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One snowy night in Oregon

Keynoter Mark Yaconelli concludes his time at APCE with a touching story of love and persistence

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Lawrence Chismorie via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — APCE Annual Event keynoter Mark Yaconelli concluded his final plenary Friday with a story you just knew came with a happy ending. It did indeed, but the master storyteller drew it out so well that you were afraid it might turn out unexpectedly. More on that later.

Yaconelli’s penultimate story concerned a three-year grant project designed to teach teenagers Christian practices for every aspect of their lives. Under the grant, 15 theologians were gathered to write about such practices. A youth worker back then, Yaconelli was asked, “Do you have any thoughts?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “Don’t have 15 theologians write a book for 15-year-olds.” Instead, pair each theologian with a teenager to help them write their chapter. The group would meet every few months in a hotel for three days. Early on, Yaconelli realized the theologians were “killing the souls” of the younger members.

One day, Yaconelli told the youngsters that the group would be playing Capture the Flag that evening. Jails would be around the hotel’s ice machines, and the elevators played the role of independent Switzerland, places where no one could be tagged.

Remember, he told the youth: the professors are smart people. They’ll pretend not to know what you’re doing. “Put them in jail,” he advised, “until they’re tagged out.”

Also, “it’s possible security may be called.” If that happened, Yaconelli advised telling the authorities the youth belonged to another group staying at the hotel.

A couple of scenes stand out in Yaconelli’s memory. One is of a famous theologian being held horizontally inside the door of an elevator. The man was yelling, “This is Switzerland!”

Another was of an unknown man telling Yaconelli and one of the youth to duck into a room with him. The man said, “There’s an ambush around the corner.”

Yaconelli asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m just a guy at a business convention,” the man replied. “I know what you’re playing, and I want in.” “Great,” Yaconelli told him. “You’re our scout.”

The game went on until midnight. Then players young and old converged on a back room off the hotel bar. “Theologians and kids were laughing and telling stories,” Yaconelli said. During a lull in the conversation, Yaconelli told the young people, “This is what the kin-dom of God feels like — this joy and excitement, this energy and equanimity, this sense of holy mischief — this is the kin-dom of God.”

“Jesus came to make us more alive,” he told them. Sometimes we have to withdraw or tear things down, get angry or grieve. What’s not allowed is being lukewarm, or “living like you’re a dead person,” he told them. If we get stuck in that place, go to someone else for help, he suggested. “I know your sisters and brothers will know what to do when you ask for that help.”

“We have to stay alive right now. We owe that to the younger generations,” Yaconelli told Annual Event attendees, asking those in the crowd under 35 to stand and be recognized. “We owe these people hope and joy and a living church.”

“It was given to us,” he said, “and we need to find a way to return the gift.”

Yaconelli concluded the time with his APCE friends by telling his own story, taking them back to when he was an 18-year-old freshman at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.

Five minutes into his first class, the classroom door opened, and “loveliness came into the room.” Happily, this beautiful student sat next to Yaconelli, who suddenly lost all interest in what the professor was saying. He wrote her a note: “Sometimes, I hold a fork in front of my eyes and pretend everyone around me is in jail.”

She laughed, then wrote him back: “I’m actually a cat lady in clothes.” When he looked over in astonishment, she said, “Meow.”

At the end of the class, a male student put his arm around her and walked her out of class. That scene was repeated over the next few days. Yaconelli was dismayed.

He made up a character named Larry Stromboli, named for a dish she liked. Under that pseudonym, he’d write her letters with treasure hunts. One night he grabbed the guitar he was learning to play, parked himself outside the balcony of her sorority house, and proceeded to sing, “I Love You Truly.”

He and his friends went home to northern California for Thanksgiving break. They told him, “You’re making a fool of yourself.”

But he’d received a letter from this woman with a drawing of two stick figures: a guy playing his guitar and singing to someone on a balcony. She wrote, “Don’t give up.”

“I thought, I am in this game,” he said.

Mark Yaconelli

Her town, Oakland, Oregon, was on the way to Salem. Yaconelli asked his friends to stop there for a visit, since she wouldn’t be returning to school for a few days. We aren’t stopping, they told him. We need to get back to school.

He called her to say he was sorry they couldn’t stop. “My mom keeps saying you’ll make your way here,” she told him.

It started snowing hard that night. A mile or two past the Oakland exit, the highway was closed. Open the trunk, Yaconelli told his friends. I’m getting my bag and I’m going to town. I’m going to find her.

“I walked down the interstate, and love is leading me,” he said.

At about midnight, he found the address on Oak and knocked on the door. A man in a robe appeared, and Yaconelli explained who he was and why he was there. This is Oak Avenue, the man explained. He then went to his telephone. “I’m going to call them and tell them you’re here,” he told Yaconelli. “Believe me, they don’t want to go through what I’ve just been through.” In a town of 800 people, the man knew her family.

A car approached, and his beloved, Jill, got out along with her father. Her father instructed Yaconelli to get in the back seat while Jill sat in front. “She turned around to look at me,” Yaconelli said. “I will never forget that drive. Everything was quiet and dark with the two of us communicating in silence, just looking at one another.”

When they arrived home, out came Jill’s mother and siblings, all dressed despite the hour. Candles were lit, hot cocoa was in pitchers, applesauce and fresh-baked bread were ready. Jill’s mother said, “No one is going to sleep tonight. That young man is coming.”

“Thirty-seven years later,” Yaconelli reported, “we are still together.”

“I tell you that story for a couple of reasons,” he said. One is becuase love guides us and calls us. “Many times, it feels like we should give up. You have to stay close to that first time you felt God’s presence and you said, ‘I want to serve God. I want love to burst forth.’ Those visions matter. You need to keep walking.”

The second, he said, is because his mother-in-law is dying, probably in the next few weeks. When Yaconelli was experiencing “a very dark time” last year, “she came to me in a dream,” he said. In the dream, Yaconelli tells her, “I don’t think I know how to love. She said, ‘Here’s what you do. You choose love in every moment. It’s not about the feeling. It’s about the choice.’”

“That’s the word that came to me this morning,” Yaconelli said. “I see her spirit in all of you. God bless you. May God’s pleasure bloom inside of you during this dark time. May you know you are a light.”

“You’re a light,” he repeated. “Amen.”

The APCE Annual Event concludes Saturday. Follow more reporting on

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