A Long and Winding Road
by Debbonnaire Kovacs
Bill Hagerman, Christian for 27 years and member of Newark, Ohio Community Seventh-day Adventist church since May of 2012, is a hi-octane kind of guy. He owns a hair salon, sells insurance, is a full-time single parent and caregiver, and uses every one of those avenues as a way of doing mission work. Using over 60 Bible versions, he leads two weekly Bible studies, teaches at church, and sometimes takes over church duties for his pastor, Tom Hughes. This year, for instance, Hagerman was in charge of the Easter sunrise service while the pastor was away.
He came to this point on a long and winding road.
Bill Hagerman loved his great-grandparents, and was fortunate enough to have them as an essential part of his life all the way up until he was married. He says they were the strongest Christians he ever knew and praises God to this day for the foundation they laid.
Grandpa, in particular, had a deft way of managing a strong-willed preteen boy. He was functionally blind, but could read his Bible by leaning close to it, his better eye peering through a strong magnifying glass. Naturally, a loving grandson would offer to read to him, and Grandpa would always agree. But that was only the beginning.
“Say I did something wrong,” Hagerman begins, slipping easily into his trademark storytelling mode. “Grandpa didn’t say anything about it. He would just ask me to look up a particular text and read it to him. I did, but of course I still didn’t ‘get’ it. Grandpa would say, ‘I don’t understand that. What do you think it means?’ and I’d explain it, feeling all grown-up and helpful. Grandpa would say, ‘You’re really smart!’ and that would be that. It wouldn’t be until that night, lying in bed, that I would think, ‘Now, wait a minute! That passage applied to me!’ I knew I’d just been corrected, but he didn’t do it in a way to make me angry or make me rebel.”
Around 12 to 14 years old, Bill was thinking of being a pastor. Grandpa, who was Nazarene, gave him a set of Adventist Bible studies to read. In eighth grade, Bill got a call from H. M. S. Richards, Jr., because he always got all the answers right. Bill confessed that he actually asked his great-grandfather for help. “Well,” he reports Richards as saying, “you keep studying and keep listening to your grandpa, and you’ll do fine.”
But the path was not going to be that straight for Bill.
One of young Bill’s greatest loves was music. He had played guitar since he was four years old. As a boy, he started playing with a rock and roll band. When he was 12, they had a chance to play in a bar for the first time. They were so well-received (and made what seemed a lot of money to boys) that this kind of music took over for a while. “That ended my desire to be a preacher,” Hagerman says today, a little ruefully. “I wanted to be the next Elvis.”
He says that for some years he wandered in the rock music world and all its enticements—for one thing, impressing girls! Finally, he met a girl named Cindy who wasn’t that impressed. He was both hurt and hooked. He invited her to hear him rehearse and play again, determined he would make her see how great he was.
At 18 and 20 years old, Cindy and Bill were married. As often happens, the young couple decided they should go to church. The local church close enough to walk to was Catholic, so they went there. They were told that if they wanted to join, they needed instruction, so they went to some classes. Hagerman wasn’t very impressed with the idea of praying to Mary and the saints. In fact, he doesn’t remember that this class mentioned Jesus very much at all. From what he remembered about his great-grandparents, he was uncomfortable with this, but he kept going, until the leader wanted him to kiss a crucifix.
“I didn’t even know what that was! But they showed me, and told me to kiss it. I wouldn’t. They said it was how we show our submission and gratitude for what Jesus did for us. I said, ‘I don’t know much about the Bible, but I’m pretty sure you show your submission by loving God and being obedient!’ They said if I didn’t do it I couldn’t join. So we left.”
The young couple went home, and for the first time, knelt together and prayed for God’s guidance. The very next day, Mormon missionaries stopped by. Cindy called Bill, all excited, to say that God had answered their prayers. The missionaries even gave them free stuff—Bibles, the Book of Mormon, filmstrips, and so on. Hagerman says the real reason he joined, though, was the carpeted basketball court.
Things went well, until a friend who was concerned sat down with Hagerman and showed him from the Bible that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had false beliefs mixed into its theology. When Hagerman was convinced, he didn’t just leave Mormonism, he left Christianity entirely.
I was so angry! I had been honestly seeking God, asking for His guidance, and these people came. I believed He was really leading me. I decided there must be no God at all. And I set out to prove it.”
For four years, Hagerman set himself, with intense determination, to prove the Bible false. He also checked out other faiths such as Buddhism and Hinduism. He wanted to know, not just why people believed this one book, but why we think we need religion at all. What is this deep need human hearts seem to have for something greater than and outside of themselves?
He says this period, which he calls his “atheist period,” frightened his mother very much. As a child, she had been forced to go to church, so she never forced her children. Now her son was completely against God, cursing and insulting God and His followers, and setting out to prove “this 2000-year-old book” wrong. She was afraid it was her fault.
But the Holy Spirit was still working with her son. Every time he thought for sure he had found a fatal flaw in the Bible, an answer presented itself. Hagerman confesses that he was now starting to feel conviction, but he was fighting it. How could he possibly turn to Christ now, after all the curses and insults, after everyone knew how against it he had been? “It would be embarrassing! I wanted someone to follow me! If I couldn’t prove the Bible wrong, maybe somebody else could join with me, and together we could accomplish it!”
The real problem was Uncle Ronnie. A year or so into Hagerman’s “atheist period,” Cindy’s uncle, Ronnie Kuszmaul, gave his heart to God. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, his life totally changed. Hagerman, in his words, “constantly bugged him,” trying to get him to lose his cool, but Uncle Ronnie never took the bait. Then came Thanksgiving, 1986. Cindy wanted to join her family for Thanksgiving, and Hagerman finally agreed, but said that if Uncle Ronnie said one thing about God or religion, he was leaving.
“And then I was the one to bring it up! I think Cindy warned him, because he never said a thing. I had to go and ask him something about church!” Hagerman remembers. And when I asked him how he knew God was real, he just asked me, ‘Bill, how do you know He’s not?’ I kept arguing, and we ended up talking until the wee hours. I had always felt smarter, superior to him. He said to me, “Bill, I don’t know all the things you do. I just know I’m in love with this Jesus who’s changed my life.”
Early, in the hours before dawn, Hagerman remembers walking across the street to his car. “I looked up to heaven and finally cried out, ‘God, if you’re up there, I really need you! I know I’ve screwed up, I need you. If you can show me that you really exist, I’ll follow you until I die.’
“I had a change of heart and it started instantly.” Hagerman tried to describe the feeling, but couldn’t. It wasn’t that he had no more questions, or even that all his questions were answered. But, he added, “Now that I could trust Bible (because I couldn’t prove it wrong), I could use it to learn about this Jesus. I started studying my Bible with a different pair of glasses on. Instead of fighting it, I started trying it out.”
Hagerman started attending a Nazarene church, as his great-grandpa had. He loved it, but his wife didn’t and never attended much. Finally, he asked her why, and she simply asked in return, “Why can’t we go to the church I went to as a child?” Hagerman was startled to realize he hadn’t even thought of whether Cindy might like something different. “That was selfish,” he says now. So they started going to First Baptist. That was not the end of the search. Hagerman kept studying the Bible, trying out different churches, searching for the one that he believed best reflected the Bible’s teachings.
In the meantime, life still had some curve balls for the Hagermans. They had two children, and Hagerman opened his own beauty salon “so I could say whatever I want!” He plays Christian music, encourages his clients to talk about their lives, prays with them if they are willing, and generally runs a missionary outpost in his salon. However, Cindy began having trouble, and eventually it turned out to be a serious brain chemistry issue. She was not herself, and divorced Hagerman, though sometimes even she didn’t seem to realize that fact. Hagerman took the second job, as an insurance salesman for Modern Woodmen of America, to pay for both households. But his wife was not in a good place, and he got custody of the children.
One day he sat in one of the hairstyling chairs, alone, and cried out to God sarcastically, “Thanks a lot for that helpmate you sent me!” He still seems a little awestruck as he describes what happened. “You might think I’m crazy, but I believe God talks to us. He sure talked to me. I heard him say, ‘What if I didn’t send her to help you? What if I sent you to help her?’” Hagerman was completely convicted that, whatever Cindy’s present condition, he was still responsible for her as much as one adult could be for another. He offered to take her back into his home and care for her. From 2006, that has been his life.
During these difficult years, continuing to search the scriptures, even in the original languages, Hagerman felt led to the Adventist church, which he joined in 2012. He enthuses, “It’s the first church I’ve gone to where I feel like I can take my Bible and not have to apologize for believing whatever it says, or worry about what a manual says, or what someone else tells me!” His pastor, Tom Hughes, calls him an inspiration, and says that people like Hagerman are why he is in the ministry.
Today, Hagerman takes care of both children, his (still-divorced) wife, and two fulltime jobs. That’s aside from the Bible study groups and the talks he has on a regular basis with customers, either in the salon or in the insurance business. One man came to him with 20 minutes of business and stayed for two hours of God talk, ending by giving his heart to the Lord and leaving in peace. “I know I could never do this without God. I don’t know what is coming, but I know he won’t let me down.”