fix places for those in transitional housing as they find permanent homes. He does painting and prep work for floors and helps wherever he can.

Since he’s become part of a church community, he says, “it’s been one blessing after another.”

This Christmas, he is celebrating his new purpose and the two-year anniversary of what he considers turning his life around.

In the past, hectic schedules and holiday gatherings with his family meant everything on a schedule, sometimes with less-than-ideal interactions along the way.

“I just can’t look at it like that anymore,” he said.

He still spends Christmas with family, but it’s more reflective now. He feels called to share some of his story of an imperfect life made meaningful.

“One of the purposes I’ve been saved for is to maybe give people some hope,” he said.