Troubled teens find the gospel in an unexpected place.
“Talk Time.” That’s what Anthony and Tyler call it. Tim Mueller, pastor at St. John, Watertown, Wis., gently helps them remember its full title, “Bible Talk Time.” PT, short for Pastor Tim, was the director of The ROC (Recreation and Outreach Center) when he met both of them.
The ROC reaches out to teens from a storefront in downtown Watertown. Most of them who come are unchurched. Many are bullied and face isolation—and even exile—from their homes and family.
Anthony, like most of the teens who attend the center, faced challenges and difficulties, many of which stemmed from his autism. His sister heard about and attended the ROC and suggested that her brother check it out as well.
When Anthony first came through the door in 2004, he would not utter a single word. At first The ROC volunteers thought he couldn’t talk. But those who knew him best kept assuring everyone to be patient and to give him time and attention.
As time went on, Anthony began to realize that he could trust the staff and PT. The words began to come slowly and hesitantly at first. The staff found out that Anthony loves video games and movies. Pastor Tim says, “He can tell you all about the new movies and when they are coming out.”
When asked why he came to The ROC, Anthony says without hesitation, “Talk Time.” That’s devotion time, which is held every day. It didn’t take long, and Anthony was there every day for Talk Time. “He so looked forward to the devotion that he would remind the staff that devotion time was soon to begin and we had to get ready,” says Pastor Tim.
Time spent at The ROC was different for Anthony. First, he was not bullied, isolated, friendless, or belittled. He was treated with respect. Talk Time was also the first time Anthony heard the message about Jesus his Savior. Pastor Tim shared the gospel in a way that he could grasp, and he, by God’s grace, came to faith.
When Anthony turned 18, he knew that he would age out of The ROC. By this time, he was talking fluently and intelligently to the staff but would often stop speaking when someone he didn’t trust would try talking to him. Anthony’s dad humbly and persistently asked if Anthony could continue to come to the ROC due to his challenges. The ROC leadership gave permission for Anthony to continue to attend.
Also around this time, Anthony moved into a group home. His family moved away soon after.
One day Anthony’s dad began to call The ROC, not to check on his son but to talk about God’s Word. Anthony’s father was facing his own struggles and challenges. He had back pain that soon was diag-nosed as cancer. He lost weight and had little hope of improvement. Pastor Tim remembers, “We found out that Anthony was sharing what he had learned from God’s Word. Anthony’s dad would call often to be assured of peace through Christ. Without realizing it, Anthony had become a messenger and ambassador for Christ.”
As Anthony attended the devotions, he would often hear of the importance of God’s Word and the gospel. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were among the many teachings he learned. “Many times at chapel we would ask who was not baptized and offered baptism to them,” says Pastor Tim. “Over the years, many young people who attended The ROC were baptized but not Anthony. He never raised his hand.”
As time went along, Anthony made many friends at The ROC, including another young man with special challenges, Tyler. In many ways Tyler is the opposite of Anthony. He had come to The ROC with a different background. After he was confirmed, he quickly had fallen away. Tyler suffered extreme bullying, but he responded to the bullying and name calling in a different way than Anthony. He did not withdraw into silence. He was angry—very angry—and got into trouble because of it. He even spent a short time in a correctional facility. Tyler says, “I was nothing but trouble.” When Pastor Tim talked to his mother to invite him to come to The ROC, she was quick to warn, “You don’t want him. He’s trouble.”
But Tyler came and found a home at The ROC with people who cared about him and loved him, including his good friend Anthony. Anthony and Tyler began to encourage each other in their Christian faith and regularly attended Talk Time at The ROC.
The gospel touched Tyler too. He tells about how the story of Adam and Eve changed him. He says, “Adam and Eve had sinned against God, but they didn’t want to admit they had done wrong. When they did, God gave them the first promise of a Savior—they were forgiven for their sins. I realized I didn’t want to blame anyone else for my anger. It was me. And God forgave me.” That made a huge impact on Tyler. “It turned my life around,” he says. And he gives credit to the one who helped him—Pastor Tim.
Due to Tyler’s special situation, he was also permitted to attend the ROC after age 18 as long as he seriously worked to become an adult volunteer.
In 2019, things changed a bit at The ROC. Pastor Tim accepted a call back into the parish, serving as associate pastor at St. John, a local church in Watertown just three blocks away from The ROC. Now both Anthony and Tyler began to attend worship at St. John as well as hear God’s Word at The ROC. In fact, Anthony many times is the first to arrive for the Saturday evening service.
A new step
While attending St. John, Anthony and Tyler heard of a Bible information class coming up and wanted to attend. Their brotherly concern and encouragement were evident as they both attended. Adult confirmation drew closer as the lessons continued. Close to the end of the classes, Anthony made it known that he and his family weren’t sure that he was baptized. Anthony also made it very clear he wanted to be baptized as he learned of God’s promise and covenant of forgiveness given through Holy Baptism.
Jan. 16, 2021, was a day for Anthony always to remember. On this day this 32-year-old autistic man was baptized, confirmed, and received Holy Communion for the first time—with a big smile on his face. As he remembers that day, he confesses, even if a little quietly, “Jesus died for me”—a lesson he learned at The ROC. Now added to that confession is the assurance that his sins are washed away in Baptism and that he can receive the body and blood of Jesus “given and shed for [him] for the forgiveness of sins.”
Tyler stood by and supported his friend. The lessons were important for him too. He’s not as quiet or shy as Anthony. He readily confesses that the entire Bible comes down to the Bible passage he was given long ago at his own confirmation. “It’s John 3:16,” he says. “ ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ All the Bible comes down to that one verse.” The gospel has transformed his anger and made him ready to share Jesus with others. “He’s like a billboard for Jesus,” says Pastor Tim.
Many from the The ROC attended Anthony’s baptism and confirmation to encourage him in his Christian faith. Anthony’s father also would have rejoiced, but the Lord had taken him home two years earlier.
“We will never forget that special day,” says Pastor Tim. “Anthony belongs to God’s family. We are brothers in Christ with all those who believe.”
Special thanks to Pastor Tim Mueller for help with this article.
Author: John A. Braun
Volume 108, Number 11
Issue: November 2021