‘Come as you are’ — and meaning it
Church with a genuine open door is a family to celebrate with
LANCASTER, Pa. — Raymond Gephart grew up in a family plagued by the abuse of drugs and alcohol. His two older sisters were put into foster care.
Today, 58-year-old Gephart lives in Lancaster with his new family, Neal and Jewel Sensenig and their children, Tyler and Emily. He is a member of West End Mennonite Fellowship.
After he moved from his childhood home of Pottstown to Lancaster, he was always getting into fights. At 9 p.m. on Nov. 28, 2006, he decided he had had enough.
“I decided 100 percent to quit,” he said. “I did not want my family’s lifestyle of drugs and alcohol.”
Though he was not a Christian, Gephart would go to churches asking for prayer.
“I started to go to church when I was high to ask for prayer and got kicked out of nine churches before I stopped counting,” he said.
Because of the effects of abstaining from drugs and alcohol, he was restless and could not sit still. He remembers being told to leave a congregation while they were singing, “Come as you are . . .”
Three years ago, Gephart became a Christian at a church in New Holland, to which Gephart would walk from Lancaster, a distance of more than 10 miles.
‘Can I call you pops?’
In 2014, the Sensenigs invited Gephart to join them for Christmas with Jewel’s extended family.
Gephart hated Christmas and other holidays with family gatherings.
“I did not like the songs and celebrations,” he said. Being around healthy families was painful, reminding him of what he didn’t have.
The Sensenigs wanted to help him replace his sad Christmas memories with happy ones.
“At first he was hesitant to join us because he was afraid he’d hear Christmas music,” Jewel said. “So one afternoon he lay on our couch, in the fetal position, while we softly played Christmas music and just allowed him to feel the emotions that went with the songs. He cried, and then said, ‘That wasn’t so bad. I’ll join you for Christmas.’ ”
Jewel called her parents and asked to bring a friend who had no family. She warned them Gephart was not used to family gatherings, so they might not stay long.
He stayed all day.
“My family is great at welcoming everyone, and they warmed right up to Raymond,” she said.
“Raymond slid up to me on the sofa,” said Nelson Martin, Jewel’s father. “ ‘I have never had a pops,’ he said. ‘Can I call you pops?’ ”
Martin replied: “Yes, you can call me pops anytime you want.”
Gephart is now a regular at family gatherings.
Part of Christ’s body
At West End, Gephart enjoys greeting people as they enter the church building.
The first time Nyssa King walked in, Gephart welcomed her.
“I met Raymond approximately 15 seconds after I walked through the church door, and I was bowled over by his openness,” she said. “It was great to meet a friendly face. We only just met, and I knew he was clean from drugs and alcohol. As a person who struggles with things privately, I was amazed that someone could be so open with something people keep secret. That was a testimony for me.”
West End Pastor Josef Berthold said Gephart was a gift to the body of Christ.
“West End Mennonite Fellowship welcomes all people, especially when they are not at their best behavior,” Berthold said. “The church ought to provide the space for people to be who they are until they can become who God wants them to be.”
On Nov. 28, the church was packed with people who came to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Gephart forsaking drugs and alcohol.
Martin addressed Gephart before the crowd: “Raymond, you have been a great friend.”
Gephart’s church family and friends loudly counted down the seconds until 9 p.m.
“. . . Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one,” they yelled as a worship song played to celebrate the change in their friend’s life.
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