Al’s story: from atheism to Jesus

Al Tizon was my pastor for five years at Berkeley Covenant Church. Al is an intense person, a good storyteller and a man on a mission. It’s hard for me to think of a person as intentional about his life as Al. He told us once that he recited his life mission statement every morning when he woke up. The statement goes something like this: “action and reflection on the world to transform it.”

Before coming to Berkeley, Al and his family had spent 10 years on the mission field in the Philippines, where he was born. (He came to the U.S. at age 2 and grew up all over the country.) In the Philippines Al founded a ministry among people living in a garbage dump. Al practiced “holistic” ministry, something he often speaks passionately about: the need to preach the gospel in Word (the Bible) and deed (practical ways of serving people’s needs). Word and deed were Al’s mantra. In preaching this, he was seeking to bring balance to the way Christians in the past have emphasized one side over another. The Billy Grahams of the world focused on preaching the Bible. The current crop of Christians promotes social justice. Often these two are seen in conflict, but Al reminded us that both were important.

Al’s zeal took him to bigger places. He left Berkeley Covenant to become a professor of missiology at Palmer Seminary in Pennsylvania and head of Evangelicals for Social Action. Then he took a job as a professor at North Park Seminary and headed the Covenant Church’s world mission arm. Recently he and his wife Janice moved back to California to be closer to their four children and grandchildren and he’s looking for another teaching job.

Al’s own life is a study in transformation itself. His growing up years were chaotic. He pursued drugs and atheism as a teen until a chance meeting at a church changed the trajectory of his life. Every time I hear Al’s story I am amazed. What follows are Al’s own words about his journey to faith.

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Al’s story

I come from a good Filipino family in that all the kids were baptized in the Catholic church. Unfortunately that was more of a cultural thing and as a family we did not go to church. In fact I can count the number of times on one hand that we as a family went to church and it was usually during crisis. But I remember many crises where that was not the first place we went. It had to be really bad. And it was my mother who would take us to mass. So it just wasn’t part of our family. We were all baptized because that’s what you do as Filipinos. You get baptized in the Catholic church. And there were icons, Catholic icons, around the house. Mom had statues of the Virgin Mary, a crucifix, the Virgin Mary on the dashboard of our car. But religion was not part of our household. You never talked about it.

Mom was a medical doctor and a nanny raised us. We called her Lola, which is translated “grandmother” in the Philippines. She was part of the family and she was a distant relative of my mother’s. We grew up with two mothers. Our biological mother was a doctor full time. She was gone a lot. And Lola was the mother at home who fed us and put us to bed and changed our diapers and each of us loved her in their own way. But there was conflict there too. There was jealousy, especially from my biological mother who wished that she had been home more and took it out on Lola.

Dad, for much of my growing up years, was working for the Philippine government. He was what they called a commercial attaché. And basically it was his job, when Filipino diplomats, Filipino VIPs, came to town, to show them a good time.

There were parties all the time at our house. We thought they were just people, you know, mom and dad’s friends, but they were VIPs from the Philippines. We had governors in our house, entertainers, prominent business people. I didn’t know that. They were just people. And one of the ways that that job impacted the family was that the government transferred Dad every two, three, four years to a different embassy or consulate. So we moved around a lot. I went to five different elementary schools.

We were in L.A. first, then Seattle, then Honolulu, back to Seattle and then New York City. I spent three years of my childhood in New York City, in the Bronx. It was there that he resigned because it was just hard on the family. He resigned and went into real estate. We were long enough in the country that we were all given permanent visas and eventually became citizens. I was 14 when I became an American citizen.

Now around the New York days, once my dad resigned, we moved back to the Pacific Northwest and into a little town in eastern Oregon called Umatilla. So we went from the Bronx, New York to a little dinky town in eastern Oregon that had less people than the apartment building that was right next to us. Talk about culture shock. One of the biggest cities in the world to a town of 750 people. And we moved there because my mother was offered a job at the Umatilla County Hospital where she served as one of two doctors in the entire county.

It was during that time that it was discovered that dad had another family. It was hard on everybody but of course hard on Mom and in fact one of the reasons that the move happened from New York to Umatilla was that Dad broke it off with the other woman or tried to. And we moved across country while she followed. My mom and dad really tried to make it work but it just too late. There was just too much damage done. And they finally did get a divorce. My dad ended up going back to Carol.

Their affair actually started in Seattle. And then it continued. We moved to Hawaii. She moved there. Nobody knew. She had a family too. She left her family and followed Dad around. But she also started a family with my dad. It’s the stuff of soap opera, drama. And there’s more to it. I mean Carol—all’s forgiven—she’s Aunt Carol now. But she was one of my mother’s best friends and the cover-up was such that my oldest half sister, when she was baptized, my mother was asked to be a godmother to her, not knowing that she was Dad’s daughter. It was just really hurtful. Other lesser families I suppose, you know—it would have ended much worse than it did. It was bad. I mean Mom was not in good shape. None of us were.

But what happened was that when we moved to Oregon and Mom and Dad decided they just couldn’t do it anymore Dad went back to Carol and mom got a new boyfriend named Ivan, completely the opposite of my dad, I mean totally unsophisticated—Dad was a sophisticated suit and tie guy. Ivan was a barber who Mom basically controlled. She couldn’t control Dad but she could control this guy. But you know this poor guy comes into a family of four teenagers whose family just blew up. I mean it’s already hard enough to be a teenager. So within a year of their divorce they both got remarried and suddenly we had step-siblings. This was Ivan’s fourth marriage. And it was just chaotic. So we all reacted differently. I went the way of drugs and partying. I was 14. And it was really funny because growing up, we didn’t go to church. But I look back now and I had religious sensibilities. I didn’t know where they came from but for some reason I felt the need—I don’t know where it came from—but I memorized the Lord’s prayer and prayed it every night. I watched Davey and Goliath religiously at 7:30 every Sunday morning. It was a claymation about a boy and his dog that talks to him about matters of faith and morality and ethics. It provided a kind of perspective, a kind of alternate narrative of family that I didn’t have at all. There was a mom and dad of Davey, his sister, and Goliath the dog. I don’t know for some reason it had real impact on me as a kid. But at 14 when the family blew up I blew all that off and I just said religion is just nothing—it’s not true, God can’t be real. And so as a self-proclaimed atheist at 14 I really lived like it—the whole drug culture thing. I only have one speed for life and that is just you just go for it. I mean I pursued drugs like I pursued anything. I did it every day, I got to a point where I was selling it. I mean I was dealing, marijuana and illegal black market drugs like quaaludes. We would also harvest psilocybin mushrooms. There was a group of us that was cultivating mushrooms and selling them and eating them.

I was 14 ,15, 16 and I was very, very deeply immersed in the drug culture. But it wasn’t at the expense of other things too. I was doing drugs but my stepdad knew this. He was street savvy. He knew that I was into it. My mom wouldn’t believe him because I came home with straight As. I was in sports. I was in with the jocks too. I played football and basketball and track. All the while I’m just doing drugs everyday. I was really popular. From the outside you know, like from my mom’s perspective and a lot of people’s perspective, I had my act together. But I was really hurting inside.

At age 17 a former girlfriend named Jane came to faith and I couldn’t believe it because among other things that we did together we shared our journals. There weren’t a whole lot of high schoolers that even wrote in journals, but we did. We were just trying to be self-aware. And we would share entries on a fairly regular basis. And one thing we shared was just this angst, you know about life and is it worth it and all that. So one day she shares a journal entry with me that described her conversion. I thought she was joking. I thought, no way. I mean Jane, come on—you and I, we’ve been fighting this whole theism thing and now you’re telling me that all this is real? When I was convinced that she wasn’t joking I got really, really mad at her. I couldn’t believe it. She sold out? And so in my own way I stormed out of her life, but I was also just sort of watching her. And I just saw a transformation in her. She just had this brightness in her eyes. She wasn’t doing drugs anymore—she wasn’t sure about the parties. She was instead hanging out with this group of Christians who met every Wednesday night at this youth rally called Son City and she’d invite me on a regular basis to go check it out. She said Al, I know you don’t believe in God but check it out. And one day I was stoned enough to say yes to her and went with her. I heard the gospel for the first time. I heard a version of the gospel that was clear to this desperate teenager. It just sounded like very good news. And I was desperately wanting it to be true. I still remember the three points of that sermon. That was 37 years ago: God is real, God can be known, God loves you.

I went back years later, I’m talking like 20 years. I talked with the preacher at the time, a Bible school intern named Ralph Roland. I said hey, you know, thanks for that sermon. He ended up being a pastor up in Seattle and he honestly couldn’t remember the sermon. He said, I’ve never preached that sermon before. I know he did. I mean it was one of those things. So God used that night to speak good news to me. This was run by a Baptist church. So there was an altar call and I went up and repeated the sinners prayer and all that and stayed for a couple hours and asked a bunch of questions.

But then I went home and I only have one speed. I said, OK, if this is true then I’ve got to change. I’ve got to abandon my former life. I took my thousands of dollars worth of paraphernalia. I flushed a lot of it down the toilet. It was an act of baptism almost, it was as an act of commitment and that was it. I never looked back. The funny thing is the first month, month and a half or so I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t tell my cool friends because I was popular, I was at the parties and I didn’t tell any of them. If they asked me why I wasn’t going to parties I said I was tired, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that. I never told them it was because I became a Christian. It was real, but I was still kind of embarrassed, especially because I was very vocal about no God and all that. So it wasn’t until another experience that my Pentecostal friends later told me was called the baptism of the Holy Spirit that I became not just not ashamed of the gospel but a bold proclaimer of it.

I was reading the book of Revelation. It was actually the first book that I read in the New Testament. It made sense to me for some strange reason. I was a sci fi reader, still am. But it made sense, at least I thought it made sense, enough to turn the page. I wasn’t getting lost. I understood what was happening. And I don’t remember where in Revelation. But I remember reading it and getting an overwhelming sense of assurance that what I had decided in Christ was real and that all that you’re reading is true. I mean the only way I can describe it is this overwhelming wave of confirmation that resulted in me just laughing, and the physical manifestation of goose bumps. There was a physical manifestation. It was from that point on that I went to the parties with my Bible and I was telling people about Jesus. It was the craziest thing. That was the beginning of my mission, my evangelism.

I was a junior in high school, a late junior. I just never looked back. It just grew from there. I read my Bible voraciously. Not having grown up in the church, it was so new to me. I didn’t know what to look for. I didn’t know what the Bible was. It just tasted good as I was reading through the New Testament. I just kept learning. Church helped.

My church journey is strange because in obedience to the disciplers—my early disciplers—the leaders of Son City, I did attend the church that Son City was attached to, it was called Salem Heights Baptist Church. But I just couldn’t do it. It was just too weird for me. It was just too strange and too underwhelming. I just gave my life to Jesus and I was passionate and excited and intense about it and I’d come to church and the service did not correspond. The music didn’t correspond with what was going on. So I didn’t do that for very long. I ended up going to the only place I knew, which was the Catholic church. So after two or three attempts at Salem Heights Baptist I went back to the Catholic church but that was garbled too. I didn’t get it. I don’t know if it was worse but it was at least familiar to the extent that whenever we went to church as a kid, that’s what it looked like and felt like.

I saw Janice one time at church. She was dating a Catholic at the time. She was really surprised to see me there. She knew me as a drug dealer, an atheist drug dealer. I had known Janice in high school. Her house was kind of a hangout for druggies because her older sister was also part of the drug culture and her mom recently passed away and their dad was away a lot—he worked in in Portland; they lived in Salem. He often stayed there in Portland and came home on the weekends. So the house became a kind of hang out. That’s where I met Janice. She was a new Christian, having come to faith through Young Life, and her sister Nancy would tease her about it. That didn’t seem to faze Janice. She didn’t stay away from us and judge us. She was just always with us. She was part of this group. She didn’t do anything. And we kind of gave her a bad time about that—come on Janice, try this. But she was just, nah, that’s OK.

She had come to Christ about three years before this. But at that time it was a fresh experience for her. And I was just entering into deep immersion into the drug culture. I mean I was doing drugs off and on since I was 11 and then at 14 it was every day. It was deep. It was during that time that I met Janice. And it was during that time that Janice gave me a disguised Bible called “The Way.” I didn’t know what it was but it was nice of her. And so when I came to faith three years later—and in the middle of just reading this thing that she gave me three years before—I saw her at church at St. Joe’s and I said, “Hey Janice, thank you for the Bible. I’m reading it now.” She was just shocked at the transformation that was going on in my life. And she hardly even remembered that she bought me a Bible. From that point on we began to talk to each other pretty regularly over the phone and we’d see each other.

Janice is one year older. She’s the class of ‘79. I’m the class of ‘80. She wasn’t really satisfied with the church she was going to. I didn’t even know there were other kinds of churches. So she told me about a place in town called Christian Center Salem. We decided to go. And it was there that I met people who were as excited as I was about the faith. And Janice too. She’s a PK (a pastor’s kid), but at Young Life things really came together for her and she was really excited about her faith. So here’s this PK and this ex drug dealer really excited about the faith and we started going to Christian Center. Christian Center turned out to be an Assemblies of God Church. People there are happy, they’re jumping around and singing. And that really resonated with me. So we stayed. We were there for years until we moved from Salem down to Southern California. But we ran with the Pentecostals for a long, long time. And in fact we ran with the Pentecostals until we moved to Berkeley. My first ordination was with the Assemblies of God. And then it was with Calvary Chapel and then when I took on Berkeley Covenant I started my journey to the Covenant Church.

I would say that where I have to apply the most discipline today is to keep my spirituality as the motivator for my mission. It’s so easy to not maintain my relationship with God. And I would even say that it’s an occupational hazard because you can convince yourself that, hey, I’m doing God’s work. I might as well just do it. But I do have disciplines that I maintain and there is nothing earth shattering about them. You pray. You study the scriptures, you fellowship and you bear witness. Those are my four, my attempts at daily disciplines. It’s my pushups and sit-ups. I need to be in contact, communicate with God. That’s through prayer and through study of scripture. But fellowship is also important daily. And I find that very useful. I can have a conversation with my wife and say hey, I’m fellowshipping with a sister in Christ. We’re fellowshipping in this case. But it’s to remind me that I’m not alone and that ministry is not a lone ranger kind of endeavor. It’s community. So that’s the importance of the discipline of fellowship. Also bearing witness, which to me is a discipline, is important, especially for ministers who can spend their entire days, each and every day, with Christians. So who are you bearing witness to? To me it’s a discipline to be intentional about maintaining a sphere of non-Christians in my life. So my introverted self reaches out to neighbors who don’t go to church. We have relationship. It’s being constantly aware of merchants as I go into stores. And you know bearing witness is holistic. It could be in word. It could be in deed. It could be both. It could be writing a letter to my congressperson. It could be having a God talk conversation with a neighbor. But I try to be aware that it’s a daily thing. Every day I need to be bearing witness to the goodness of the good news. Now ask me how well I do? The disciplines keep me healthy and keep my spirituality intact. And I know that if I’m doing those disciplines then the mission that I’m in charge of will be fueled by that. It’s tough, it’s really, really tough. So I would consider that the greatest challenge, is to commune with God in order to be the most effective holistic minister and that’s a personal thing. I see great challenges out there—violence and wars and all things that I’m encountering as I go around the world. But in terms of my journey that remains the challenge that’s ever before me.

If I could look back to my 17-year-old self starting my journey again I would say, why did you start so late? I mean God has used the pain of my family and that’s God. God takes broken things and makes beautiful, useful things out of them. But so much of the experiences of brokenness and the way I responded didn’t have to be. Yes, God has used my brokenness to make me who I am. But I’ll tell you there were times during that period where suicide was a viable option. And I’m not talking about desperation. I’m talking about well thought-out plans to not live a life, this is not worth living. I remember sitting around with my best friend Gary at our little treehouse where we stashed everything. We had this very calm conversation. We had quaaludes right there. You know, we said, life’s hard. We don’t know why we have to go through it when there’s no real purpose for it, no real meaning for it. Why do it? You know we could just take that bottle right now and be done with it. If we had more courage we would have done it. But we were chicken. The point is that, wow, if I could talk to that person now, I would say that’s not an option. There’s so much to live for. And when you’re in touch with the one who made it all and you’re on a trajectory toward the kind of life that God would have for us, it’s an amazing beautiful thing. It is worth living for. I guess I’m talking to my pre-Christian self.

I really do feel like I’m still as excited today about my faith in Christ as I was when I said yes. I really believe that. Sure, there’s ebbs and flows and deserts and all those kinds of things. But the long haul 37 years later, I just would not have it any other way.

2 thoughts on “Al’s story: from atheism to Jesus

  1. Allison, what a meaningful story to tell. I know the churches Al mentioned in Salem. Thanks for the opportunity to let Al’s story speak for itself of God’s powerful pursuit. And God did not waste the pain of his twisted upbringing. Remarkable. Once again, your writings speak to me.

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