She changed her whole life at age 59. And what happened next opened her heart in ways she never expected.

Donna Gross’s whole life was in Kansas City, Missouri.

It’s where, as the “baby” of the family, she watched her mom answer phones for her dad’s washer/dryer repair business.

It’s where she started her collections of dolls, butterflies, Santas, and Dickens Village houses and shops.

It’s where she met her husband, Allen, raised their two sons, and spent a career as a reading specialist.

It’s where she helped hang balloons for her nieces’ and nephews’ birthday parties, and whipped up Tex-Mex buffets for dinner parties with friends.

It was home.

Then one day, the Grosses received a phone call. Their son and his wife, living here in the Washington area, were pregnant.

Something told Donna that she needed to go.

“I always said I would never leave my mom,” Donna said. Her mother at this point was in her 90s, and had moved to a condo just minutes from Donna and Allen. “And everyone we knew was there.”

But the voice in her head was loud.

She spoke with her other son, who also lived in Kansas City, and her brother and sister-in-law. And then she went to see her mom, who was in her favorite cozy camel-colored recliner, her beloved sewing machine just a few feet away.

“I said, ‘Mom, we’re thinking about moving to be close to this baby, but we won’t do it if you don’t want us to.’ And she said, ‘You’re right. Those first 10 years, that’s when you bond with your grandchildren. After that, they get busy with their own friends and interests. I understand.’

“It still brings tears to my eyes,” Donna said. “My mom had a special bond with all six of her grandchildren and her eight great-grandchildren. She and my dad were always there for all of us, and she understood we wanted to do the same for our son’s family.”

So Donna started packing up. She and Allen spent more than a year downsizing, sorting through the lifetime of memories packed in boxes and displayed on shelves. She gave her Dickens Village to a friend, who still has it resting on her piano. She gave her grandmother’s antique music chest to one of her nieces. And her son and daughter-in-law made plans for Donna to be their baby’s caregiver while the couple worked and attended school.

Baby Juliet was born on October 4, 2012.

Donna turned 59. She retired on a Friday and was in the car the next morning, headed for Washington.

Moving here brought a whole series of new beginnings.

Sticker shock, for one thing.

Donna, who never much liked traffic, girded herself for a commute between her new home in Woodbridge and Juliet’s home in Alexandria.

And being grandparents to Juliet and her little brother, Lincoln, has brought more moments of pure joy than Donna can express.

But something else changed along with Donna’s zip code.

“Suddenly, we were seeing people who were very different from us, and that’s not something we had much of in Kansas City,” she said.

Donna’s first job was in a cafeteria making crab delight sandwiches when she was 15. That’s the first place she encountered black people; two of the chefs were black.

“Even as an adult, I had one teacher friend who was black, but that was about it,” Donna said. “You really had to go out of your way there to see people who weren’t white.”

In Woodbridge, the Grosses found a home in a very diverse neighborhood. So many of their neighbors not only look different from them, they have very different life stories.

Earlier this summer, the Grosses attended the Ramadan fast-breaking meal at BPC that the church shared with friends from the Ezher Bloom mosque.

“We walked in, and I thought, I have never been to anything like this. This is an opportunity we would never have had if we had not made this move.”

Donna was a little nervous about the food, which the Muslim guests brought. “I’m a super picky eater,” she said.

But she enjoyed it. And more than that, she found her table companions delightful. The Grosses happened to sit with members of the Culha family; Evren and Meryem have three kids. (The two families are pictured below, at the dinner.) “My granddaughter [Juliet] is really shy, but after about 30 minutes, she was sharing the same chair [with one of the Culha kids]. I think kids help to break the ice.”

At the end of the evening, the couple asked the Grosses if they would like to join them in their home for an Iftar (fast-breaking) dinner.

“I was so touched and honored,” Donna said.

They all gathered a few weeks later in the Culha’s Fairfax apartment, Donna sitting on the floor, playing with the kids, Allen and her son Justin talking with Evren about politics.

A few weeks later, the Grosses returned the favor and included the Culha family at Lincoln’s birthday party, where they shared fried rice and chocolate cake.

It’s an unexpected, beautiful friendship.

“This change in our lives, at this stage in our lives, it has opened us up more,” Donna said. “I am so grateful.”

Her story is partly about abuse and addiction. But mostly, it’s about forgiveness.

Mara Ashby’s smile is wide and white.

She’s a hugger.

She has trouble crossing a crowded room without starting up a conversation.

Her light is bright.

So when she tells her story, which is full of abuse and addiction, it’s clear that something turned around inside her, helped her shake the darkness she had lived within.

“I can’t say when it happened exactly,” Mara said. “God just worked on my heart.”

Mara spent most of her childhood in Tacoma, Washington; her Mexican-American parents left El Paso, Texas, when Mara was 3 in search of a better life.

One of her earliest memories is of hiding under her bed, trying to protect her baby sister from the violence around them.

Their father was an angry alcoholic. Mara’s mom was routinely beaten, badly.

Mara found solace at a local Baptist church her older brother David took her to when she was about 6. When her Sunday school teachers told her to invite friends to church, she did, going door to door in her neighborhood. And when David joined the Navy and was deployed, he made sure a bus would come every week to pick up Mara and her sister for church.

“He knew my father wouldn’t take me. He was taking care of me. He had God in his life, and so I see now that because of that he looked at everything in our family in a different way.”

Mara tried running away from the chaos once, when she was a teenager. She and her boyfriend used money Mara had saved up from babysitting, took the boy’s father’s gold Honda, and drove to California. But after two weeks on a friend’s couch, they decided they’d better head back.
It was her father who kicked her out the second and final time she left home, because she was pregnant. She was 17.

Her church friends told her to keep coming to worship; she was loved no matter what, they told her.
But Mara felt ashamed. In hindsight she wishes she had listened to them.

Mara married the baby’s father, “in an ugly peach tent dress” at the local courthouse. “I think I knew even then that I could do it myself, but I let too many people talk me into getting married.”
Baby Danica was named after a floral French fragrance that Mara’s beloved mother sold as a cosmetologist.

And “the day she was born was the best day of my life.”

The teen newlyweds made a go of it, getting jobs and moving into a small house together. But when Mara learned her husband had been cheating on her, the marriage ended.

She slipped into a dangerous spiral, partying and doing drugs. She met her second husband, an Army special forces sergeant, in a bar.

“The first time he hit me we were in temporary housing on a base in Clarksville, Tennessee,” she said.

“I had gone to the Walmart and I was late getting back. He said he thought I was out cheating on him. He was coming at me, but all I could see was my dad’s face.

“And my baby had to see it all,” she said.

Mara was held at knifepoint during her marriage. She was dragged around by her hair. She couldn’t believe she was reliving the abusive life her mom had lived. And she was ashamed. She developed an addiction to Vicodin, and found herself trying to numb her misery.

The last time she was hurt by her husband, he threw her against a wall. It was little Danica who had to call 911.

At this point Mara began a long journey of recovery—from drugs, from depression, from guilt. She had met a friend on the base where she was living toward the end of her marriage: Jason. He, too, was going through a painful divorce. They felt sparks, but Mara knew she needed to work on herself before committing to anyone new.

She went to rehab and counseling, and she moved to Arizona to get a fresh start.

Her connection with Jason lasted despite the distance, and six years after his first proposal, the two married. “It was nice to find calm after having so much chaos in my life.”

And then Mara received a phone call. Her father was showing signs of dementia. Mara flew out to see him.

“This was a man who had always taken care of himself. He manicured his nails. He was very careful about how he looked. And now he looked like a homeless person.”

What happened next was an exercise in forgiveness.

Mara moved her father to her home with Jason here in Virginia. She helped him receive medical care, including proper diagnoses for his ailments. They learned that he had both leukemia and Lewy Body dementia, a debilitating form of both dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Mara changed her father’s clothes for him. She helped him eat.

And in one lucid moment before his death in 2014, he told her: “I was so awful to you. To your mommy.”

And Mara said, “I forgive you.”

She credits her brother David—the one who first took her to that Baptist church in Tacoma when she was a little girl—with helping her heal. David died several years ago, of a brain tumor, but he was a model of faith for her throughout his life. Before his death, he said, “If you don’t learn to forgive, it’s going to fester.”

And he was right, she said.

“If there is one thing I want people to understand, it’s the power of forgiveness. It took me a long time and I did a lot of work. But I learned to forgive people in my family and I learned to forgive myself.”

And now: “I love differently. I let go of anger faster. My faith is my number one priority. And that has made all the difference.”

Her license plate reads: “2D CHNCE.” That’s because on one fateful day, when the odds were against her surviving, she did.

Marie Grassman’s license plate reads: “2D CHNCE.”

It’s a perfect message for her silver Chevy cruiser, because in a dramatic turn of events more than a decade ago, Marie nearly died. It’s frankly a miracle that she didn’t. And so now, “I see life as a gift,” she said. “Every day.”

Here was Marie’s life before her second chance: A happy childhood in Houston, Texas, the daughter of a furniture store credit manager who also moonlighted as a lay Methodist preacher. Long family road trips: “Daddy’s idea of vacation was to see how many miles he could put on the car.”

Big Sunday dinners featuring her mother’s specialty, roast leg of lamb. College days in Austin at the University of Texas. Marriage to a future Air Force officer named Mike, a fellow from the neighborhood she met through friends. The birth of a son and two daughters before she was 27, and a life spent packing and unpacking as the family moved from state to state for Mike’s various assignments.

And then the life she knew started to unravel. Her marriage fell apart. Her children were grown, and she was alone.

She took a job in a flower shop. She licked her wounds and tried to figure out her next steps. And one day, she offered to house- and dog-sit for a friend. It was a stucco house with a metal roof in the hill country of central Texas.

Marie was getting ready to take a shower in the upstairs bathroom. The Old English Mastiff named Boomer, whom Marie was charged with caring for, nudged his way into the bathroom. “I thought, this is odd,” Marie said. “He usually just sleeps under the kitchen table downstairs.” Marie poked her head out of the door.

What happened next took place over a matter of seconds.

The ceiling erupted in flames. It was white hot and a “crinkly” sounding fire, Marie said—electrical in origin. From the top of the stairs, Marie could see that thick, black smoke had already filled the first floor. She could feel poisonous air filling her lungs, the result of burning insulation, paint and wiring.
The dog tried the stairs, and his body was discovered later.

Something told Marie not to bother.

“I knew there was no way out. And I also knew I couldn’t panic. I suddenly felt so calm and peaceful and so loved. I truly was not alone. I was taken into the bathroom.”

She closed the door to this windowless interior room and stuffed a towel under the door. She wet a washcloth, put it over her face, and fell to the floor. She happened to have a cordless telephone with her, and she called 911.

A neighbor, an off-duty firefighter, heard the call over his radio. He broke the door down before the trucks even arrived. He said later that no flames were visible from the street; it wasn’t until he entered the house that it was obvious the place was engulfed.

The next thing Marie remembers, it was two months later, and she was lying in a bed at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

When she regained consciousness, she thought her limbs were being restrained because they were so weak; she couldn’t move them at all. In truth, the injuries and treatments she’d received during that period seems endless.

She’d sustained burns on her shoulders, leg and face. She had had four surgeries on her left leg, and came very close to losing it. She’d had a golf ball-sized clot in her arm and another in her lung. Her kidneys quit twice.

Her heart stopped beating several times, once for three minutes. So really, she did die, she says, for a few moments. And while she doesn’t remember anything about that 2-month stretch she lost, she does remember something about that near-death time. She saw a forest. A clearing. A welcoming tree surrounded by the brightest light she’d ever experienced.

And then, her son’s voice: “Welcome back, Mom.’”

It took many days and painful therapies before Marie could return home. And life hasn’t been easy since. Marie was extremely active and physically fit before the fire—running, swimming and dancing routinely. Now, she gets pneumonia at least once a year, and her energy isn’t what it used to be.
But: “I really have a different way of looking at my life,” she said. “Before, I think I felt entitled. I think we all have a little bit of that in us. We feel like of course we should have this life.

“Not me. I don’t worry about the little stuff the way I used to. It’s people that are important. I’m not going to stay home and clean my house and do laundry if I can go somewhere and be with people.”

That translates into her ministry at BPC, a place she joined soon after moving to Virginia to be closer to her daughter. She helped create and operates the “tea ministry,” which means she makes high tea—complete with china cups, finger sandwiches and cream-topped scones—for dozens of church members each year. It’s a way to bring light into their lives, Marie said, something she feels called to do in a renewed way.

“Sometimes God speaks to us through a disaster,” she said. “So in a way, I don’t think of the fire as a bad thing. It got my attention. I have a different way of looking at my life.”

“I decided that rather than have them kill me, I’d rather have it kill me,” he said. “And I went about my life.”

State College, Pennsylvania, may be home to the Nittany Lions and a big, bustling university.

But what Ross Venett remembers about his hometown is the smallness of it, the fact that many of the farms surrounding the green valley were owned by families that never left. It was their kids Ross knew through marching band, Boy Scouts and church youth group, and for many years, Ross thought he would be a State College “lifer” as well.

“It was idyllic and sheltering,” he said, the kind of place where, when Ross suffered one of his debilitating migraines, the family doctor would swing by their house to administer a shot to help him sleep off the pain.

Then there was the day when not even a shot would help.

Ross was 19. He was attending Penn State, as well as working and volunteering as an emergency medical technician for the local ambulance service.

When Ross began clutching his head and screaming, his coworkers called his friends at the ambulance company to come help.

MRIs and CTs scans weren’t standard in those days, but Ross said: “I got lucky, because the hospital had just hired the doctor who saw me. He held up his finger, and I couldn’t see it when it was near the side of my head. He said, ‘Did you know your visual field is cut in both eyes?’”

That doctor was smart enough to know that Ross needed more attention than he could provide, and Ross was rushed 80 miles east to Geisinger Medical Center.

Ross was diagnosed there with a brain arteriovenous malformation (AVM). An AVM is a tangle of abnormal connections between arteries and veins. Normally the arteries carry blood away from the heart to other organs, and veins carry blood back to the heart. Capillaries connect the arteries and veins. An AVM is a snarled tangle of arteries and veins with no capillaries, which interferes with the entire blood circulation process.

Brain AVMs are very rare; they affect less than 1 percent of the population. No one knows exactly what causes them, but they are typically congenital.

Many AVMs are discovered during a brain scan for another health issue or after the blood vessels rupture and cause bleeding in the brain.

Ross now understood why he had been plagued by migraines, and why school had sometimes been so difficult. “People would say, ‘You’re just not working hard enough,’” Ross said. “And I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t remembering things … Now I knew.”

Ross’s doctors wanted to operate, but even at 19, Ross knew how be an advocate for himself. Perhaps it was his emergency medical training for the ambulance company, or the fact that his parents were research librarians.

“I said, ‘Can you tell me what I will be like after this surgery?’ They couldn’t tell me. They didn’t know. So I decided that rather than have them kill me, I’d rather have it kill me. And I went about my life.”

Some things changed because of Ross’s new diagnosis. He spent a lot of time locating and visiting AVM specialists: He learned there were only five in the world. One in particular, based in Boston, used proton radiation on Ross to increase the size of his cell walls to prevent the AVM from expanding.
It took eight years for Ross to finish college instead of four. He learned that he couldn’t hike or dive or do anything involving a change of altitude, which might put pressure on his brain.

But on balance: “I was not going to let this stop me from doing what I wanted to do.”

Ross started working for the Kmart retail store, and he was quickly promoted to manager. The store moved him around the country to help fix problem stores, and it was at the Burke Kmart where he met his wife, Wilma.

When he grew weary of retail, he took what he thought would be a temporary job with the technology firm SAIC, based in Tyson’s Corner. Seventeen years later, he was working as a procurement manager, handling multi-billion dollar contracts.

But something wasn’t right.

“I would be driving home and I would forget how to get there,” he said.

An MRI revealed that the AVM had grown, and Ross went back to researching neurologists. He underwent several procedures to help him stabilize, but in the meantime, his work was suffering. His personality was changing. He was demoted. And last summer, his petition to receive long-term disability was denied by SAIC.

Every day Ross bears head pain, but he said he’s “tolerant of the headaches because I know how much worse they can be.” Nothing so far has been as bad as those early days in State College.
He has filled his days since August volunteering with countless office projects at BPC, and working with his doctors and an attorney to appeal his former employer’s decision.

“It’s been so hard, wondering whether we have the money to pay next week’s bills or not.”
Last month, the call he’d been waiting for came: He won his appeal. Some light in the midst of what have been pretty dark days.

“How do you answer the ‘Why me?’” he said. “You can’t. You just have to say, ‘I’m not going to let it stop me.’”

“Whatever I have achieved is mostly by virtue of coming to America,” he said.

Sometimes when Edwin Ngongbo is driving his son to watch their cousin play in a Robinson Secondary School football game, or he’s pulling up to the family’s Fairfax day care center, he thinks about his own youth in Bamenda, Cameroon.

It’s half a world and lifetime away, and that’s how it feels.

It’s in this hilly city in central/western Africa, marked by swathes of grassland, where Edwin would run for hours, playing soccer or carrying stones to help his builder grandfather.

“Bringing up a child in Africa, you provide food, shelter and education,” Edwin said. “That’s how you show love.”

Here, he said, parents are expected to be present for every game, to organize play dates, and to help with school projects. “I love doing that, but it’s different,” Edwin said.

And in Bamenda, the role of parent was blurred: One’s aunt or uncle might play as much a role in nurturing a child as her or his mother or father.

In Edwin’s case, it was his grandparents: John and Christina Ngongbo helped raise him. Like many young Cameroonians, Edwin’s mother, Lucie, had dreams of going to America to flee from an autocratic regime and create a better life for her family. So when Edwin was 10, Lucie left for Washington, D.C., and Howard University.

John “Pa” Ngongbo took care of Edwin while Lucie was away. He was the one who paid Edwin’s school tuition, and encouraged Edwin when he wanted to take debate classes or study French literature.

Edwin finished primary school, then secondary school. He received a bachelor’s in law degree.

And two weeks after passing the bar in Cameroon, at age 22, he boarded a plane for America. He remembers feeling nervous, apprehensive. But “mostly excited and grateful for the opportunity.”

Lucie at this point had completed both undergraduate and graduate work, and had received a doctorate in environmental sciences/education from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. She had created a life here, and she was ready for her children.

That flight to America changed everything for Edwin. “Whatever I have achieved is mostly by virtue of coming to America,” he said.  His plan was to become a lawyer in America, as he’d intended in Cameroon. But that would have required more expensive schooling.

“And I’m a realist,” he said. “I have a heavy accent and foreign credentials. People told me I might not get the attorney job I wanted even with another law degree.

“But you can get fulfillment in a lot of different ways.”

So he did. Edwin’s arrival in America coincided with the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. He began taking computer classes, including one in database administration. That led to an IT job with the federal government, one he holds today.

He earned two master’s degrees in the last 15 years, including a master’s in business administration and another in law, from the University of Virginia.

He thinks sometimes that he’d like to pursue a theology degree as well.

The Cameroonian community in the Washington area is large, Edwin said, and through that he met his wife, Liz. Together they are raising Jason (6) and Jordan (2).

While other family members from Bamenda over time have made their way to Fairfax County to join the Ngongbos, many stayed behind. Still, they are very much a part of Edwin’s life.

“In America, people think about paying for the mortgage and the electric bill and day care,” he said. Edwin’s bills include tuition payments for cousins in Africa and medical payments for a sick aunt. It’s how he pays it forward, he said.

“To be able to do those things gives me an opportunity to help others in my family who haven’t been as fortunate,” he said.

“You can’t have everything in life, but there is something for everyone.”

He was a freshman in college when 9-11 happened.

Justin Pitcock’s roots are in a place called Graham.

It was here, in North Texas hill country, that his family generations ago started and still runs Pitcock Oil and Gas. It was here that Justin would ride around in the back of his dad’s ¾-ton Chevy pickup with his dog, scanning the endless grasslands.

It was here that he played alongside the girl who’d come to be his wife.

Justin is in Kallie Karper Pitcock’s baby book, in fact. Their families have been friends for years—their grandfather and great-grandfather were business partners, actually—so when Kallie was born, Justin tagged alongside his mom to the hospital.

Tradition matters in Graham. Tradition matters to Justin.

Still, “I am someone who is always looking for the next, best opportunity,” Justin said. “I feel nostalgia. I like history. But I always want to try new things.”

That means turning points unfold not infrequently for Justin.

He went to Texas A&M University with thoughts of perhaps becoming an architect or a businessman. He was a freshman, having just finished attending an economics class one morning, when he started hearing a buzz around campus.

Something happened in New York. “People said the Japanese bombed New York. No one knew what was going on.” Then, something happened at the Pentagon. Every eye on campus was glued to televisions.

Justin has several family members who have served in the military. His grandfather was an intelligence officer in Southeast Asia during World War II. His uncle was a national security advisor for President Reagan. And Texas A&M fosters a love of country.

So when 9-11 happened, it sparked something in Justin.

“You feel the need to do something about it,” he said. “It’s like the Kennedy assassination for my parents. When something happens at that stage in your life like that, it kind of defines you and your generation.”

By the time Justin had finished at A&M, he was in the Marine Corps’ officer selection program. And he wanted to fly.

A lot of people who pursue careers in flight are what Justin calls “aviation nerds.” He was never one of those, he said, although he does remember using old fence boards to build “planes” as a kid.

“For me, flying is cool because you can look out the window and you get places faster,” he said. He has to be willing and able to learn how to fly any number of new and evolving aircraft, and that he likes.

He was trained to fly CH-46 helicopters (Battle “Phrogs,” they’re called). He has flown in Afghanistan, and he was among those who went to Pakistan in the fall of 2010 following catastrophic monsoons and flooding.

His Phrog delivered food and water to stranded Pakistanis; Justin was sometimes forced to hover over homes or land in areas where not much land was available. People crawled, climbed and clamored for help.

“You’re just amazed by the catastrophe in front of you,” he said.

When the Phrog retired and was replaced by something known as the “Osprey,” Justin was trained for that as well. And for someone who is eager both to try new things and honor tradition, the transition was exciting and poignant. The Phrog first saw combat in the jungles of Vietnam in 1965.

But the Osprey is a latest and greatest flight technology, and being invited to fly it was both an honor and a career-shaper. It changed things for Justin.

Today, he is part of the squadron based at Quantico that goes wherever President Obama goes.

“Anywhere the president goes, there’s a helicopter there,” Justin said.

He does advance groundwork, making sure the crew has what it needs before various trips. And sometimes that means he doesn’t have a lot of notice before work calls.

But it’s important work, and for that Justin’s grateful.

Justin’s plans for the future include business school, and eventually, a move back to Graham.

It’s home, after all.

A teacher told her she should go to college. And her whole life changed.

Elma Perkins wasn’t supposed to live.

She was a premie, born 2 months early, on June 20, 1925. They didn’t have incubators in those days, so after her birth in an Erie, Pennsylvania, hospital, the medical staff “set me aside and focused on my mother,” Elma said.

But even then, she was determined.

Elma celebrated her 90th birthday this summer, and friends marked it with cake, pink flowers and fanfare. For Elma, age is just a number, and not something she wants to spend much time focusing on.

“It’s not until I look in the mirror that I realize things aren’t the same.” Inside, she still feels young, she said.

Elma’s father was a dairy farmer. Elma remembers going up into the fields some evenings to call him for supper, and getting to ride home on the back of a horse. Her dad lost the farm when the Great Depression hit, and he died of pneumonia one cold January day when Elma was 9.

Her mother kept the family afloat by gardening, and sold potatoes, peas and string beans at a roadside stand.

“I learned at a very early age how to choose a good melon and make change,” Elma said.

She attended grade school in a one-room schoolhouse.

High school was a slightly larger venue; there were 21 kids in her graduating class. It was there that she learned to love basketball: She played guard for five years, and still has the red and black letter “F” that she earned at Fairview High School.

It was music, however, that turned Elma’s life around.

She sang, played trumpet and piano, and her music teacher saw a spark in her. His name was Mr. Lawrence, and he told Elma that he thought she should go to college. Then he helped her get in.

Of her peers, she was “about the first one in the town” to go to college.

In hindsight, Elma said, that was a particularly remarkable turning point given who Mr. Lawrence was: He was an African-American man, and this was 1940s America.

“No one thought about the fact that he was black,” she said. “He was just Mr. Lawrence.”
Mansfield State Teachers College changed everything for Elma.

She put herself through school, first by manufacturing war parts in a local factory and then by working as the head waitress in her college dining room.

It was there that she met Bill Perkins, a World War II veteran who’d served four years in combat zones across Europe and was back to receive his degree, thanks to the GI Bill. He was assigned as the head waiter in the same dining room.

The two married a year before Elma graduated.

Bill’s work as a Red Cross social worker took the family all over the world. He counseled service men and women in the midwest, Guam, Hawaii, Germany and Japan. Elma moved more than two dozen times. The Perkins’ three children each were born in different spots.
For Elma, this way of life was meaningful and exciting.

“My mother used to say that when I was 2 years old and we’d pull up to the house in the car after being somewhere, I’d want to know where we were going next,” she said. “I’ve always loved to be on the go.”

Part of the appeal was that Elma met new friends all over the world. She was active in church every place she lived. And when her beloved husband of 50 years died suddenly, of an aneurysm, in 1998, Elma says it was those connections that helped her through it.

“Church was like a haven for me,” she said. And her friends, even those far away, offered great comfort. “I just got in my car and went to see people.”

She’s still determined to keep moving.

In October of this year she took a trip to Ohio, for a reunion with two classmates from that high school where she’d been inspired by Mr. Lawrence. Elma and her friends laughed and reminisced about days on the basketball court. They studied old pictures. They went through their yearbooks, the ones where they’d prophesied about how their lives might turn out.

“I had written that I wanted to travel,” Elma said. “We talked about how our prophesies came true.”

Someone said to her, “If it’s good news, it’s good news for the poor.” And everything changed.

At a recent adult Sunday school class devoted to the subject of money and giving, Pat Van Slyke told the group that her perspective on such things has changed as she has aged. Many things that mattered to her 60 years ago matter very little now, she said.

It’s freeing in a way, she says.

Pat is turning 80 next year. Sure, her life looks quite different from those days 60 years ago when she was strolling around The College of Idaho.

It looks different from her life 40 years ago, as well, when she was busy with the Cub scouts, her local library, and shuffling kids to youth group and endless school activities.

And that’s not just because she’s an empty-nester with a few more silver hairs. Pat can point to a very specific moment decades ago, and at a Presbytery event no less, when things changed in her heart.

Here’s what her life looked like before that: Pat was raised a Disciple of Christ, in Berkeley, California. “Every time the church doors were open, I was there,” she said. Her father was a deacon, and her mother, president of the women’s group. Pat was present and active, but she grew increasingly skeptical the older she got. “I knew the Bible stories, but they seemed to have nothing to do with me. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t murder. I don’t steal.’ How are these words relevant to me?”

After college, Pat took a decade-long break from church.

“I had grown up with this view of people who only go at Christmas or Easter, and I wasn’t going to do that,” she said. “I wanted to go because it felt right for me to go.”

A friend in the neighborhood where she was living in Houston invited her back. And by the time her family had moved to the Washington area in the 1970s, Pat was in the swing of church life again.

She found a somewhat conservative Presbyterian congregation in Alexandria, and she initially felt comfortable. But not unlike her teen years, Pat started to feel like her questioning was isolating her.

“I remember being in a Sunday school class, and we were discussing Jonah. I said, ‘It seems possible to me that a man wasn’t actually swallowed by a whale, that it didn’t happen exactly like the Bible reads, and you can still get the message from the story.” A friend turned to her and said, “I feel sorry for you.”

Not long after, Pat attended an evangelism event that was sponsored by the National Capital Presbytery. Jim Wallis, a Christian writer and activist, spoke, and he said something that Pat has never forgotten: If it’s good news, it will be good news for the poor.

“It was like a lightbulb went off,” Pat said. She hesitates to use the phrase born again, but in a way that’s how she felt. Her perspective on church changed. Her perspective on her own role as a Christian changed. Her voting patterns changed.

And she decided that questioning and doubting isn’t a bad thing.

“It wasn’t just about some stories that happened a long time ago,” she said. “Gospel in action: That was so appealing to me.”

Pat found BPC, which resonated more with her new idea of what church should be. And whereas her life before had been “more self-focused,” she felt called in a new direction.

She helped support an Iraqi family that BPC became connected with; the husband had lost a limb under Saddam Hussein’s rule. She has tutored children, worked with the literacy council, and attended events organized by VOICE, which invests in social justice issues. She is getting involved in a support network for indigent criminal defendants in the South, a problem that she has read about recently and discovered “is so much worse than I even imagined.”

An antique clock hangs on her dining room wall, one that was from her parents’ and grandparents’ church in Idaho. It’s a reminder, in some ways, of Pat’s own spiritual evolution. “I once heard someone say, ‘Every person is responsible for their own faith journey.’ I believe that.”

He’s more tired. He’s poorer. And he’s happier.

As a kid, James Koontz was a selfdescribed military brat. When he graduated from Virginia Tech, he joined the Army because that seemed like a logical next step.

“I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he said.

He became an intelligence analyst, doing code-breaking, which he admits had a certain cachet. And later he was in business development, helping contractors connect with the military. He was a vice president of his company at one point; he was good at his job.

“But I didn’t feel like what I was doing mattered,” he said. “I felt like I was just pushing paper around. I started to feel like I was trapped.”

James and his wife, Ginger, began strategizing an exit plan. Their two girls were in school at this point, and Ginger, who had been at home with them, was wanting to go back to work. So the two switched roles: Ginger began a technology career, and James left his job to manage the household. It wasn’t always easy, he said. He took on the cooking, for example, and his way of preparing food meant that “we all got fat pretty fast.” But he figured out a ritual, and he rather quickly learned some things about himself.

He often was the only male at volunteer programs at the girls’ elementary school, so he introduced a national program there to encourage more dads to get involved. He helped out at Vacation Bible School at BPC, and he coordinated games at Rainbow.

“It was the happiest and most fulfilled I’d ever been,” he said. “Within a year I knew what I wanted to be was a teacher.”

James, who already had a master’s of business degree, attended Marymount University’s accelerated, 1-year master’s of elementary education program. He was student teaching during the day and attending classes at night. At the end of that year he had an offer to teach fourth grade at West Springfield Elementary School. That was eight years ago, and he’s been teaching fourth grade there ever since.

“It’s very rewarding,” he said. “As one of the very few male teachers in the building, I feel like I have even more of an influence.”

Boys, in particular, some struggling with problems at home, tend to come talk with James and seek counsel. He is always thinking about ways to jazz up instruction for his students. He was at the IMPACT rummage sale at church this summer, for example, and he ran across a dozen never-been-used kits for model rockets. So he scooped those up, bought a dozen more on Amazon, and launched a classroom-wide rocket-building project at the start of this school year.

He has introduced a few “standing tables,” which he bought himself at Ikea. These adjustable tables have white dry-erase tops, and they allow fidgety kids a place to get their work done and still burn off a little energy on their feet. He has cushions on the floor, where kids can read or sprawl out and write.

He runs a popular robotics class after school, for 4th-6th graders. And he has not one regret about his change in course. James says that when he was sorting out his professional life as a young adult, he was like a lot of his peers: “You’re getting out of college and you’re thinking about prestige. You’re thinking about money. And teaching is not a very glamorous profession. But then as I got older, what I thought about work changed.” And today? “I’m more tired. I’m poorer. And I’m happier.”

He was 45 and feeling a void. So he got up one morning and tried church

He was 45 and feeling a void. So he got up one morning and tried church.

It was school that first exposed John Greenlees to church.

The Lutheran school in his childhood neighborhood in Oakland, Calif., offered a better education than the public version. So that’s where John learned to recite all the books in the Bible and appreciate the beauty of the Christmas story when he earned a lead part in the pageant one year.
John attended Lutheran worship on Sunday mornings, too; it was kind of expected of the students, he said. And his mother went with him, but she wasn’t particularly religious.

“And my dad was what I guess you’d call an agnostic, so he came to the Christmas pageants, but that was about it.”

In the mid 1960s, John went to college at the University of California, Berkeley. “And like a lot of kids, I guess, I kind of slid away from church.”

It was a turbulent time to be a student, particularly at Berkeley. John’s high school girlfriend, Linda, also attended Berkeley, and was a year behind John. “Linda’s senior year, things just went crazy. She would walk between rows of National Guardsmen and could smell tear gas. They just pretty much cancelled the year at some point.”

After the two were married and John had earned his doctorate in economics, the Greenleeses moved to the Washington area. John took a job with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They had three kids, and life was full of things like family museum trips, long hikes, afternoons at the pool, and Lego-building.

“All this time, we never went to a church service,” John said. “And I felt somewhat conflicted inside.”

It’s not a feeling he remembers talking about, even with Linda.

“I believed there was a God, so I didn’t really feel comfortable thinking of myself as an agnostic or an atheist. I had had the ethics of a Christian lifestyle pretty firmly implanted in me when I was a kid at school, but I just didn’t feel comfortable with the theology as I had learned it. So I felt an allegiance to Christianity, but I didn’t know how to commit to it.”

BPC wasn’t the closest Protestant church to their home, but Linda had some friends who attended.
So one Sunday morning, when he was about 45, John came to church here by himself.
He suspects he may have been a little nervous.

He doesn’t remember a lot about his day before he arrived. But he does remember thinking that the sermon was less formal than he expected. The place felt joyful, he said. People talked to him.
“Suddenly, everything changed,” John said.

Within the year, the Greenleeses were members of BPC. Someone called and invited John to help serve meals to the homeless, before work, at Miriam’s Kitchen in downtown Washington once a month. On those days he’d be up before dawn to make sandwiches, wash dishes, and sweep floors before heading into the office.

And before long, the Greenleeses felt part of a community. John admits he was surprised by the people he met at BPC, given a common stereotype about “church people,” that they are naïve, less educated or judgmental. “What we found were people who were dedicated Christians, really, really smart, raising their kids so purposefully—just very thoughtful about their lives. And on top of that, really welcoming.”

John has been many things at BPC, from clerk of Session to a counter of offering plate collections. He’s retired now, and these days he’s chair of the board of deacons, a group that works to help church members in times of need.

“I owe a lot to God and to the church,” he said. “It affected my family in a really good way. It filled a void within me.”