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There was excitement in the air—a universal feeling of new adventures, new friends, and new learning opportunities—as 1,700 guests came onto the Wheaton Bible Church campus early in the morning of August 2010.
Those guests represented nearly all the Wheaton-Warrenville Unit District 200 educators, who have used our building for their annual fall kickoff for the past several years—a celebratory event made all the more significant because here the entire group can gather together in a single location.
Among that throng was Cheri Ziemer, who parked her car and smiled broadly as she moved in harmony with the other District 200 teachers, classroom aides, and administrators.
Cheri had driven past the church many times, wondering about the impressive campus. Now her curiosity would be satisfied. She remembers making a mental note to be present in the moment. She had a sense of anticipation about her life—that good things were ahead.
As Cheri sat in the worship center, looking around at the bright faces of her colleagues, a feeling of warmth enveloped her. She realized she was happy not only about her job and her coworkers but also about being in this place—this church.
She was determined to come back.
A Childhood Longing
Church was not a large part of Cheri’s childhood. Her mom had guided her in bedtime prayers, and the Ten Commandments were posted on the wall in their kitchen, but as a young girl Cheri did not connect these religious rituals to the presence of God that she often felt.
Each morning her school bus passed the church that her family would occasionally attend, sometimes on Christmas or Easter. The church housed a parochial school, and as the bus drove past, Cheri pressed her nose against the window and could see the children in their blue uniforms playing together. As she watched, she felt outside of it all and experienced a longing, a desire, to belong to that church and to those children.
Born with a congenital birth defect, Cheri wore bars and braces on her legs. The ball joint of her leg was flat, not round, and the hip socket that was supposed to hold the ball was practically non-existent. Her first surgery, at age seven, left her in a body cast for more than three months. Even after that surgery, her legs were different lengths, and in spite of wearing a built-up shoe, she walked with a limp, something the other kids noticed and teased her about.
When Cheri was eleven, the doctors stopped the growth of one leg to let the other leg catch up. The difference in length diminished somewhat, though other difficulties remained.
Cheri’s health and surgeries made regular school attendance difficult, so her mom was not only her parent but also her best friend. When things got difficult, Cheri’s mom would tell her to pray, and Cheri always had a sense that God was real and that He was with her.
Throughout Cheri’s early life, her mom was her caregiver. But at the age of nineteen, she and her mom traded roles, as her mom battled, and eventually succumbed to, lung cancer.
A Search for Meaning
Before Cheri’s mom passed away, she encouraged Cheri to go on with her life, to get a job and continue going to college. Not long after her mom’s death, Cheri went on a hike to gather her thoughts. She cried out, “God, tell me what to do; I don’t know what to do.” The Lord heard Cheri’s cry and provided a job that helped pay for her schooling. At that job she met her future husband, Jeff.
Before their marriage they attended marriage-preparation classes at a local church. Cheri remembers learning about Christian beliefs, but she felt as if everything she heard was like disconnected dots. She learned what the sacraments were, but she didn’t understand the meaning behind them.
She was also told that she needed to confess her sins, but she didn’t know exactly what she should confess. In her mind, sins were offenses like murder, stealing, or lying. She had not done any of those things. The classes felt like training in religious duty without any link to real life. So Cheri went on with life, sensing God’s presence but not having a connection to a church.
After Cheri had two children, her hip began to cause her great pain. She could not even enjoy a simple walk around the block. That changed on her thirty-seventh birthday, when she had her final surgery to repair her hip and add the additional half inch to her shorter leg so her legs were the same length.
She stood up for the first time after surgery feeling as if she was fixed. For the first time in her life, she was like everyone else—a whole person.
In 2007, Cheri started a job in District 200, working as a teacher’s aide. There she became close friends with another aide named Jacki. Jacki was warm, kind, and easy to talk with. She was a follower of Jesus Christ. Two years into their friendship Cheri went through an extremely difficult time. Jacki encouraged her with Scripture verses that applied directly to what she was going through. They gave her hope and direction.
Nine months after Cheri first came to Wheaton Bible Church for the District 200 meeting, she attended a worship service on Mother’s Day. Once again, just like when she lost her mother, Cheri was at a point in life where she was crying out to God and asking Him what to do. She continued to come to services on Sunday mornings through the summer.
Cheri was seeking God.
September of 2012, two years after Cheri’s first visit to the church, there was an announcement about Alpha. As the speaker listed the topics covered in the Alpha Course, Cheri realized those were her questions: Who is Jesus? Why did He die? How do I pray? How do I read the Bible?
Even though she had been attending church for a while, she wanted to start at the very beginning and have someone “connect the dots” about the Christian faith in an orderly way. She wanted to see how faith in Jesus applied to her daily life.
During one of the Alpha talks, she heard the story of Jesus Christ dying on the Cross for our sins. She was deeply convicted of her sinfulness and her need for a Savior. She realized Jesus didn’t die for the sins of people “out there;” He died for her sins.
Although she didn’t have what people would consider “big” sins in her life, she had the sin of living for herself and not living fully for God. When she compared herself with others, she thought she was probably okay, but when she compared herself with Jesus Christ, she fell short.
She prayed a simple prayer that day:
Lord Jesus Christ, I am sorry for the wrong things I have done. Please forgive me. I now turn from everything that I know is wrong. Thank You for dying for me on the Cross so I could be forgiven and set free. Please come into my life, by your Holy Spirit, to be with me forever. Amen.
As Cheri looks back on her life, she sees how God has been with her and heard her cries for help. She sees how He has used everything in her life to make her who she is.
Today, Cheri says, she leans on God continually—not turning to Him as a last resort—knowing that He loves her and wants her to come to Him for wisdom. She finds comfort in seeing how God is transforming her life. She knows that as a follower of Christ, she is not sinless, but through God’s Holy Spirit she sins less. When she does fail, God’s forgiveness is hers for the asking.
She especially enjoys getting into God’s Word with her Place 4 You women’s Bible study group.
Cheri no longer feels like the little girl with her nose pressed to the school-bus window, wanting to belong to that church and to the group of happy children. Now part of the body of Christ—worshiping at the place where she was once a curious visitor—Cheri has found her childhood longing replaced by a confident belonging, as she continues her walk with God among a community of others who follow Christ.
On Saturday, November 16, the Wheaton Bible Church family celebrated with Cheri as she was baptized by Pastor Scott Murray, publicly demonstrating her acceptance of God’s gift of salvation through faith in Christ and her commitment to follow Him.