I recently found a Word doc called “Testimony” that I had written to share with my church small group a few years ago. Consider it a condensed version of Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter…even at 2000 words!
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with reading about sainthood: especially the saints who were martyred (Joan of Arc, in particular). That’s a strange niche interest for any kid, but especially me, since everyone in my family is Jewish. But we were more “lox and bagel” Jews than religious Jews. Tribal identity was important; spirituality, less so. I hid those books (borrowed from friends and the library) under my mattress like teenage boys hide their Playboys.
I grew up in a conservative Christian town, where I was one of only seven Jewish kids in my grade. I was always so jealous of Christian peers who had youth groups with retreats, complete with matching T-shirts (some people still think I became a Christian just so I could get a t-shirt).
Those things didn’t exist in my synagogue because there weren’t enough young people. The nearest Jewish youth groups were about an hour away, and I was too young to drive. If I wanted to make being Jewish work on my own, I had to figure it out myself.
It was a very solitary spiritual life.
One big reason I was fascinated with saints who suffered martyrdom was because I had sampled suffering early in my life (though nothing quite that extreme). It started with a diagnosis of anxiety and OCD by the age of three. Later in my childhood, I was diagnosed with depression. I had never not been on some kind of medication, with varying side effects.
Trying to find the right prescription and dosage was a challenge. Many of those drugs caused me to function like a zombie. From my elementary years all the way through high school, I struggled to stay awake in class. When I was awake, I struggled with fitting in. Being the only Jew most of my classmates knew was a responsibility I didn’t want. Kids would ask me all kinds of questions, from the ignorant (“Do Jews still sacrifice animals in the temple?”) to the uncomfortable (“Why do you reject Jesus after what he did for you on the cross?”).
The junior high years were full of typical girl drama, a dad who was diagnosed with cancer, and a friend (first crush, actually) who committed suicide. I turned to God because I had nobody else.
My developing feelings for Jesus were like a forbidden romance. He was the proverbial bad boy my parents forbid me to stay away from. But the more they forbid me to see him, the more I wanted to be with him.
As much as I was fascinated with saints, Christians themselves intimidated me. When I was six years old, a girl in my neighborhood learned I was Jewish and told her mother, who called me a Christ-killer and told me to never go near her daughter again. Other kids would use the threat of hell to scare me into converting at recess. Their depiction of the Christian God was nothing like the one I read about in my saint books, so it didn’t scare me away from Christianity so much as deeply confuse me.
You could say that my conversion was prophesied when I had my Bat Mitzvah inside a church. My small Jewish community didn’t have the money for a synagogue of our own, so we rented out a church building whose original congregation moved elsewhere. I read from the Torah surrounded by stained glass windows with crosses in them.
Because I wanted a relationship with God, but didn’t have Jewish resources for it, I basically copied what my Christian friends were doing. I wrote my own purity pledge and brought it to my dad asking if he wanted me to sign it (he thought I had gone crazy). I drew a Star of David on my forehead when everyone else had crosses on Ash Wednesday. I’d buy Christian books but cross out wherever it said “Jesus” and write “God” to make it more applicable to my life.
By high school, I decided I was going to become a rabbi. Looking back, I don’t think that was what I actually wanted. I just wanted a way to make my faith seem more legitimate.
By high school, I developed two close friends, R and T. R went on to become a priest, and at the time, T wanted to be a nun. Together, we were the priest, the nun, and the rabbi (and one time we went to a bar just so we could say we did).
It was T who influenced me to eventually convert, because her faith was quiet, yet powerful, like the saints I read about. I envied what she had with God. She was one of the first Christians I met who didn’t intimidate me. We could talk about spiritual issues and she tried to convert me, nor did she ever threaten me with hell. I knew if I ever converted, I wanted to be a Christian like her.
Despite having a few close Christian friends, I continued to encounter negative examples of faith throughout my childhood. My parents would be snubbed at social events where they were the only non-Christians in attendance. My brother experienced coercive Christian prayers with his teammates when he ran track and played football at our public school.
And I went to a graduation party and met a charismatic youth group leader at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church, who later raped me in his dorm room.
I wish that part wasn’t included in my story, but I honestly don’t know how to tell it without that piece, because it really did change so much about my life…including the trajectory of my journey towards Christ.
For years, I didn’t see what he’d done as rape. I didn’t think it “counted” as abuse because he was someone I knew, let alone had real feelings for. I thought he was my only chance at a relationship (because of “soul ties” and all). This message was reinforced in many of the books I read about saints who were renowned for their chastity.
That’s why I didn’t stop seeing him, even in secret. I was 17 when we met, and he was 21, which should have been the first red flag. I felt so grown-up for being noticed by someone older. Boys my own age barely acknowledged me at all.
But because I was Jewish, he didn’t want anyone to know about us. He refused to acknowledge me in public. I waved at him once, and he punished me by ignoring me for days. But if I wanted to hang out with my friends and didn’t answer his instant messages (back in the days of AOL instant messenger), he got angry.
This went on for five years, I’m embarrassed to say. Because I honestly didn’t think I deserved better. My purity was compromised, so I had to live with the consequences.
Interestingly, his treatment of me didn’t turn me off to Jesus completely. The Jesus I was starting to know understood what it was like to suffer and be betrayed by people you love. It wasn’t until sophomore year of college – fall of 2008 – that I was done reading about him and ready to actually follow him.
I was encouraged by a Christian classmate to start going to the Campus Crusade for Christ (“Cru”) chapter on campus. It was there that I met a girl named Ashley. One year ago, she stopped me on my way to class to hand me a promotional bulletin about Cru. It asked me to fill out my contact information, which I filled out to be polite. But when she followed up with me by email a few days later, I was pretty rude to her. I basically told her to take her conversion attempts and shove it.
Well, one year later, she recognized me. When I saw her there at a Cru meeting, she hugged me and told me she had been praying for me by name that whole time.
It would be months before my family found out I’d converted, but when they did, it was in Israel of all places. We were there for my cousin’s bat mitzvah, and it was the absolute last place I wanted to tell them. I got caught looking at a display of crosses in a marketplace in Jerusalem, which confirmed what they had long suspected.
Needless to say, my parents were pretty upset. I couldn’t get them to understand the Jesus I knew from my books. All they saw were the Crusades, pogroms, and slavery justified in his name.
But once my parents knew, it was safe for me to “come out” to the rest of my friends. I had more Jewish friends in college than I ever did growing up. When they found out, many of them shunned me. I got emails calling me a traitor. There are still some relatives I have no relationship with.
My Christian friends told me that God was blessing me through this persecution, but I knew it wasn’t that. I understood how they felt. A few years back, I would have also felt betrayal, so I wasn’t angry at them. I was just depressed.
The Bible teaches that baptism is an outward sign of being a new creation in Christ. I chose to be baptized in December of my senior year, which took place in a swimming pool at the campus gym. After, I decided to take that “made new” teaching a step further by going to the courthouse and legally changing my name. You could say I was following in the footsteps of my ancient namesake, the original Sarah (formerly Sarai), whose name was changed after making a covenant with God.
My parents named me Sarah Elizabeth, a name I never liked because every other girl my age seemed to have it. I never “felt” like a Sarah, anyway. But because Sarah was the name my father picked, and a nod to my Jewish heritage, I decided to make my new name Sarahbeth (no middle name). Almost as soon as the ink dried on the paperwork, the name got shortened to “Beth,” which is who I’ve been ever since.
My depression got worse when Catholic Rapist ended whatever it was we had by changing his relationship status on Facebook. Only then did I start to get help for coping with what he did to me, which happened several times in the five years we were “together.”
As soon as I graduated college, I fled to Estes Park, Colorado for a summer with a church that was having a retreat there. I needed to get away from Ohio, away from my old life for a bit.
When I came back to Cleveland, I worked as a waitress while I figured out what to do next with my life. One day I ran into Josh, a friend from Cru. We started talking regularly, which led to him asking me out on a date. That date lasted nearly six hours, in which we shared all of our relationship baggage and then discussed marriage. By the end of that first date, we introduced each other to our families.
But Catholic Rapist’s mother was a regular at the restaurant where I worked, and I started having PTSD episodes. My solution was to leave the state by choosing a random seminary in Colorado; a decision that made zero sense at the time (and still doesn’t), but I thought it was a way to fix what was broken in my life.
By the time I realized what a financial mistake that was and dropped out, Josh had accepted a job in Colorado, so I decided to stay. A few months after he moved here, we got engaged in Estes Park: the same place where I went to piece my life back together when everything was broken.
My father was diagnosed with cancer again while Josh and I were planning our wedding. He had suffered cancer on and off throughout my whole childhood, but this time the doctors said he wouldn’t make it. I had a strained relationship with him since becoming a Christian, and a very limited amount of time to make things right with him. He still didn’t want to talk about faith, and I respected that. He died two months before I got married.
By the time he’d died, I was a full-blown alcoholic. Grief and trauma had built up over time, despite the happiness from getting engaged. I blacked out frequently. I begged Josh to call off our wedding because I thought he deserved better, but he wouldn’t. He knew I was sick, and took the vows of “for better or for worse” seriously even before we were married.
I’m happy to say that our marriage is stronger than ever today…perhaps in no small part due to the hardships we experienced early on.
I discovered the Anglican church by accident. My car died while I was on my way to a different church, and the first safe place I could pull over was this Anglican church. So I figured I’d go into the service while I waited for AAA…and found myself part of another unexpected love story that continues today.