PLAINVIEW – Zoe Benson was a picture of contradictions – 6’ tall and an imposing member of the Wayland Baptist University soccer team who according to her personal profile brings “height and strength” to the team. But on this day she was scared out of her mind.
It was a Sunday morning, she was about six rows deep in the middle section of First Baptist Church, Plainview and it wasn’t the first time she had been scared at the church. It was different this time, though, because as Dr. Tim Marrow, pastor of the church, began the prayer before the alter call, the church’s university minister, Greg Northcutt, walked out into the congregation and stood beside the college junior. When the prayer ended and the invitation for response began, Northcutt walked with Zoe to Dr. Marrow and she made her decision to become a Christian public.
After the fact, as Zoe thought back on the morning, she explained that she had been struggling with that decision for several weeks, but is scared to get in front of people so she had not been able to muster the courage to walk down the aisle.
While that “public profession of faith,” as it is called in Baptist ritual, is not a requirement of becoming a follower of Christ, it is an important part of the process because it lets others know of the individual’s decision and gives them the opportunity to provide emotional support.
That had been explained to Zoe and once it was over, she was glad the church incorporated that into the process, but it didn’t make it any easier when the time came to step out into the aisle.
As it turns out, the soccer player from Chico, Calif., who also is studying biology at Wayland, didn’t come to the school for spiritual reasons. In fact, she almost didn’t come to the school at all because it was a religious institution. She came to play soccer and study science. From a religious standpoint, she had spent much of her childhood and teen years leaning more toward atheism.
“My family isn’t religious at all. When I was real little, I would go with my best friend to church but it was more just to hang out. It wasn’t really church.
“I made a personal choice that I didn’t want any religion. I was going to be an atheist and that’s how my life was going to go and it was going to be fantastic,” she said.
When Wayland’s Head Women’s Soccer Coach Shiloh Posey recruited her, initially she recoiled at the thought of coming to Wayland.
“Shiloh Posey came and talked to me about coming to Wayland and I was like, ‘Nope! It’s a religious school and I don’t want to deal with that,’ ” she said.
However, the coach persisted and eventually convinced her that “it’s not actually that bad” and she would “be okay.” She wanted a college education so she decided to go ahead and come to the school, but only to play soccer and study science.
However, once Zoe got to Wayland her attitude began to change and the change started with a note from Northcutt, one that he sends out regularly to the students at the school.
“Badly enough, they said that they would give you food and they would do your laundry,” Zoe said with a grin.
Northcutt explained. The church has two washers and two driers in its Family Life Center and college students can come on Monday-Thursday nights and do laundry without having to spend their quarters to use dorm or public facilities. The center also has Wi-Fi and a gymnasium so the students can work on homework, get on social networking sites or play ball. On Sundays, he continued, the church encourages adult Sunday School classes to provide lunch for college students and to come and eat with them as a way of establishing a connection between the church and the university.
Surprisingly, he said, Zoe never took advantage of either of those programs. The soccer player laughed and agreed, but pointed out that she did start coming to the church.
“I decided maybe I should just give it a try. Let’s learn about it,” she said. Then she added the kicker.
“I just couldn’t stop going,” she said.
As it turned out, that decision was part of a general change in attitude toward Christianity that actually started at school. Wayland requires that students attend Chapel each week and Zoe really didn’t want to do that but didn’t have a choice. She went. Then she began to meet people who didn’t fit the mold of the people from her past who had offended her by “pushing religion down my throat.”
“I came to Wayland and it was intimidating at first, the whole religion thing and having to go to Chapel. Then I realized that Chapel wasn’t so intense. Donnie Brown (Wayland director of Baptist Student Ministries) wasn’t so scary. He’s kind of nice. He’s kind of cool. Then I came home last summer in 2012 and I went to a Baptist church with one of my mom’s coworkers and she kind of helped me with a few things and kind of walked me through how you go to church, how you go and dress and talk and hang out and all that stuff. So that was nice and then I came here and thought, ‘Why not go? Why not go to church, and that’s when I fell in love,” she said.
Brown laughed when he heard that he was “kind of cool,” but then he talked about Zoe’s transition from doubter to believer.
“I first met Zoe on the soccer team,” he said. “When she first got here I spoke to the soccer team once a week – just a short devotional with them, hung out with them a little bit.”
From that introduction, he started having “friendly conversations” with her that really had little to do with spiritual issues.
“I was just being a friend,” he said.
“Last year I spoke to all of the athletes on campus right at the beginning of the semester. Dr. (Greg) Feris (Wayland Athletic Director) had me do that. Zoe had some questions about faith, you know, ‘Is there a God and is this really real?’ ”
He and Northcutt began to make themselves available to Zoe and tried to answer the questions she was beginning to ask, but gave her plenty of room.
“I just encouraged her to keep searching. God’s big enough to ask the tough questions and if He’s really real and you seek Him out, He will reveal Himself to you,” Brown said.
In the meantime, Zoe had begun going to First Baptist Church and had discovered that church wasn’t such a bad place either. The people she would meet on Sundays were friendly and caring. They liked her and they asked her how she was doing. The church put her to work, letting her help in the children’s program where she began to care for 1-3 year-olds.
It all started to overwhelm the college student, but in a good way.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” she said, “but I walk in there and I say ‘hello’ to everybody because people there are so wonderful. They’re so sweet. It’s not just a Sunday thing that they’re sweet. I know a lot of them outside of church. Everybody is sweet. I love to love them. They’re wonderful. It’s exciting to see that. I get excited every time I see one of them outside of church. They’re like, ‘Hey, how are you?’ ”
Still, she was struggling with the decision to become a Christian.
Then she got a chance to go on a medical mission trip to Honduras with the university’s biology department. She decided she would go because it was a chance to travel out of the country and to work with fellow science students and build her resume. But there was one other aspect that intrigued her.
“I can work on my relationship with God – see if He can use me, see what I can do with Him and see if this is really what I want, if I really want to be in a church,” she said.
Brown said that he began praying for Zoe and the trip to Honduras.
“I prayed that God would continue to reveal Himself and that especially on that trip God would really work in her life and reveal who He is to her and evidently, that’s what took place. I mean God showed up,” he said.
Zoe echoed that.
“The trip to Honduras really helped me, I guess, find myself a little bit. I know those mission trips are supposed to be for other people. We’re supposed to go to help people and not help ourselves so much, but it opened my eyes a lot more than I expected,” she said.
Once she got back to Plainview, it wasn’t long before she found herself in the pew at church wanting to step forward, but being scared.
“For the past three or four Sundays I’ve been like, ‘Go Zoe! Go! We’re going to do it today! Ugh! I can’t do it. I can’t do it,” she said.
Then Northcutt offered to come to her and walk up the aisle with her so she wouldn’t feel so alone.
That worked. She went forward. But she still was scared.
“It’s nerve wracking. I can’t get up in front of people. My face was bright red. My knees were shaking. I felt awful up there. I felt like I needed to puke but I was up in front of people so I didn’t,” she said, adding that when she first turned around to face the crowd of people, many of whom were fellow students and others whom she had become friends with, she didn’t see anybody that she recognized.
But then she added that it was worth it and she actually was glad the church made that part of the process.
“I think (making the decision) personally is great but doing it publically really lets everybody know and gives people a lot more hope and support. When I looked out in front of everybody I couldn’t see a face that I knew for the life of me. When everybody came up (after the service) I knew a lot of people and a lot of my friends were supportive. They were like, ‘Congratulations.’ It was really cool,” She said.