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Confessions of faith: Bernard Dale

A near-death experience forces a man to reconsider his way of life and his faith.

“Welcome to hell!”

What? You maybe didn’t expect to read that in Forward in Christ. Admittedly, I never, ever thought about writing it. Until now.

Until I heard Bernard say those words when he told his story during a mission festival presentation.

A near-death experience

Confessions of Faith April 24 Bernard Dale
Bernard Dale

Bernard is a 30-year-old Apache man of the White Mountain Apache tribe. Soft spoken. Genteel. Polite. He’ll admittedly tell you he was not born a public speaker; his experience has made him one.

As Bernard relates in his story, it was during a drunken brawl more than ten years ago that he was stabbed. Eight times. Chest. Side. Back. Of the eight penetrating thrusts of the knife, the one that most severely injured him was the one to the neck. It severed his carotid artery.

It’s not that the other wounds were not serious, but the one to the carotid artery was immediately so. The carotid artery rises directly from the aorta and supplies the head and neck with blood. Sever that artery and you’re severed from life.

Bernard collapsed. He fell into a monthlong coma.

Over the days and the weeks that passed, the doctors lost hope and suggested they “pull the plug.” Bernard’s parents refused. The medical team countered and insisted: “But even if he does survive, he’s just going to be a vegetable. He will never have a life. Put an end to it.”

“No,” they said.

Though at that time they didn’t know what God’s will was for their son, they humbly but boldly entrusted Bernard into God’s hands. Let God determine his times (see Acts 17:22-7).

He did.

Images of hell

Weeks passed. Then a month. Then one day, to the utter surprise of the hospital staff and the utter joy of his family, Bernard came out of his coma. That was the beginning of a long and arduous rehabilitation journey.

He had to learn how to talk again. He had to learn how to walk again. The stabbings and the subsequent stroke left their mark. Bernard’s eye, arm, legs, all tell the story.

And so does Bernard. He’s not afraid to share his traumatic near-death experience. As he does, he relates what he saw during his coma: Fire. Demons. Satan. Oh, my, Satan. A dragon-form with a penetrating, glowing stare. Eyes as vivid as they are scary. And that voice . . . and those words. Especially those soul-shuddering words: “Welcome to hell.”

As Bernard stands before people who are willing to listen to his story, Bernard is honest. Prior to the stabbing, he was on the wide, worldly road headed to hell. He says it is crowded with addicted travelers. His own life was filled with drugs and alcohol. A closet drinker and expert manipulator.

Although he was brought up Lutheran, Bernard openly confesses that he had no time for the Lord. No regard for his Word. No concern for the Lord’s Supper or worship. The path he was on promised pleasure and fun.

But ultimately it didn’t deliver.

So, when Bernard lay in his coma, God allowed him to see frightening things: Demons, like rabid hyenas on a kill, came after Bernard. They tortured him. Swiped at him. Relentlessly. Ferociously. Ravenously. Behind the demons Bernard saw an open gate. And as he stood there at the entrance, God permitted him to hear those frightening words of Satan: “Welcome to hell.”

To this day, Bernard still cannot forget those words.

A second chance at life

But God did the remarkable. Bernard’s experience became a wakeup call.

Though the devil’s foreboding words rocked Bernard to the core, it was God’s gospel words that picked him up and set him back on the right road. Though narrow, it’s the one, the only one to the Father: Jesus Christ.

“I am the way and the truth and the life.”

It is those words in John 14:6 that Bernard read when he emerged from his coma. They were the very first words he read. A fellow Christian, the nurse in charge, had written that compelling declaration from Jesus on a whiteboard in his room.

She set it beside Bernard’s bed. To this day, those very words comprise Bernard’s go-to verse. Like the five tattoos that ink his body, those ten words are scrawled deep and indelibly on his heart, soul, and mind.

Bernard shares these thoughts: “Jesus’ words in John 14:6 are significant for me because it’s a daily reminder that it is in Christ alone that I was rescued from my self-destruction. Before experiencing God’s grace, my life was totally different. I lived a life that was rebellious toward God. However, he did not stop loving me and saving me. He gave me a second chance at life when I was on the verge of death. The love of God is more powerful than anything I’ve ever faced. I want all who hear my story to never give up hope, faith, and love in the face of adversity. I want everyone to know that God will never leave them or forsake them. Whatever you are struggling with, God uses everything, including pain, for a purpose.”

If you get an opportunity to hear Bernard share his story, it will be worth your time. And when it comes to time, God obviously determined Bernard’s. Mordecai’s words to Esther are mine to Bernard: “Who knows but that you have come to [a] . . . position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).

A time to share your story, Bernard.

A time to share Jesus.

A time to speak.

Though Bernard still cringes when he utters aloud those frightening words spoken by Satan, he is not afraid. No longer. In front of Christ, Satan’s words are empty. Powerless. His voice is silenced; that liar carries no threat to those in Jesus.

Even with a severed artery, Bernard was never severed from God. Because Jesus was severed from his own Father’s love, we never will be. Because Jesus experienced the full fury of Satan’s rage, we never have to.

The devil? Destroyed.

Death? Defeated.

Hell? Overcome.

Jesus not only slammed the door to hell but also opened the door to our eternal home. There is nothing evil to fear but everything good to look forward to.

The gospel of Jesus gives us a contented peace and a quiet longing to hear those long-awaited, undeserved, and most gracious words: “Welcome to . . . heaven.”


Training for leadership

Bernard Dale not only started coming back to church after his near-death experience but also began training to serve as a congregational leader through the Apache Christian Training School (ACTS). This school exists to train and equip Native American Christians for leadership in congregations and schools on the San Carlos and Fort Apache Indian Reservations in Arizona—and beyond!

ACTS offers Scripture-based Bible studies in a four-level worker training program. This means that a person can train to fill a very specific leadership role (pastor, evangelist, lay preacher, deaconess, Sunday school teacher, small group/life group leader, etc.) in the congregation or he/she can simply attend the classes to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

The lay leaders in these classes also help with very practical work in congregations such as ushering, helping with audiovisual setups and information technology, and sometimes preaching under the supervision of a pastor.

Currently approximately 50 to 55 people attend ACTS classes on a weekly basis. The classes are held in Peridot on the San Carlos Reservation and in Cibecue, East Fork, and McNary on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

Confessions of Faith April 24 Bernard Dale and church
(Left) The ACTS training school in East Fork, Ariz. (Right) Bernard Dale, a student in the ACTS program, sharing God’s Word at an evening Lenten service at East Fork Lutheran Church.

Hear more stories

Confessions of Faith April 24 Bernard Dale
Missionary John Holtz (left) and Bernard Dale presenting at Mount Olive, Iron Mountain, Mich.

This article mentions that Bernard shared his story during a mission festival presentation. Home, World, and Joint Missions representatives are available to talk at congregational events about how Christ is working in the hearts of people here in the United States and around the world. Want to hear from people like Bernard at your congregation? Request a speaker at wels.net/speaker-request.

Author: John Holtz
Volume 111, Number 04
Issue: April 2024

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