By Jeremy Bagwell, photo by Zach McKinley
I was born and raised in Oklahoma, the buckle of the Bible Belt. My grandpa was an American Baptist preacher, my family was staunchly Baptist and my childhood was centered around the church.
Up to the age of 17, I spent around 15-20 hours a week at church. There was Bible Drill, AWANAS, Sunday school, Sunday morning service, Sunday evening service, youth choir…The list goes on and on, but it was out of obligation, not passion. My experience with Christianity was not so much a relationship with Christ, but social norm and expectation. We'd quote Scripture and pray in public, but I can't remember a single time that we helped the poor or anyone outside our church for that matter.
At around the age of 15, I told my mom that I was doubting my faith. Her solution was to force me into Christian therapy and sell all of my possessions. I also had to meet with my pastor and youth pastor once a week, which was incredibly detrimental. I was only allowed to read for an hour a day, unless I was reading the Bible. At around this time, my grandfather died. He had been my father figure and the only positive example I had as a man and as a believer. That was the final straw for me. On my 18th birthday, I moved out of the house at 7am and immediately went off the deep end. From experimenting with drugs to drinking every day, I traded what once was faith for anything that would kill my sobriety.
In our first community-wide survey, over 47% of Imago Dei attendees said they first came to the church because they were invited by a friend.
About 4 years ago, I met a Hare Krishna monk. This started a spiritual search that has changed my life. First, I read the Vedas and learned all I could about Hinduism. I meditated, recited mantras and contemplated the godhead, but I still felt empty. I had similar experiences with Buddhism, Islam and Catholicism. Meeting holy men and women from their respective faiths, I tried so hard to find the same God experience they had. I even tried joining the Freemasons, but it all felt so meaningless.
A lack of spiritual fulfillment, among countless other reasons, lead me to leave home. As I was pulling out of the driveway, headed to Portland, my grandmother gave me one of my grandpa's Bibles and made me promise to read it each day. I couldn't lie to my grandma, so I kept that promise.
I met Jeremiah at the hotel where we both worked. One day, he noticed me reading my Bible and he asked if I was a Christian. I told him I wasn't and explained all the reasons why. He told me about Imago Dei and invited me to join him that Sunday. I really didn't want to, but I also didn't want to be rude, so I agreed to go.
During the first service I attended, I was blown away by this community! In such a secular city, a person of faith must truly believe in what they profess. It was the exact opposite of the cultural, dogmatic and empty Christianity I was raised in. I remember someone telling the congregation where the offering money went, which had never happened at the church where I grew up. I remember someone describing the Water Project and how Imago partners with local leaders to help meet their needs.
During my third visit, the Spirit found me. I wasn't singing, praying or doing anything that would warrant such an encounter. I was merely sitting in the pew, half-listening to the sermon, when I felt the presence of God. In that moment, I knew that my search was over and that the rest of my life would be for His glory. He showed me that He was right there, when I was searching everywhere else for Him. I went through a season of Refuge and was able to address and heal from some of the trauma I experienced. I met Josh Butler, and he helped answer the tough questions and doubts I had about the faith. Jeremiah is one of my closest friends. I got baptized by Pastor Ben Thomas last Easter. Countless others have shown me pieces of the Kingdom. In short, through this community and the people in it, I have been blessed and found my home.
Jeremy Bagwell joined the Imago Dei staff in May of 2019 as custodian and evening security specialist.