Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Lifelong Search Rewarded

A warm, sunny Sunday morning near Athens, Greece, not far from the road traveled by the Apostle Paul, an 8-year-old, sandy-haired boy sat in a tree. He was obviously American. He had climbed up there to get a better view. As he gazed out over that ancient land from his perch on the gnarled limb, he heard a unit of Greek soldiers singing hymns as they marched to the Greek Orthodox Church.

How guilty the boy felt because he never went to church! God must hate me, he thought.
Then a warm Presence enveloped him, as though Someone had put His arms around him. "I love you, Bobby," He seemed to say.

For the first time in his young life, the boy knew there was a God who loved him. But how could he know Him? The boy didn't know, but at that moment in time he determined to search for a relationship with Him.

Robert James Conti was born July 12, 1944, in Newburgh, New York, while his father was fighting in World War II in the European Theater. His father, who made the Air Force his career, was not a religious man. He'd been baptized and married in the Catholic Church, but that was all. Bob's mother had a Baptist background, but she did not attend church then, either. Thus, Bob had had no religious training of any kind.

The Air Force sent the family to Greece for three years when Bob was 8 years old. He had few playmates and often explored the countryside alone with only his specially trained guard dog, a German police dog named Aristides, for a companion.

After his experience in the tree, Bob immediately began to search for God. Church was the place to start, he figured. In Greece, that meant the nearby Greek Orthodox Church, so Bob went to visit. As he entered the huge stone cathedral, fear filled him. It was dimly lit by candles. Incense pervaded the air. After the bright sunshine, it took time for his eyes to adjust. From all along the walls, strange looking statues and icons stared down at him.

A priest in a flowing black robe, a long beard, and a tall, stovepipe hat with the brim at the top approached him. "This is no place to play. Scram." Bob took one look and fled. Feeling none of the peace and comfort he'd experienced in the tree, he decided that he surely wouldn't find God there.

When the family returned to the States, Bob again began his quest to satisfy the longing in his heart to know God. They were stationed in Bethesda, Maryland, and his buddy across the street, who was a Catholic, began telling Bob he was going to hell unless he went to church.

That remark sent him running to his parents to find out what religion they were. "You were baptized a Catholic," they told him. So Bob began going to the Catholic Church just around the corner with his buddy.

Bob was now 11 years old. He had a lot of catching up to do, so a special catechism class was formed just for him that summer. He became a very devout Catholic. Bob had an excellent singing voice, and he was soon singing in the choir at Mass. He learned the prayers and spent many hours in prayer.

Every week, he went to confession, even though it was a frightening experience for him. For the one moment following confession, he felt all clean and good inside, but then he'd swear or commit some other sin and had to sweat it out until the next Saturday confession. Due to his penchant for swearing, he often confessed to having been "irrelevant," until the priest suggested he meant "irreverent."

During Bob's sophomore year of high school, the family was transferred to Fairbanks, Alaska. The Catholic chaplain on the base gave him a Good News for Modern Man, a translation of the New Testament in modern English approved by the Catholic Church. The Mass at that time was still in Latin, but Bob had always loved the weekly readings in English from the gospels. He began to devour the stories in his New Testament.

As he read, many questions came to his mind. When he mentioned them to the priest, he was told to just trust the Church. "The layman cannot understand the Bible." But that didn't satisfy Bob. When he graduated from high school, he left the Catholic Church. Since he'd been taught that the Catholic Church was the only true church, he had no idea how to know God now.

While in high school, Bob became an Explorer Boy Scout. Many weekends, he, and sometimes a buddy, would go camping in the subArctic winters learning to survive in sub-zero temperatures. Many times during those crackling cold nights among the aspens and birch trees, he would look at the stars or the dancing Aurora Borealis and pray, using the Catholic prayers with his lips, while his heart cried out for fellowship with his Maker. He had always been a loner, and the frozen expanse of earth and heaven added to his loneliness. Yet, he loved the solitude.

The week he graduated from high school at age 17, he left home. He worked as a night watchman for the military recreation center at Birch Lake near Fairbanks. Patrolling the lake in his speedboat during those short twilight nights, watching the sun set at 10 or 11 p.m. only to rise at 2 a.m., coming upon a cow moose and her calf grazing on the lake bottom at sunrise was like heaven to him. The stillness of the lake in those hours soothed his soul.

In the fall, he enrolled as a freshman in the engineering department at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. There, he learned to drink and smoke a pipe and cigars. He had never been a particularly good student in spite of his obvious intelligence, and the end of the year found him on academic probation.

Bob at Paxson  September 1963
That summer, he worked as a surveyor for the Alaska Department of Highways at Paxson, a hunting lodge near Denali National Park, building a road into the Alaskan wilderness. "Roughing it," they called it. Instead of going to town to look for girls with the guys on his days off, he explored the area. Finding a secluded place, he would sing the Catholic liturgy and songs like "Ave Maria" at the top of his lungs or pray his Catholic prayers in his desperation for God because they were all he knew. And he still went on drinking sprees then went to work with a hangover.

That fall, he went back to the university. A friendship developed with a girl he had met the previous year. She was different than the other girls he knew. One week she invited him to her church, the Denali Bible Chapel, a Plymouth Brethren fellowship. They had a Canadian evangelist for special services.

The sermon that night was simple and quietly given. The text was John 10:9, "I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture." The evangelist talked about the Door, Jesus Christ. He said, "Many people come to the Door. They look at it. They open it. They walk all around it, but only by entering through it can we be saved."

Bob looked back over his life and thought, "That's me. I've looked at it. I've walked all around it. But I don't know if I've ever walked through that Door."

After the service, Bob talked with the evangelist. "I'm not sure if I've been saved or not, but what you're talking about sounds like something I've done before."

The evangelist said, "Well, let's put it this way. If you weren't saved before, then you know you are now." And they prayed together.

Later, Bob learned the hymn, "Precious Hiding Place." He says, "'I was straying when Christ found me, in the night so dark and cold,' and friends, that's true because I found God at the age of 19 in November in Fairbanks, Alaska, and let me tell you, it was dark and cold! Yet, everything seemed brighter and cleaner, and I felt brand new inside."


Now that my Alaskan Waters Trilogy of Christian fiction is completed, I am beginning a collection of stories and testimonies of my family as we followed in the footsteps of faith of my maternal grandparents, Charles and Florence Personeus, pioneer missionaries to Alaska, 1917-1982. I hope to publish them in a sequel to Frontiers of Faith. The working title is Following in the Footsteps of Faith. This will be one of the stories.

NOTE: Beside Still Waters, Book 3 in the Alaskan Waters Trilogy, is now available in e-book on and Barnes & It will be available very soon in paperback.


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