Cardboard testimonies simplify messages about faith

Friday, December 19, 2008 | 11:33 a.m. CST
Pastor John Battaglia stands in front of volunteers at Christian Chapel who shared their cardboard testimonies of spiritual struggles and recoveries. ¦ ROSE BRACK-KAISER

Cardboard and a permanent marker.

These materials, simple though they are, let the personal story of the teller shine through.


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The telling of the story is called a cardboard testimony. Members of churches leave their pews and step up in front of the congregation long enough to show fellow churchgoers part of their lives. On the first side, written out big and bold for all to see, is a struggle, trial or sin that person has battled with. Flip it over, and the sign shows where the person is today. And the person giving the testimony credits his or her new life to changes brought by a relationship with Christ.

"No one can argue with a personal story," said Beth Bramstedt, administrative pastor at Woodcrest Chapel. Woodcrest, along with  Christian Chapel, are two churches in Columbia that have conducted these cardboard presentations in recent months.

What makes the cardboard presentations different is that testimonies, or stories from people's lives in which they share what God has done,  often take verbal form. Sometimes it's one person having a conversation with another, or people will get up in front of the church and speak their stories into a microphone.

"Yet it's amazing how much can be communicated by just two phrases," said Corinne Ferguson, one of the executive producers of the event where cardboard testimonies made their first global appearance.

It didn't take long for the testimonies to go global, either. From one conference in 2006, the presentation reached satellite audiences in more than 18 countries, including Ecuador, Russia and Singapore. Videos are shared on Youtube and the Christian version, Godtube, started in Texas, and now, churches in Columbia have taken part.

One of those churches is Christian Chapel, where the cardboard presentation was part of a fall focus on freedom.  To some at Christian Chapel, that's just what Christ means. "Jesus was the original abolitionist," pastor John Battaglia said.

Pornography. Depression. Anger at an abusive mother. These were a few of the bondages members of Christian Chapel declared freedom from. Since that time, they have continued to be approached about their stories.

Debbie and Willie Jones: New lives, new stories

Debbie and Willie Jones went up together, as husband and wife, to share their cardboard testimonies.

Debbie Jones' first sign had two short phrases: "Could not have a child, Husband who should have died"

Debbie had fibroids, small non-cancerous growths in or around the uterus. "There was nothing the doctor could do to reverse it," she said. So when it came to thinking about children, she said, "I had kind of conceded that wouldn't be a plan for our life."

After 11 years of trying to conceive, she learned her medical coverage had changed and would pay the expenses of up to four in vitro operations.

Yet those four operations came and went, two more years passed, and Debbie had still not become pregnant.

"In vitro is quite an emotional roller coaster. I didn't like to go to baby showers, I didn't like to have kids in my face." The Joneses, as much as they wanted a child, decided they would try the procedure only one more time. They would simply accept whatever happened.

The flip side of Debbie's cardboard testimony showed what happened. It read: "Kia Celine, 12-30-94"

Debbie was 38 years old when her daughter was born.

"God healed us spiritually and physically," Debbie said. And because of the physical healing her husband went through 10 years before, Willie was still alive to be a father to their child.

On a September day in 1984, Willie started bleeding. Within a 12-hour period, he became weak enough that he was lying flat on a bed and couldn't move.

"He was just dumping blood," Debbie said. By the time he arrived at the emergency room, he said, he had lost 50 percent of his blood.

Doctors had found a cancerous tumor in his intestines. It came without warning, without any previous health concerns or problems other than stomach cramps off and on for about six weeks prior.

Before his episode in the hospital, Willie said he felt God would speak to him. He'd had thoughts about changing the lifestyle he and Debbie lived, which frequently found the two of them in bars partying. They had tried visiting a few churches, but found reasons not to go back, like the awkwardness that greeted this biracial couple.

“That was just Satan’s way of trying to keep us from what we needed to do,” he said.

This is where the first side of his cardboard testimony picks up: Lost and dying to cancer.

Willie was in the hospital's intensive care unit for a week, where doctors cut out the tumor and found there was no more cancer in his body. He had to undergo no other treatment. His experience was enough of a jolt that, while in the hospital, he rededicated his life to God.

The Sunday after Willie was released, he and Debbie went to services at Christian Chapel. They've been members there ever since, and their daughter Kia was blessed by the pastor there after she was born.

Willie's second side of cardboard reads: "Healed and Alive in Christ"

“I share my testimony all the time,” Willie said, laughing good-naturedly. “Not just on cardboard. It encourages people and gives the glory to God.”

Alvin Balerio: A soldier in God's army

Sgt. Alvin Balerio was another person at Christian Chapel who shared a testimony on a piece of cardboard.

The words on the front side, "Suicidal and Using Drugs," while striking, only convey part of where he's been.

Balerio's "two-year suicidal mission," began after returning from Iraq in 2004, he said. He served for more than a year in the Army National Guard.

At one point on his tour of duty, while he was in what is thought to be the ancient throne room of King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, he said he had "not really a vision, but a feeling, like of kicking the bucket, of dying."

He kept waiting for that to happen, but it never did. He didn't realize the most devastating battle he was going to face was coming back home.

"Back there I had a purpose," Balerio said of his time in Iraq. "Over here I wasn't even recognized, I was just a number."

After leaving a place where he saw nothing but death and fighting, he came back to the states to find his wife cheating on him, the money they were saving was spent, and they were losing their house.

Balerio coped with his situation the only way he knew how: with drugs and drinking.

"I had a death wish," he said. For two to three years, he got into fights, hit cops and went in and out of jail. He knew somehow he needed to change, and he came to Columbia for a fresh start.

Two things came together to turn him around. The chaplain who had served with his battalion was in Columbia, and so was Christian Chapel, where he started attending the church's Celebrate Recovery meetings. At Celebrate Recovery, Balerio got to talk to people in similar situations in a Christian environment, where they sought God, not themselves, as the ultimate way to heal.

Balerio had always believed in God, but after returning from Iraq, he said, "I hated God, I didn't care." In one of the recovery meetings, he had the same feeling that in that instant, he was experiencing the death he had foreseen. It was not physical, but spiritual.

"This is the day I died," he said, remembering what he thought at the time. "The old self died." The old self refers to who he had been, with all the pain and chaos he was carrying around before turning his life wholly over to God.

The second side of his cardboard tells of a more hopeful life: "Soldier in God's Army."

Now, Balerio said, "God is what keeps my sanity." He said one cannot function by the ways of the world, of society, because they are always changing, much like his own situation changed.

"But God is the same today, tomorrow, and forever," he said.

Balerio now works in housekeeping at the Veterans' Hospital where he gets the chance to talk to veterans. "I like to help soldiers coming back to transition," he said.

He still attends Celebrate Recovery meetings every Friday, and he's taking medication as part of his treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Balerio admits he has good days and bad days, and said, "I tried it in my own strength and failed." Now he is living every day in God's strength, he said.

Understanding the impact of words

Balerio's story and others like it are examples that cardboard testimonies, as  Battaglia said, "don't mean that nothing goes wrong, that life is perfect."

Instead, they illustrate a new way of thinking. “Flipping the cardboard is like crossing a line of faith,” Battaglia said. “That faith is asking Jesus to become the leader of their life.”

Crossing that line changes people’s stories, he added: “Not what happens to us, but how we respond to it.”

That response, as Battaglia said of the cardboard testimonies presentation in September, is a redemptive song of freedom and healing.


But how did it get started?

Much like any legend or myth, it is somewhat difficult to trace where the idea of cardboard testimonies first started. Battaglia said he and another staff member found the idea on Youtube.

Youtube brings up about 184 videos under the search term "cardboard testimonies." Godtube has 23. The very first video to be posted went up six months ago from Hillside Christian Church in Amarillo, Texas.

Debbie Miller, assistant to the arts and programming pastor at Hillside Christian Church, has dealt with much of the interest and conversation the video sparked. She said she's been contacted by someone from nearly every state, and from countries such as Canada and England.

While Hillside was the first to post the cardboard presentation online, it was not the first to come up with the idea. According to Miller, the church's senior pastor got the idea from a church he visited in Las Vegas.

And in Columbia, Woodcrest Chapel presented a cardboard testimony of its own 21 months before Hillside.

Woodcrest Chapel's testimonial was performed in August 2006, at the end of a series tied to expansions of the church. "We wanted to show it was about more than just buildings, it was about the changed lives inside them," Senior Pastor Pieter Van Waarde said.

About 50 people participated in the cardboard testimonies presentation at Woodcrest, and Van Waarde said they were of different ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The comments the church received on cards passed out during the services reflect the congregation's reaction to the stories. "The service was so powerful," one read, "it took all I had not to bawl my eyes out..."

Another said the presentation was "a good reminder that we are the church, the building is not."

Woodcrest's idea for cardboard testimonies, Bramstedt and Van Waarde said, came from a leadership summit they attended in 2006.

The summit was hosted by the Willow Creek Conference Association, the conference and resources branch of the megachurch Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago.

"When Willow has an idea it’s duplicated by churches across the nation," Van Waarde said.

Not only across the nation, as it turns out, but across the world. The leadership summit and the "placards" — Willow Creek's term for the cardboard presentation — reached more than 100,000 people in 176 different cities on all but one continent, Antarctica.

"It's been so amazing to see it duplicating itself all over the world," said Greg Ferguson, a Summit executive producer.

Since that time two years ago, Ferguson and his wife, Corinne, a Summit executive director, have received photographs of people holding placards in countless different languages.

"No matter what language, no matter what culture," he said, "the power of the message crosses over everything."

Although the 2006 Summit seems to be the moment cardboard testimonies launched globally, the initial idea didn't start there either. Willow Creek senior pastor Bill Hybels saw it previously on a video at another church.

Yet one thing is certain: The cardboard testimonies cause a quite a stir wherever they show up.

And Miller, the woman who has fielded calls from all over the nation, has her own thoughts on why.

"There's not anything you can do in your life that God can't forgive you from," she said. "We're all the same. He offers each of us the same grace and the same love."

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