“You’ve got to tell us how you and Priscilla met, and how you decided to get married,” one reader insisted after finishing all 60 of the original Endless Mercies posts. I’m very happy to do that. Over the course of the next week, I’ll be telling our story.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if we all got married?” Priscilla asked abruptly, as she and I, and her brother and his girlfriend, were sitting on a hillside one evening, talking away and watching the moon rise. I was sixteen years old and in my first summer working as a counselor at a children’s camp in Quebec. Priscilla was also a counselor.
The two of us were not dating. That is, we weren’t dating each other. She had a boyfriend, and I had a girlfriend, and we’d told each other so. But this technicality didn’t seem to enter into her calculations of future possibilities. Her brother and his girlfriend were still teenagers themselves, so it be some years before it would be seen whether her speculations were borne out by future events.
To describe those events, let me go back to the beginning and explain how I came to be on that hillside. My family had always enjoyed camping in the summers, typically in state parks. But more recently we’d been trying out Christian campgrounds, where there were meetings in the evenings with singing, stories, and messages. Hearing about this, a man in the church where my father was the pastor recommended Sacandaga Bible Conference in upstate New York. We tried it out for a week in the summer of 1974, about a month before I started my junior year of high school. The campsite we were assigned was right next to the one in which Priscilla’s family, the Godfreys, were set up.
I doubt we would have gotten to know them otherwise, even though my siblings and I mixed with their kids in the various activities the camp offered. (One of my brothers won the archery trophy that week in a shoot-off against one of Priscilla’s brothers.) It was only by camping next to the Godfreys that we heard them speaking French, a language they sometimes used because, though anglophones, they lived in Quebec. This piqued my interest, since I’d taken three years of the language in school. I borrowed a French Bible from Priscilla’s sister and used it with great fascination to follow along in the meetings.
At the end of the week, Mr. Godfrey offered to get me a French Bible of my own. He also said, “You should come and be a counselor at our children’s camp next summer. We could use the help, and you’d really improve your French.” (The camp was sponsored by a Bible school in Sherbrooke, l’Institut Biblique Béthel, now Parole de Vie Béthel. The Godfreys came from their home near Montreal to volunteer at the camp for several weeks each year.) Mr. Godfrey added, “We have another daughter at home that I think you’d really like.”
Priscilla, you see, was not camping with her family that week. Nor was she quite “at home.” She was halfway across the country, meeting and getting to know her steady boyfriend’s family. She was three years older than me and heading into her last year of Bible school. To all appearances, she was pursuing a serious relationship with this other guy. So it’s uncertain why her father told me this.
Over the following school year, I made arrangements to help at Camp de Béthel for several weeks the next summer. In late June 1975, I made the all-day bus trip from my family’s home in Connecticut to Quebec, crossing the border into Canada on the strength of a letter from my parents certifying that I, though still a minor, had their permission to leave the country. At the bus station in Sherbrooke, I pulled out a Canadian dime my brother had given me (a souvenir he’d kept from a trip our family took to Expo ’67 in Montreal), put it in a pay phone, dialed the school’s number, and in my best halting French asked for the camp director. The gracious older woman who answered replied in English, “Is this Christopher Smith? We’ll have someone come get you right away!”
The camp sent the Godfreys, since they’d be able to recognize me from the previous summer. Mr. Godfrey came into the station with the son who’d been in the archery shoot-off. They led me out to their car and put me in the back seat. There I discovered that Priscilla had ridden along with them. The first thing I noticed about this young lady sitting next to me was her beautiful emerald-green eyes, sparkling with life and energy. “Hi,” she said, “I’m Priscilla.” The subtext, which didn’t need to be spoken, was, “And I’m a lot of fun!”
She and I were each assigned to campers the same age (8-9 years old), so her girls and my boys went to their activities at the same time. My cabin was located near the center of the camp; it was the closest one to the swimming pool, athletic fields, and crafts building. So it was natural for Priscilla’s group to come and sit with mine on our cabin porch as we waited for these various activities to begin.
Sometimes these “porch sits” would be duplicated even during unscheduled periods of the day. Some of her little girls would wander down towards my cabin, and pretty soon most of the campers from both groups were lounging on the planks or sitting on the railings, swinging their legs beneath them. Priscilla would bring her guitar and sing songs or just strum melodies, girls snuggling up next to her. Looking back, I can see that between us even then there was a “peaceful, easy feeling” (as The Eagles put it). I think that made our campers feel safe and contented, so that even though they were at a restless and energetic age, they sat contentedly and soaked in these timeless moments.
Before I tell any more of the story, I should explain how all of it very nearly never happened. At the end of my seventh-grade year, our local school system announced it would start offering foreign language courses for students in the eighth grade and higher. A form was sent home with us the day before pre-enrollment, detailing our options and giving us the chance to sign up. My father sat me down that evening with my brother, who would also be eligible for one of these courses, and explained how valuable he thought it would be for us to learn Spanish. Increasing numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants were moving into nearby cities, and some locals had been causing trouble for them. My father felt that if we could appreciate their language and culture, we could help promote understanding and better relationships.
This made good sense to me. I went to bed that night fully expecting to sign up the next day for a Spanish course. It clearly made sense to my brother, too. He took Spanish from then on right through college, did a semester in Mexico, and eventually worked as a teacher in an urban high school, where he conversed with students in both English and Spanish and so had an influence for greater understanding and better relationships.
I would eventually study Spanish myself, in college, for many of the reasons my father had given. But that night, as I anticipated my next year in junior high, something deep inside told me to sign up for French. So that’s what I did the next morning. It must actually have been Someone who led me to do this, because if I hadn’t, I would never have met Priscilla.