The summer I turned eleven, my father gave me an ultimatum that set me on my life’s course.
He sat beside me on the picnic table bench in his backyard, elbows resting just above his knees and a hand-drawn chart clasped in one hand. The sun glinted off the cuff snaps on his blue plaid cotton shirt. His wife stood in front of us, hands on her hips. Smoker’s cough occasionally interrupted his words.
He pointed to the chart. “This is how many hours a week you spend with your mother. This is what you spend with me. If you want to go to church, you have to do it at your mother’s house. You have two weeks to decide. If you insist on going to church while you’re here, you can’t come back.”
I stared at the chart as it shook in his hand. He made his case: Spending an hour in the little church across the street took away time he deserved.
I forced myself not to look at him or his wife, determined that they wouldn’t see me cry.
The night before, the two of them picked up my three sisters and me for our every-other-weekend visit. We drove the hour from our home to theirs. As usual, we went straight to the trailer house, connected to the main house with a breezeway. We shared the two bedrooms in the trailer while our two stepsisters slept in the main house.
Of the four of us, I was the only one facing this decision, because I was the one who loved going to church.
Shoulders stooping, my father stood and walked inside. “Think about that,” he said. Then I was alone. Still fighting tears, I walked to the side of the house. I didn’t want anyone, especially my stepmother, to see me.
Thoughts swirled in my mind. Every other week, my sisters and I visited my father and his wife. He didn’t pay much attention to us. Instead we were told to play outside or in those little trailer house bedrooms. We didn’t laugh during meals or stay together in the living room after dinner.
Just a few times before this summer day, I had felt that I mattered, that I was my father’s favorite. I had a vague memory of him before he left us. He sat with me at dawn before he went to work. He leaned on the kitchen counter as he silently drank his coffee and I my hot chocolate. During those few quiet moments, I was special.
Another of those rare moments came during our camping trip the summer before, when I was ten. We stayed in a national forest campground, our camper surrounded by pine and aspen trees. My father popped corn over the campfire one night while we sat on logs near the fire. My sisters and I slept on the floor of the camper shell along with our stepsisters.
The next morning before daylight, I climbed over them to be the first one up. Coffee and water boiled above the campfire, and my father handed me a cup for hot chocolate. I sat near him on a log. In the stillness we fed the chipmunks leftover popcorn and watched the fire dim as the sun rose. The spell was broken as, one by one, others got up.
In those times, it was just the two of us, making me feel as if I were his special girl.
But now I had a decision to make. I lifted my head. The church across the street came into view. It wasn’t fancy or big, but it was a place I felt welcome. The children’s teacher knew my name. She always seemed glad I came.
The steeple cross rose from the church roof like a crossroads. That’s how I felt: at a crossroads. Though I didn’t understand why my father wanted me to choose, I sensed that making the right decision really counted.
When church time came, I sat in the trailer house bedroom instead of walking across the street. My father and his wife took us home late in the day. I crawled out of the blue Rambler and followed it with my eyes as they drove away.
Two weeks to make a decision, and I didn’t know where to start. My mother didn’t go to church, so I decided to talk to someone who did. I asked my pastor — Brother Grant, as we called him — to help me with two questions: Do I give up my church? Do I give up my father?
Looking back, I am glad he didn’t say he felt sorry for me or tell me exactly what to do. He just listened and prayed. Brother Grant encouraged me to search the Bible myself, then prayed with me for wisdom.
One scripture sealed my decision: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). I wanted to be important to my father, to feel his love and know his approval. But this verse told me that God’s kingdom comes first. Seeking God before anything else was my responsibility. Working out the consequences was God’s.
I wrote to my father explaining my choice. Going to church was part of my faith, so that was what I was going to do. Brother Grant read the letter before I mailed it. He affirmed my words and agreed that I’d left the door open for a relationship if my father wanted it.
My father broke all contact with me. My sisters received birthday cards and Christmas presents; he never sent any for me. If I answered the phone when he called, he hung up. I would be lying if I said that those things didn’t make me sad. Mostly, though, I experienced peace that confirmed my choice was the right one.
That summer gave me a glimpse of the local church’s potential in the life of a child. I found wise counsel, people who prayed for me, and people who adopted this spiritual orphan. My church taught me to use biblical principles and prayer to guide me. Though I never knew my biological father’s spiritual leadership, several godly stand-in fathers taught me. Sometimes they even made me feel as I did when it was just my father and me staring at the morning campfire — that I was someone’s special little girl.
During the five years my father didn’t talk to me, I continued to grow in my relationship with God. About the time I got my driver’s license, my father and his wife moved closer to us. I felt it was time for me to establish a relationship with him. Another Bible verse guided me: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
When I began reconnecting with my father, I clearly came with my faith intact and no hidden agenda. Building a new relationship was awkward. At first I made the thirty-minute drive to their house and stayed for a half hour. Eventually I worked up to a couple of hours and tried to make cheerful talk about the weather, school, and their yard — with varying degrees of success. The encounters were never comfortable, but I kept making the effort.
My father died two weeks before I turned 24. We were as reconciled as he, or perhaps his wife, would allow. At his funeral I found myself grateful for both decisions I had made: choosing faith over father and choosing reconciliation without compromising faith.
Decades later, I look back on that day without confusion or bitterness. Instead, I feel like God’s special little girl who has the best Father ever.
Claudean Boatman writes from Windsor, CO. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.