Chris Sherwood’s Story
I was born to an alcoholic mother and an emotionally absent and explosive father and was raised in a small and poor working class town in upstate NY. My mother was a non practicing Catholic. But we were all expected to participate in after school catechism instructions and to prepare for First Holy Communion and Confirmation. Later, in a desperate act to rescue me from my discipline problems in school, I was sent to Notre Dame High School. The experiment was an abysmal failure. I dropped one course and failed 5 others. The atmosphere at home was cold and tense for all six children. I dealt with the anxiety by spending all of my time on the streets making as many friends as I could. (I ended up being best man in several weddings). The summer I graduated from grammar school I met an older girl (15) who invited me to go for a walk into the woods. From that point on I focused most of my energies toward romantic and sexual relationships. At age 14 my friends and I were able to create fake identification cards in our printing shop class and found that mom and pop stores were happy to sell us beer. The drinking added another significant component to my life. When I was 16 my best friend went off to the State University of New York at Oswego. He became one of the ring leaders of what was known as “Seneca 6 -the “drug floor” of the campus. He invited me to visit and gave me my first taste of hashish. From there I led a typical hippie life of the 1970s – sex, drugs rock and roll, campus protests, etc.
Out of a high school class of 410 students I graduated at number 395. I attended a local community college and was coming very close to flunking out. During the summer after my freshman year I was with a girlfriend at the Chemung County Fair where a local church had sponsored a booth off the midway. I saw their sign (I have no idea today what it said) and walked over to ask what they were all about. A man my age explained that God saw me naked in my sin and was ready to forgive me through the cross of Christ. He explained the sinner’s prayer and invited me to come inside and accept the Lord as my savior. I declined his offer thinking that I had no interest in a religion that threatened to interfere with the party life that I loved. But what he told me rang true – it just sounded universally right. So, when I was in my bed on that August night I said, “Ok, Jesus if you are really there, come into my heart and forgive my sins.” Today I have no doubt that he answered that prayer. But it was almost two years before there were any changes in me. I moved into a large apartment house with my friends – including my best friend who flunked out of Oswego State. My parents didn’t ask where I was going when I packed his car with all of my possessions. We became a center for partying and drug dealing. Most of us had jobs, but our lives centered on that season of fun. I was dating six women, I managed to get a good job in a State Psychiatric Hospital and we never had any problems finding the hashish, mescaline or LSD that we wanted. All was right with the world.
A friend of mine told me that my parents were wondering where I was since they hadn’t seen me in six months. So on occasion I would visit them. One evening I was in their kitchen when my mother came running in and said, “There are some Jesus freaks at the front door, Chris, go get rid of them!” A week later I was on their bus going to church. The sermons were a bit dull, but the hymns really had an impact on me. I found myself taking the truths of the Gospel more to heart. There was a Pentecostal Church located a block from where I grew up. We used to ride our bicycles by and shout at them through their front door. I decided to pay them a visit and was quickly adopted by a family who had four children near my age. It turned out that they lived a block from our hippie house and soon I was well connected there. But my hypocritical lifestyle was starting to bother me. So one morning as we were invited to pray at the altar, I felt I just had to confess everything to the assistant pastor (who turned out to be the one who witnessed to me at the county fair). I told him that I was partying every weekend, doing drugs, sleeping with my girlfriend and basically living a life of sin. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Brother, God understands. Jesus was temped the same way you are. He knows what you’re going through.” I was stunned. This was a very legalistic church that preached a lot of condemnation. Yet, this pastor explained God’s mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and love. I never made a resolution to change. I never told myself that from this day forward I will behave, but very gradually over time my desires were transformed, not by my determination, but by the grace of God and the unconscious transforming power of the Holy Spirit. That pastor’s brief description of God’s mercy gave me the confidence I needed to not give up, no matter how guilty I felt. During those years of very progressive sanctification I just kept repeating, “His mercy endures forever.”
I was helping to organize a protest at our local private college. And of course the first thing on the agendas for our planning meetings was to pass around a couple of joints. At one of our meetings I noticed that someone had thrown a Bible on my lap and it hit me that I had been talking to our committee about Christ. I apologized, and we went on with our business. A couple of months later I was in a bar with three of our hippie house crew and I noticed that everyone was giving an odd stare. Again, it hit me that I had just given them a little lecture on salvation. I immediately apologized, told them to give me another beer and we forgot the incident. I found the whole thing to be strange, but almost against my will, my mind and heart were being transformed. It wasn’t long before I let the hash pipe pass by. I decided I needed to break up with my beautiful blonde girlfriend and say goodbye to her brand new Corvette convertible.
The state of New York decided to build public housing on the site of our hippie house and gave each of us checks for a few thousand dollars to help us resettle. My first thought was to buy myself a really nice car. But, as a Christian I decided that I should pray about it. “Lord, what should I do with this money?” The next week someone gave me a copy of Young Life magazine that featured an article on Christian colleges with a survey of the best ones to attend. And I thought, “That’s what I’ll do. I’ll go back to school!” But my academic record made me nervous. All of the evidence said that I would fail. That January, my pastor pulled some strings and at age 24 I packed my 1969 Mustang and moved to East Providence Rhode Island. Two years before this I was a completely autonomous and determined party animal. And now I found myself in a Fundamentalist Pentecostal Bible College where the lights had to be out at 10:30, no one was allowed to leave campus without permission, men and women were required to wear uniforms and had to sit on opposite sides in classes. It was a bit of an adjustment, but Christ had a plan. It was here that I learned that the core of Christian spirituality is faith. At that time Zion Bible Institute charged no tuition and no room and board. It in essence was able to offer a three year college education for free because they trusted God to meet their needs. And it turns out that God knew that I could handle college classes. I ended up graduating with honors with a BA, MA and D.Min. And for the last 17 years the guy who graduated in the bottom 10 percentile in high school and almost flunked out of college is ministering to students, graduates and faculty from Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School, MIT and many of the 100 other colleges and universities that surround Park Street Church in downtown Boston.