My buddy Mike whom I worked with, and whose name was not Bob, loved this build-your-own-burger place called Flakey Jake’s. We went to lunch together often, and that’s where he always wanted to go.
That was fine with me, because there was this cute 19-year-old girl who worked there named Heidi. Wow. She took my breath away. She still does, but don’t tell her that, or it’ll go to her head.
I used to try to talk with her, but she wasn’t too interested. Plus there was always a long line behind me. So after Mike and I finished eating and the place slowed down, I would ask for her help at the cookie counter. I didn’t eat cookies in those days because I was working out (these days I eat every cookie I can find), but it was worth buying them and throwing them away because I got to talk to her. She said she had a boyfriend, but he lived up north. Which of course meant she didn’t have a boyfriend, she just thought she did. So I asked her out. And even though she gave me the same answer that she gave every guy who hit on her, it was the answer that would change both our lives: “No, but I’ll go to church with you.”
I had been to Protestant youth groups before, and I had no problem with God, so I said okay. As it turned out, no one had ever said okay before. She always answered that way, because she figured it would get rid of the guys who were shallow, and if anyone did say yes, then hey, maybe she could bring that person to Christ. How right she was.
Heidi attended Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, whose founder and pastor is Chuck Smith. He’s pretty well-known in this area. I don’t know how known he is nationwide, so I don’t know if you know of him or not, but according to their website, it is “one of the ten largest Protestant churches in the United States.”
We went to a Wednesday night prayer group at Calvary Chapel, and there were hundreds of people there. I didn’t like it. I thought it was weird. One guy followed me into the restroom and stood there watching me and waiting for me. As I was washing my hands, I looked at him with hostile curiosity. He nervously said “Hi.” I said hi, then walked past him and out of the restroom. I told Heidi about it, and she said he must have just noticed that I was new, and was trying to be friendly. That must have been it, but I still thought it was weird, and Heidi agreed.
After the prayer group, we went to Red Robin. Heidi wasn’t sure she should, because that would be kind of like a date, and remember, she had a boyfriend. Yeah right. So I said, no, it’ll just be platonic. We’ll just go as friends. And she fell for it! Girls, if you ever hear a guy say that, he’s lying. Give him a chance anyway, but just so you know.
So she reluctantly said okay, and we had a decent time. I had a better time than she did. She didn’t hear any angels singing or anything. I was just a nice guy who she’d taken to church and would probably never see again, unless I was ordering the chicken sandwich at Flakey Jake’s.
As we were leaving, though, I noticed she lingered behind. I thought that was strange. What was she doing? Checking my tip or something? Stealing forks? She seemed kind of embarrassed that I was watching her, so she quickly slipped something under the bill and hurried out ahead of me. I went back and looked. It was a tract. God bless her little heart, I thought that was great. I had never met anyone with such enthusiasm for God that they would actually leave a tract. I mean, I had heard of such people, and I knew they existed, but I certainly didn’t know any. That made such an impression on me. This girl loved God so much that she would go to church with some stranger, then leave a tract for another stranger. I’d never seen such a thing.
The next time I saw Heidi, she said she was going to some religious camp for the summer to help as a volunteer. I was disappointed, but said I’d call her when she got back. She didn’t seem too worried about it.
So Heidi left for the summer, and I was busy with my new job at another advertising agency nearby. I still thought of her, though, so I wrote her a letter. I could tell I made a huge impression on her, because she told me later that at first she didn’t know who the letter was from. “Oh yeah, that guy,” was the phrase, I believe.
Since I had a new job and didn’t work with Mike anymore, I didn’t go to Flakey Jake’s as often. So when it got to be around the time that I figured Heidi should be back in town, I called her house and left a message. She didn’t call me back. So I gave it a week, then called one more time and left another message. My general rule was two attempts, then move on. One non-returned call or turn-down for a date is plausible. Maybe they really are washing their hair that night or maybe they really do have to deflea the cat. But two means they’re not interested for sure.
So I didn’t hear from Heidi, and figured, oh well, too bad, I liked her. Then one night, I came home and there was a message from her. She had forgotten the first time, then almost didn’t bother the second time, but figured, ah, may as well return it just to be polite. He was a nice guy.
So I called her back, and for some reason, it just clicked. We talked for about two hours. I think it surprised both of us. I talked to her again a few nights later, and same thing, another marathon conversation. So I asked her out, and she was reluctant because of the whole pseudo-boyfriend thing. But I said come on, we’ll just go out platonically. By now, she knew I didn’t mean it, but she used it as an excuse to say okay.
We went to dinner, and it came out that technically, she and her boyfriend were allowed to see other people. Neither of them did, but since they were so far away, they had agreed on that allowance to be fair to each other. Aww, isn’t that sweet.
At that point, of course, it was over. She made the same weak argument a few times, and I trotted out the whole platonic thing each time, but we both knew where it was going. It became official a month later on my birthday when we were at a party with some of my work friends, and she kissed me. She said she knew I was going to kiss her that night, and she wanted to be the one who kissed me. That way, I would know she wasn’t just letting me kiss her. Wow.
So Heidi and I started spending more and more time together. We grew closer. We started having serious thoughts about the future. And right there in the middle of my vision of the future was a big white elephant named Religion.
Heidi Hilderbrand was born in Portland, Oregon. Her parents, Gerald and Sheryl, met and married in Oregon. Their first child was Trent, then Heidi, then Heather, then Holly.
When Heidi was still a baby, Gerald and Sheryl moved their family to Southern California. Gerald worked for Campus Crusade for Christ for a time, and Heidi and her brother and sisters grew up loving Christ and His word in Holy Scripture.
Heidi’s parents divorced when she was in sixth grade, and each later remarried other people. Heidi lived with her dad, then her mother for awhile, then back with her dad again, then finally moved out on her own when she graduated from high school. Her maternal grandparents sent her to a Christian camp called Ironwood every summer, where she had met the guy she was “dating” when I met her, and where she had gone to volunteer that summer. Heidi was always surrounded by good Christians who loved Jesus, and she knew their faith was genuine. As was hers.
As we futurized, I knew the difference in faith would affect everything, but to tell you the truth, I wasn’t that worried about it. I’m a bit of a procrastinator (hello, I’m writing this book like 15 years late) and I figured, ah, there’s plenty of time to deal with that. If it gets to the point where we decide to get married, we’ll get her father together with a priest, and just hack it out. We’ll all go out to lunch or something, maybe a long lunch if that’s what it takes, and the priest can just explain things to her and her dad, and that’ll be that.
Obviously, I realize now how ridiculous that thinking was, but that was seriously what I thought. I really had no idea of the depths of the differences between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians. I guess I just assumed everyone was like me, believing in their religion with only a surface knowledge, and if they dove down a little bit, they’d see that the Catholic Faith was it. All you had to do was explain it to them.
That’s not to say Heidi and I never talked about religion ourselves. Even from the beginning, she would ask me questions like, “Why do you believe the pope is never wrong?” or “Why do you pray to Mary?” or “Do you really believe that cracker-thing is actually Jesus?”
My answer was always the same: “I don’t know.” Actually, that was the short answer. The long answer was: “I don’t know. I guess because that’s what I’ve always believed.”
My problem was I had all the second grade answers, but never got any adult answers. The fault, of course, lay firmly with me. Not my parents, not the Church. Me. I simply wasn’t interested before. I was around the Faith my whole life, but never really thought about what else there was to it. I had no idea that another world with explanations even existed, but it was there in front of me all the time, and it was my fault for not looking for it.
In the meantime, I was telling Bob my workout partner all about my conversations with Heidi. Bob and I were good friends. We’d go to breakfast after our workout, I’d go to his house for dinner, we’d watch Lakers games at his house, he and his sons and I would go to bodybuilding competitions together (as spectators, not competitors). So I asked Bob if he knew the answers to the questions Heidi was asking me. It bugged me to not know the answer to something.
He said yes, he did know the answers, but he thought maybe someone else might be able to explain them to me better. He and his wife invited Heidi and me to a talk that some group called Catholic Answers was giving at his parish. I thought, gee, kinda hate to give up an evening, but I am curious, so yeah, okay, we’ll go.
So we went to this talk, and man. Talk about making your head spin.
The topic was the pope, which I thought was perfect, because that was one of Heidi’s questions to me. But this guy was up there talking about Greek words and Aramaic and quoting Isaiah and all kinds of other stuff. It was way too much for me to follow. I don’t know if Heidi fared any better than me at following it. I think she was under the impression the guy was just blowing jargonistic smoke to cloak the very simple truth that there’s nothing about the pope in the Bible. Hold on, let me ask her. Yup, she said that’s what she thought.
I also picked up my first Catholic book there, aside from the Bible: Catholicism and Fundamentalism, written by Karl Keating, the founder of San Diego-based Catholic Answers. I tried to read it, but for some reason, I just couldn’t follow it. It was like being in Statistics class all over again. I’m not sure why it was so confusing, because when I went back a year or two later and tried to read it again, it was as clear and as simple as could be. Maybe it’s just that it was so far beyond my sphere of knowledge at the time. I mean, I had barely even heard of a Fundamentalist, much less known what one was.
If nothing else, though, the evening reaffirmed what I had been thinking all along: I needed someone who could talk to Heidi’s dad for me. I knew if I could find someone, we’d be good.
So we didn’t go to anymore talks and I didn’t read anymore books, and I put the whole thing on the back burner again. And that’s where it stayed, until the day I asked Heidi to marry me.