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I Was a Runaway - by Gwen Shaw

Furtively, I finished packing, listening for steps outside my bedroom door.  I was 17 years old, tall, slim, blue-eyed and had long blonde hair.  Boys passing me on the street would call out to me, “Hi, Blondie!”  I liked that. 

When I knew no one was around, I dropped my suitcase out the window, then hid it in a ditch on our farm in the Niagara Falls peninsula, near St. Catharine’s, Ontario, Canada. 

The next day I crept out of the house and headed for my suitcase.  It was a warm afternoon in early fall, 1941.  For a moment I wanted to look back.  Would I ever see my parents and two younger brothers again?  But, for the thousandth time, I deliberately hardened my heart. 

It must have been the thousandth time, for I began to rebel against God when I was only seven.  I remember the incident.  I was sitting in the schoolhouse playing “Little Raindrops” on the organ.  Through the open door a playmate called with an ugly lilt, “Why don’t you play a hymn?” 

I knew what she meant.  My religious parents were so strict, we couldn’t do many things that others did.  I hated being different!  So with energy far beyond my meager life span, I vowed right then, “I’m not going to follow God!  My parents can force me, but in my heart I’ll go my own way”’ 

With a secret scorn, I listened to family prayers.  In church I closed my heart.  By the time I was a teenager, everyone said, “That little Bergman girl is a hard one.” And I was proud of it!  Layer upon layer, I built up a hard shell around my heart. 

Often Dad scrutinized me with an inexpressible look — love, concern, sternness.  He said he loved me, but I felt he certainly didn’t act like it, with all of his restrictions. 

One day while shopping in town, we stopped at a religious street service.  Dad was impressed by what he heard, and soon we became members of this group that met in an upstairs mission hall. 

By that time I was 15.  When Dad announced that we would attend the mission, I added another layer of crust on my heart.  “I’m not going,” I said. 

“Gwen,” Dad replied, “as long as you’re sitting at my table and living in my house, you’ll do as I say.” 

I flashed him a look of near-hatred.  You’ll not make me bend, I said in my heart.  You can imprison my body, but not my will. 

How I hated that little mission.  “Please don’t make me walk in with the family,” I pleaded.  “My friends might see me.  Oh please, Dad.” 

Dad was a man of convictions, but he was not a tyrant.  “All right, Gwen,” he said.  “But when the singing begins, come right in.” 

I’d remain outside until the last minute; then I would look up and down the street to make sure no one saw me dart inside.  I always sat in the back and enclosed myself in a world of imagination, often unaware of a thing that went on. 

I ignored altar calls repeatedly, which I knew were directed at me.  One evening a deacon mustered his courage to ask, “Gwen, are you saved?” 

“Yes,” I almost hissed, and walked out.  He knew that I lied.  But I didn’t care.  It was a good way to tell him to leave me alone. 

For a year and a half I chafed under my “slavery” at home, confiding in my girlfriend, Dawna. One day I said, “Let’s run away!  We don’t have to let our parents boss us.  We’re 17 and old enough to run our own lives.” 

At first she was shocked; but when I pressed her, Dawna finally agreed.  That night we secretly packed our suitcases, met in town the next morning and boarded a bus for Toronto. 

On my friend’s dresser I had left a note to be delivered to my parents, saying I was running away to get married.  I lied, thinking they would not look for me, since I would have a new name.  I had also destroyed my photos, lest my parents should give them to the police for identification. 

In Toronto we found a room, got work, and began our life of freedom. 

Later I learned that my uncle insisted that Dad notify the police.  Dad refused, saying, “I’m praying.  I know God will bring her back.” But after two days my uncle angrily went to the police himself, with snapshots made of negatives I had left behind.  Ironically, our room was across the street from a police station, but they never found us. 

Dawna and I began to live it up.  No one told us what time to go to bed; no one forbade us to dance, or attend movies, or drink, or date.  Oh, the joy of doing what we pleased!  This was the life! 

But was it?  After nearly six months of unlimited freedom, I became aware of a growing weight in my heart.  I feared to even admit it was there; but it grew larger than my determination to ignore it. 

Was it homesickness?  Was it. . . no, no, NO.  It couldn’t be a reaching after God.  I had shut Him out.  So again, I hardened my heart. 

Yet, somehow, I wasn’t having as much fun.  Neither was Dawna.  One day she said, “I’m fed up!  I’m going home to see my Mom and Dad.” 

“Baby!” I sneered.  “Can’t get along without Mama.” 

But Dawna packed her suitcase.  As she was leaving I grabbed her arm.  “Don’t you dare tell where I am.  Promise!” And she promised. 

I told Dawna I would move to another address.  That day she left, I felt again the sickening impact of loneliness, unhappiness, emptiness.  But I refused to let myself soften.  After more than ten years of hardening my heart, would I weaken now?  Never! 

Soon after Dawna returned home, I learned later, Dad went to visit her parents to see if they had any information about us.  When Dawna opened the door, she stared in dismay.  There Dad stood, tears trickling down his lined cheeks.  “Tell me where Gwen is,” he begged. 

“I can’t,” Dawna said; “I promised.” 

“Oh, please,” he groaned. 

Dawna could not bear to see his heartbreak.  “Well, I don’t have her new address, but I’ll tell you where she works.” 

Immediately Dad drove to Toronto, arriving at my place of work at closing time.  God had timed it to the minute.  Ordinarily I would have left for home; but a friend asked me to pick up a dress and bring it to her.  As we were admiring the dress, the door opened. 

I looked up, curious to see who was there.  Then I froze.  Dad’s broad shoulders drooped; his face was drawn. 

At first I was afraid to look into his eyes; I thought I would see judgment.  I waited for him to point his finger at me, and say, “You sinner!” But all I saw was his overwhelming love.  Then his face veiled as tears welled in my eyes. 

Dad spread his arms and cried, “Daughter.” 

I dashed into his arms.  “Dad,” I sobbed, “I’m sorry!” We stood there and wept. 

“It’s all right, Daughter, we won’t talk about it any more,” he answered, holding me in his arms and patting my back as though I was his little girl one more time. 

“Daughter,” he continued, “Mother and I love you.  We will not force you to come home; but, oh, how we long to have you with us again.” 

As I listened to him, a rare tenderness edged around my stony heart.  “Thank you, Dad,” I said softly.  “I’ll come home, but not now.  Give me a little time to think about it.” 

The winter passed.  I grew more and more disillusioned with my newly acquired freedom.  I found that the liberty to do my own thing did not give me the happiness or fulfillment that I was seeking. 

I still remember that dark Easter morning when Dawna and I went to her Catholic church to pray.  The last Mass was over; the last person was gone; the church was silent as we walked inside.  I knelt alone to pray.  “Please God,” I began, and the tears began to fall.  I felt so unclean, so out of harmony with life and God, “Forgive me!” That was all!  The tears fell faster and faster.  I stayed there a long time, until I heard my friend whisper across the aisles to me.  I arose from my knees. 

We quietly walked out of the church.  As we stepped outside the door, the sun was shining and God was saying, “Gwen, I’ve forgiven you.  Go and sin no more!” I turned to my friend and said, “I’m going home.” 

It was a joyful reunion.  The family rejoiced to see their prodigal return.  The folks at church were so kind.  Once more I sat in the services, this time with my family, and with a heart broken by disillusionment, by my father’s love and prayers, and above all, by a loving heavenly Father.  For the first time in my life I really listened to the Gospel, and my frozen heart melted. 

One day at a camp meeting, I completely surrendered myself to the Lord.  It was then God took away my heart of stone and gave me a tender heart. 

I went to Bible school to prepare for Christian service.  Later I went to China as a missionary. 

It is now more than 60 years since that wonderful day when I knelt and said, “I’m sorry!” As I look back over the years I’ve spent in serving God, I can say, I looked for fulfillment.  I followed a dream.  I didn’t find it by running away, but I FOUND IT IN GOD.