Come & Hear: A Canceled Baseball Game

April 19, 2024
John Jackson

In the summer of 1997, I was born into a loving home in Yonkers, New York, on the outskirts of New York City. My background is quite consistent, as all my great-grandparents were Irish Catholics who immigrated to the United States. Both the religion and culture consistently made its way down as each generation followed. The religious and cultural titles were intertwined and part of our families’ identity. Yet my own spiritual upbringing was less focused on identity and more focused on the substance beneath all the titles. That was due in part to the Lord’s working at a Vacation Bible School (VBS) held decades earlier at Bethany Chapel in Yonkers. 

On a Tuesday in July 1979, a couple of 11-year-old boys from Yonkers were trying to organize a baseball game in their neighborhood. One of the two was my mother’s younger brother Billy Smith. The other was his friend Rob Sullivan. However, the two ran into a problem when they could not find any of their friends that day. What they soon realized was that most of the neighborhood kids were attending Bethany Chapel’s VBS, so they went and joined them.

One question that was often on the mind of both boys was death. Rob’s father had passed away years earlier and both Billy and Rob often discussed where one goes when they die. Their religious upbringing led them to conclude that heaven awaited those whose good deeds outweighed their bad deeds. At VBS that week, one of their memory verses was Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” This made them question their preconceived notions about earning a spot in heaven.

One of the ladies helping with the program, Colleen Citarella, helped the two boys understand that you could never work your way into heaven. You could go to church every Sunday, complete all the sacraments, and do an abundant amount of good works, but Scripture teaches that “your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you” (Isa. 59:2). One sin is enough to separate us from God and there is nothing we can do on our own to reconcile ourselves to Him. God is a perfect, holy, and righteous God who must judge sin. However, the wonderful news is that He is also a loving God who provided a way to judge our sins and forgive us at the same time. That was accomplished through His Son Jesus Christ, who came into the world to pay the price for our sins so that we, through faith in Him, may be reconciled to God. When hearing these scriptural truths from Colleen, both Billy and Rob put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation. 

Billy and Rob were on fire for the Lord after receiving His gift of salvation, and their families were soon aware of their faith. Billy would share the gospel with his parents and siblings, whose focus at that time was on a works-based religion. However, as we know from 1 Corinthians 3:6, while man plants and waters, it is God who gives the increase, and over time increase did indeed come.

Fast forward a few decades to the 2000’s. My aforementioned spiritual upbringing was on one hand very religious through weekly Catholic masses and K-12 Catholic schooling. Yet, on the other hand it focused more on a relationship with the Lord Jesus through my mom’s teaching. Some of what my uncle Billy had shared with her decades earlier stuck with her. Most of my early memories of the Bible were from biblically-accurate videos and children’s Bibles. 

There is not a day in my life I can remember where I did not believe in God. However, as we read in James 2:19, even the demons believe in God. My spiritual upbringing formed a solid foundation for my future faith, but what I had at this time in my life was merely a knowledge of biblical concepts along with a lack of truly understanding the gospel. 

By 2007, my mother felt led to send my two brothers and I to Bethany Chapel’s VBS just like her brother Billy in 1979. Over the next few years, my brothers and I took in a lot of theology through our Catholic school, our Catholic church, and the children’s programs held at Bethany Chapel. 

However, even before attending Bethany Chapel, I had started to develop more interest in what Scripture had to say. This made me appreciate the fact that at Bethany Chapel we went right to the source. We were not being taught what a theologian or an institution had to say, but rather what God had to say as recorded in His Scriptures.

Bethany Chapel has for years held a Friday night kid’s program from October to April. My parents sent my brothers and I there in October 2007 and we were able to hear the gospel on a weekly basis for most of the year. One of the nights a year or two into the program, the gospel message became very clear to me, and I told the Lord that I now accepted His gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.

In the coming months I struggled with doubt over my faith, but at the beginning of 2010, I was able to put an end to my battle with doubts. In a prayer to the Lord, I addressed my doubts and stressed my belief. After praying, I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. It was on this day that I no longer doubted my standing in God’s eyes. I knew my sins were washed away since I had accepted the Lord Jesus’ completed work on the cross. After this, I was confident that if I were to die at any time in the future, I would be in the presence of the Lord for eternity. About this time in my life, I began reading the Scriptures every day which helped me grow closer to the Lord.

Through consistent prayer and Scripture reading, I was able to draw close to the Lord, but I was lacking in other areas. I continued attending religious masses out of habit on a weekly basis up until I started college in 2015. I did not stop attending at that time due to falling away from the Lord, but because I was not being drawn closer to Him through attendance at mass.

While I did attend the bi-monthly youth meeting at Bethany Chapel, I sought even more spiritual nourishment. We read in Acts 2:42 that the early church “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” I was lacking in these areas and felt led to begin attending Sunday services on a consistent basis at Bethany Chapel beginning Christmas 2016. Shortly after, my older brother attended with me, and we both publicly shared our faith in the Lord Jesus with the believers at Bethany through our baptisms in August 2017. Since then, the Lord has opened many doors for me to serve Him at Bethany Chapel and through various ministries.

I thank God frequently for the many blessings of which I am unworthy, the chief among them being the gift of grace through the Lord Jesus. While I remain a sinner who succumbs to sin daily, I know my eternal fate is sealed not because of what I have done, but because of what the Lord Jesus has done. My heart’s desire is to continue to grow even closer to Christ my Savior and serve Him well with the time He has allotted me on this side of heaven.

All scriptural references are from the NKJV