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Death, Divorce and Deliverance (Fifty Shades of Grace series)

April 23, 2013

Death, Divorce and Deliverance

Finding Harmony Blog is featuring five guest posts all week as excerpts from a just released book, Fifty Shades of Grace: Stories of Inspiration and Promise, published by Herald Press (April 17, 2013). I served as compiler/editor for the book and wrote about that process on Mennobytes blog. Today’s story is by Steve Carpenter; his bio appears below.

Guest post by Steve Carpenter

Grace often comes in unexpected ways and from unlikely places—but it always comes exactly when it is needed most.

On a Tuesday night, September 26, 1995, the car my former wife was driving collided with an automobile operated by a woman driving under the influence of alcohol. Both Cindy, age 36, and my youngest daughter Michelle, age 11, died that tragic night. Cindy was driving Michelle to gymnastics practice along a winding back road traversing the rolling hills of the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

Earlier that day, when the other driver left work, rather than going directly home she stopped by a bar for happy hour in an attempt to avoid rush hour traffic. No one knows exactly how many drinks she had, since the police didn’t order a blood alcohol test until the morning after the collision. Even with an allowance for wide variance in a person’s ability to metabolize alcohol, it was clear in a court of law that she had been driving “under the influence” the night before when, the car ahead of her slowed to turn right and pull into a driveway.  However, the impaired driver grew impatient and crossed the two solid yellow lines in the center of the road to pass even though it was no-passing zone. Just then, Cindy, driving a compact Ford Escort in the opposite direction, crested a hill and came directly into the path of the drunk driver’s much larger vehicle.

Although Cindy and Michelle were both wearing seat belts, their car was not equipped with air bags. The resulting head-on collision killed Cindy instantly. Michelle’s back was broken, and she died shortly thereafter in a nearby hospital’s emergency room. The drunk driver’s car did have air bags. She suffered minor injuries and was released from the hospital after several days.

I know God hates divorce and so do I. Yet, on Valentine’s Day, 1989 I found myself divorced after a mere eight years of marriage to the beautiful young woman I met while stationed in Hawaii. Although we lived on separate islands, Cindy and I were in Honolulu attending the same Francis Schaeffer conference on Christian apologetics. When I first saw her she looked radiant with her long brown hair and infectious smile. Our courtship was short. Six months after meeting we were married. Two beautiful baby girls, Janelle and Michelle, came quickly thereafter. Yet, all was not well in paradise. Beauty is a two edged sword, whose fruit is sweet and alluring. After numerous indiscretions I could extend grace no further and filed for divorce. After a year of legal separation, our divorce was finalized. I wasn’t in a hurry to jump into marriage again, so I did not date for another year. Rather, I did some serious introspection asking myself, “How had I contributed to this failed marriage?” and “What do I need to change about myself to succeed in future relationships?”

At that point, I did what many a young man has done to escape a woman, I went to sea.  I requested an assignment as Executive Officer on the sail training ship EAGLE, a three masted square rigged sailing vessel stationed at the Coast Guard (CG) Academy in New London, CT.

After two years of sailing on the EAGLE to Europe and up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States, I was transferred to CG Headquarters in Washington, D.C., an assignment I had requested in order to be closer to my daughters. It was then that I began attending Washington Community Fellowship (WCF), “an evangelical multi-denominational congregation affiliated with the Mennonite Church.” It was there I met Christine Alderfer, and she became God’s provision of grace for me.

Chris grew up in a Mennonite home and initially came to Washington, D.C. for a year of voluntary service as a nurse under the auspices of Mennonite Board of Missions. She was assigned to Columbia Road Health Services which works with an underserved inner-city population.  We met in 1991 in an adult Sunday school class at WCF and were married three years later on July 16, 1994. I was on active duty while we were dating and for several years after we were married. When Chris first took me home to meet her parents they were extremely gracious. Here she was introducing her divorced, active duty military boyfriend with two small children to her conservative, pacifist Mennonite parents. Yet, they loved and accepted me, even before I became a Mennonite pacifist, which would not happen for three more years. This was grace.

Yet, the greatest provision of God’s grace happened on September 26, 1995 when I got the call from one of my ex-wife’s neighbors to “come to the hospital. There’s been an accident. And Steve, it’s bad.” My oldest daughter, Janelle was 13 years old at the time. Thankfully, she wasn’t in the car that day. Rather, she was at home doing her school work. Cindy hadn’t remarried, so when Cindy and Michelle died that day, Janelle was left alone. Her entire household was lost in a moment. After confirming the identities of the dead, I went to tell Janelle the sad news and to take her home to live with Chris and me.

Like most divorced men, I was a part-time Dad, bringing the girls to my townhouse on Capitol Hill on weekends. We had fun together visiting the Smithsonian museums or seeing the latest Disney movie. The first time they met Chris we took them to the circus. Chris was 39 years old, had never married but loved children. I was impressed with the significant relationships she had developed with her nephews and the children of close friends. Janelle and Michelle loved her immediately. I remember the day we told them we were engaged. We took a picnic lunch and headed to Great Falls, MD on the Potomac River just north of the city. They were climbing the rocky trails and admiring the rushing water when we shared our news. Their response was spontaneous and joyous.

Janelle, Chris, Steve, and Michelle.

Janelle, Chris, Steve, and Michelle.

God, in his wisdom, had provided a readymade step-mom for Janelle; someone who was saddened, but not devastated, by Cindy’s and Michelle’s deaths; someone who could mother a grieving child and love a distraught father. Chris was God’s greatest gift of grace to me and to Janelle. Without her love and support I don’t think I could have made it through the darkness of the long nights which followed the accident. In the midst of Janelle’s turbulent teenage years, Chris hung in with us and helped us make it through.

For her love and God’s grace I am ever thankful.



Steve Carpenter is MennoMedia’s Director of Development. He grew up in a Presbyterian home but embraced the Mennonite faith in 1997 after a twenty year career in the United States Coast Guard. Steve and his wife Christine, a nurse, live in Harrisonburg, VA where he served for more than eight years as Virginia Mennonite Conference Coordinator. Steve is a graduate of the Coast Guard Academy, BS; Tulane University, MBA; and Eastern Mennonite Seminary, MAR; where his thesis explored Mennonites and Media. Their daughter Janelle lives with her husband John in Washington D.C.

More stories like this: This story and 49 more like it can be found in the new book, Fifty Shades of Grace: Stories of Inspiration and Promise. It is easy reading and inspirational—a great Mother’s day gift or for birthdays, anniversaries, personal devotional, or a book to share with a friend or relative. A 30 percent discount is available until May 1, making the book just $9.09 plus shipping. You can also watch a trailer for the book here and find a news release here.


From → Faith, Family Life

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