It was a rash, spur-of-the-moment decision to go to a church that day. Previous encounters during my 17 years of life had not been too impressive. As a child, I attended Sunday school three times. I felt confused, because those were the days of fuzzy felt, where paper cutouts of biblical characters were stuck on a felt board, which apparently wasn’t fuzzy enough, because Moses kept falling off. This led me to the mistaken impression that Moses was a sky diver, which he was not. 

I’d also attended a rather formal church where the organist sat perched high up in a loft at the front of the building. We watched his back during the sermon, and sometimes he would start leaning to the left, succumbing to slumber as the preacher droned on. My prayers back then were, uncharitably, that, like fuzzy Moses, he might fall headlong out of the organ loft, which was rude of me. My interest in the gospel was not sparked.

What grabbed my attention was a life beautifully lived. My school RE teacher, Mrs Richardson, was constantly on the move. Balancing her career with the demands that came with being married to a pastor, she bustled from classroom to classroom, often picking up extra work from other teachers who offloaded responsibilities onto her because she was a Christian. 

I was not the most diligent or attentive student, and surely gave her many opportunities for frustration. But she was consistently kind to me and, when she spoke of Jesus, she exuded warmth and grace. When I finally decided to visit a church, I turned to her. 

The preacher that night was Eric Delve, a cravat-wearing 70s evangelist. At the end of the service, I responded to the invitation to follow Jesus. I’d taken a friend to church with me, mainly for security, and he took the plunge too. When we told someone that we wanted to make the big step, we were perturbed to be directed towards “the little room at the back of the church”. There, we heard the good news again: Jesus wanted friendship with us, and everything was ready. We made the step.

When we opened the door, we expected to find an empty building – surely everyone had gone home. But news had got out that two lads had decided to follow Jesus, and so dozens waited to welcome us. They formed a long line, and my friend and I shook hands, received smiles and experienced Christian hugs for the first time. 

Most churches have ushers, greeters or otherwise-tagged people who are responsible for welcoming folk as they come in. While they are vital, surely we need not just a welcoming committee but a welcoming culture in our Christian communities. That night my friend and I heard that we were very important to Jesus, valued enough to die for. But the glorious welcome we experienced from his followers cemented that truth in our hearts and minds. Decades later, I’ve never forgotten it. 

There was a further blessing. One of the people who stood in that line of love was Kay, who became my wife. Integrity demands that I share that she initially had her eye on my friend, but I’m over that now…

Since that evening, there have been seasons of delight and tears, obvious answers to prayer and bewildering times of seeming silence from heaven. But I’ll be forever grateful – literally – for that merry band of Jesus people who told me that God welcomed me, and embraced me immediately as part of their family. 

It was a good day.