Life changed for my wife, Dee, and me when we moved to Adrian, Mich., in the early 1970s. It started when Willis and Marilyn Kilbourn came from across the street to welcome us to the neighborhood.
Our daughter, Desteni, and their daughter, Cheryl, became constant companions. At first we thought the Kilbourns were a little too straight for us, but we chose to respect them. Their consistently loving attitude and actions impressed me the most. They didn’t judge me and my family for our hippy lifestyle or all-night parties, but offered helping hands when Dee and I needed them. They even took care of Desteni when Dee and I worked at our store downtown. Willis and Marilyn never condemned us for who we were or what we did. They simply loved us.
Although they attended church just about every time the doors were open, they weren’t at all preachy or hypocritical. Had I observed any inconsistencies in their beliefs or actions, I would have written them off. One thing I learned from them is to live my life, making sure my actions agree with what I say and believe.
After we lived in the neighborhood a while, Willis and Marilyn invited us to go with a group from their church to Detroit to hear Billy Graham. I had no desire to go, but wanted to honor them by saying yes. The trip seemed like something out of a movie. A tall, skinny man stood at the front of an old school bus and led singing for the entire 70-mile trip. The singing turned me off; I would have preferred that some of the people use the time to get to know me.
Out of appreciation for all the Kilbourns did for us, Dee and I attended Easter Sunday service at their small Free Methodist church. The experience reminded me of growing up in a Christian home and caused me to think how far away from God I had wandered. Dee and I kept attending church there, but our sinful ways finally caught up with us.
The police came to our store and arrested both of us for delivery of marijuana. Dee called Marilyn. “Please call Denny’s mom and dad and have them come and get Desteni immediately. We have to get her out of the state — now!” My parents lived near Toledo, Ohio, and, fortunately, were home when Marilyn called. I’m glad they came right away, because I couldn’t bear the thought of Desteni in state custody. My bail was denied, but Dee’s was granted because of our daughter. I was released the next day, and a trial date was set.
A week after our arrests, I rode my bike into the country with only a sandwich and a Bible in my backpack. On a patch of grass under an oak tree in a farmer’s field, I spent the day crying out to God. I didn’t like my life anymore, but had no clue what to do next. The words “follow the manufacturer’s instructions” popped into my head, and I wondered why those particular words. Then, since I didn’t know where to start, I opened my Bible to the center. The first thing I read was, “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior” (Psalm 25:4-5). Yes, Lord, this is what I want, I prayed. I want to live for You.
I wasn’t sure how Dee would accept what I had to say, but I told her about my day, about crying out to God and about the Scripture verse. “I have decided to live for Christ,” I said. Tears streamed down her face. “That’s what I want too,” she cried. We knelt together in our living room, confessed our sins and asked God to take over our lives and marriage.
Dee and I marveled how our church surrounded us with love and prayer. As the day of the trial approached, Dee became very ill and was rushed to the hospital. She died of a brain aneurism following kidney stone surgery. Even though Dee was joyfully home with our Lord, my world crumbled. Besides grieving the loss of my wife and taking care of our 3-year-old daughter, a trial and a prison term loomed in my future.
“When the house across the street became vacant, we prayed for God to send us a family we could reach out to with His love. The Keitzmans were the answer to that prayer.” —Willis and Marilyn Kilbourn
The Kilbourns and others from our church came to my trial, testified on my behalf and prayed for me. I will always remember the little old ladies with their hair in buns sitting in the back of the courtroom, praying for me.
I served 30 days in jail for a four-year-term felony. My love for God grew beyond my wildest imagination. I knew God had me there for a reason, so I began Bible studies in the jail’s common area. Shortly after my release, God used my witness: My probation officer accepted Christ and started coming to our church.
My first job after completing my jail term was as a janitor in the county’s special ed school. I also worked with a local radio station, starting a Sunday evening program of Christian music. Later I traveled with dc Talk for 13 years, as their road manager; since 1985, I’ve served as the stage manager for Ichthus, a spring festival at Asbury University. Today I own Straight Gate Productions, which provides groundwork for gospel festivals and concerts performed around the world, and I am the tour manager for Casting Crowns.
I don’t think I would be living for Christ today without the help and prayers of Willis and Marilyn Kilbourn. They weren’t preachy or hypocritical. They simply loved me.
Perhaps someone you know has been kind and caring toward you, so much so that you wonder what’s up. Perhaps you’ve also been invited to a special event or a church service, or to join a mom’s group or a church baseball team. Don’t let preconceived notions about pushy religious people color your response this time. Think about the hand of friendship that’s been extended, and reach out with one of your own. This could be the beginning of something very special. So go for it.
Thanks for caring about me and sending [say your Christian acquaintance’s name] into my life. I know [person’s name] isn’t judging me or avoiding me, and that’s pretty amazing. It feels nice. Help me return the kindness I’ve been shown. Should I say yes to this latest invitation? Maybe if I do, I can finally discover what’s been missing in my life, that elusive peace I’m always seeking. If You are there, God, and You really do care about me, please show me exactly what I need to do.
“Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” — John 14:27 (New King James Version)