An open letter to Scott Van Swernigan. If I remember correctly he prayed to use his love of railroads and trains as a means to talk about faith in the Kansas City, Missouri area. In the end he used that love to engage someone in Washington, D.C. deep in a faith crisis. He prayed hard, explained, called to discuss, and shared his life. His unconditional love was deep, and he taught me so much as he engaged me. One of the blessings of my faith crisis is getting to know Scott Van Swernigan in Kansas City. I honestly don’t think I would be where I am today without his grace, love and empathy. This is a thank you letter for all he did from 2010 through 2015.
Before I get into this post I need to explain a couple of things. I’m a history nerd, and I’ve studied and read so much history in college, grad school and personal time. There is one thing I find fascinating in American history and that is the stories behind the building of differing railroads in the robber baron period or later. I’m not going to get into the details of them here, but here are some names that you can read. You have individuals like Jay Cooke, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, James J Hill, Jay Gould, Collis Huntington, Daniel Drew, Henry Flagler, EH Harriman and so many more. However, there is one set of railroad brothers that are fascinating that have left their imprint on Ohio history. They were known as the Van Swernigan brothers and in the 1920’s they acquired the Chesapeake & Ohio, Erie, Pere Marquette, and Nickel Plate Road railways. Since Scott likes the Nickel Plate Road and models it, I am going to refer to him as Scott Van Swernigan in this post.
“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down,one can help the other up.”
“Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness”
Dear Scott Van Swernigan,
I just want to take a moment and reflect back on how I met and interacted with you over the last five years. This is just a letter of me saying thank you for your love, perseverance and patience with me. When I met you I was in the depths of a faith crisis. I had recoiled from Christianity and I had burned bridges and walked away from so many people. I was so overwhelmed and crushed by the problem of evil alone that I had no idea how to deal with it. I personally have come to believe that if a person is going to reject faith and God the single best reason to do so is over the problem of evil. It is a complex issue, it is overwhelming, and it’s also been an issue that has stumped many people over the centuries.
If I remember correctly before our paths met you heard a challenge from your pastor about evangelism and reaching to those outside your faith. You had started to pray that you could do this in the Kansas City, Missouri area. You had wanted to use your love of trains and railroads as a tool to reach someone with similar intersts. And with that you prayed. I think in the course of time your prayers were answered but it wasn’t to work with someone in Kansas City, it was to work with someone in Washington, D.C. I remember when I stumbled across you on MTH’s (Mike’s Train House) Facebook page. I started a thread as to what railroad models do people want to see made. You had responded and I was just killing time one night and I looked at your Facebook profile. I saw you worked for a homeless mission in Kansas City. I also saw you had gone to Moody Bible which I respected, even as a skeptic at the time. And I also noticed on your Facebook page your love of trains. Combined all that surprised me and I wondered if you could help. Between a mutual interest that you and I have in trains, I wondered if that could help sustain a relationship and be the basis for discussing something for more complex and difficult: faith. I wrestled with it for a couple of days before deciding to contact you out of the blue. Little did I know that put in motion and opportunity for you, and an opportunity for what you Pastor spoke about to materialize. You were going to work with someone and help them to faith in time, and you were going to do so through your love of trains in the process. And with that we got to know each other. We got to have some neat discussions over the Nickel Plate Road from your end; and from my end the Milwaukee Road, Northern Pacific and Montana Rail Link. And that was how we carried on.
I was stunned by your empathy, I remember that one time I got an email from you in which you were so angry over some of my past experiences in Christianity. You cared, and you have a big heart Scott. In the course of time you won me over and as a skeptic I realized that I could trust you. You cared for my soul, you cared for me as a person, and I didn’t feel like I was your project or agenda. However I turned out in the end – Christian or not – I felt like you would love me regardless. That in many ways endeared me to you and since I trusted you I listened more intently to what you had to say. I may have said something differently at times but that was because I was caught between two faith systems. Its amazing as to what happens when a Christian unconditionally loves someone. The Gospel and faith shines. Love is missing from many parts of Christiandom today and it can be hard to find. I’m grateful you taught me what love is from a Christian perspective Scott.
I so appreciated your intellect and your willingness to wrestle with difficult issues. I remember just firing off email after email especially as I was drowning in questions or pain. Those questions were all over the place…they included things like the problem of evil, pain and suffering, and what happens to those who never heard the Gospel because the Gospel didn’t exist? The questions continued Scott and included issues like why pray to an omniscient God? How do you use the Bible given how subjective it can become? Why don’t Christians speak about doubt? And in the course of time you answered or were willing to discuss those issues. I especially appreciated it when you wrote back and said that you never thought of some of these issues before, to you coming out and saying “I don’t know Eagle”. You engaged me heavily by both email and text message. I don’t know if I told you this but a number of emails you wrote me where pages in length. You had tried to explain or put your thoughts in well thought out emails. There were times I kept going back and reading, and re-reading those emails over the course of time. I had so privately hoped that something would click, the light bulb would go off, or there would be an “a-ha moment” and things would be understood. I would like to thank you for your intellectual engagement of me.
Then there was the time in November 2010 when I was able to meet you. I was transiting through Kansas City and that made that possible. I remember meeting you for the first time in person and you wanted to show me some trains at Kansas City Union Station. As I recall you had thought that in the course of time things would work out faith wise. But you also expressed your love for me as well in the process. I also explained to you how my paths crossed with a guy from Sovereign Grace and you thought that could be helpful to me as well. But what I cherished was just hanging out with you behind Union Station and watching trains on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe mainline and just discussing theology. That was actually one of the neater experiences of my life. You are also a generous guy Scott, from the time in Kansas City to where you gave me that model car for my train layout, to occasionally sending me stuff in the mail. Over the course of time I’ve tried to be generous and loving in return to you, and your family.
There are a few things that you taught me over the past few years that I wanted to share with you and say thanks. You and I would fall in differing sides of the creationist issue. Yet I love and deeply respect your views because you don’t make them primary. Never once during my faith crisis did you force a literal creationist view on me and state that I must believe like this to be a Christian. No you were respectful, and didn’t pursue division. This is one of the reasons why I love you. In a time in my life where I needed help you brought help. In a time of my life where I needed assistance you did that. You didn’t add to the faith crisis and you responded with love time and time again. But its because of you that I have hope that you can have Old Earthers and Young Earth Creationists at peace in a congregation together. You have taught me a lot in this realm Scott.
Second you also approached me differently Scott. I know you originally wanted to do sports ministry but after 9-11 you found yourself instead working at a homeless rescue mission in Kansas City. I don’t know if that was it but you had a different view on things and faith than others. I don’t know if its due to being in the urban city. I don’t know if its due to you being messy and in the trenches amongst alcoholics, mentally ill, and drug addicts and learning to show grace, love and teach the Gospel to individuals who are crushed, in despair and broken. But I have to tell you this – if you were in sports ministry in a mega church environment its highly unlikely I would have reached out to you. Evan as a skeptic at the time I had a deep respect for someone in the trenches of the inner city working hard to help people in deep need. But you were able to speak about topics like grace and forgiveness in a way that I couldn’t find elsewhere. I don’t know if that is due to you being in your job and that influencing you. I can’t determine this, but I am grateful in the end.
Third, is that I deeply appreciated that you became an invaluable resource. I could run things by you and you took the time to look at things and help me out. For example when I was showing up at churches I would ask you a couple of times to look at the doctrine statement and look for any red flags, and you did and explained your thoughts to me. That was reassuring to me. Then there was the time Scott when I was being invited to Sovereign Grace and I was perplexed by what I was finding out about SGM on the internet. I was having a difficult situation that was growing out here as my mind realized more and more as to what I was being invited to. But I also wanted to run SGM Survivors by another set of eyes to get an independent, non-associated view of the situation. You were removed enough and I asked you to look at SGM Survivors. You did, and you explained your thoughts. You stated that while many churches have issues SGM seems to have more than others. You expressed concern with the way SGM was hurting people, and it bothered you because many churches use SGM material. As an Elder in your church in Missouri, you were deeply concerned about the alleged problems of child sexual abuse in SGM. I remember your thoughts on reading the story of Wallace at SGM Fairfax. You were helpful and in hearing your thoughts that helped me to understand that Sovereign Grace had issues. I will get into some of this in a second but part of the trouble is I over reacted and made mistakes in return. You have good discernment Scott and that is why I listened to you. I remember how I ran The Elephant’s Debt past you. You were bothered and concerned, and your reaction confirmed in me that you thought deeply, you cared about the Gospel, and you realized that a healthy church (in this case Harvest Bible Chapel) should not be having these problems. Your reaction when being presented with difficult information was very different than how Andrew White reacted when I told him about difficult stuff in Sovereign Grace. But your discernment is not just good for you, its healthy for your family and church. And that I want to celebrate with you.
Fourth, is that you were patient. You were patient in my questions, discussions and life. You showed me a lot of grace by your patience. Sometimes I asked the same questions over and over. You see Scott, during most of my faith crisis I felt like I was banging my head against the wall for 5 years straight – especially as I sought an answer to the problem of evil. I remember sitting in a motel room in Butte, Montana when the news was coming in about yet another mass shooting – this time in a suburb of Denver in July 2012. I asked some difficult questions about Christian culture and wondered if evangelical Christians were going to shoot their mouth about this shooting being the result of legalized abortion, or God punishing this country, or something like that. I wondered when someone like John Piper or Pat Robertson would speak up and proclaim why this happened. You pushed back and said something to the effect of “what are we supposed to do during something like this…? be quiet?” So you were courageous as well. There was one time where I got the vibe that you were on the verge of giving up. It was in January 2013 when I went on another John Piper rant, and you read my Facebook post and you sent me a long email. You explained your frustration and asked, where are these conversations going? You said that you didn’t want to push me further away and you struggled about these discussions. I remember reading that email while waiting for a shuttle from Reagan National airport. I responded by asking you to please hold on…and you did. You didn’t walk away from me and you walked with me through the end.
Amidst everything came May 8, 2013 and what was falsely alleged against me. That was the bleakest day of my life Scott and I walked through the darkest season in my life. Shortly after that horrific betrayal by Andrew White I was in Lewistown, Pennsylvania for a Norfolk Southern steam engine excursion on the Nickel Plate Road 765. In my motel room I wept in searing pain in what was done in Andrew’s betrayal. I couldn’t believe what happened, and I was deeply upset over both my mistakes and what Andrew did. You spoke to me by text about grace and spoke about healing. Though you weren’t there in the room to console me in a way you did through text messaging. As I walked through my darkest season you encouraged me forward in doing what I was doing by seeking out forgiveness. Most importantly Scott and I don’t think I ever told you this but I did feel your prayers for me a couple of times. You have no idea how much those prayers mean to me. As I pressed forward you encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing. One of the most tender texts I ever received from anyone came from you during this time. You wanted me to know how much you love and appreciate me and was grateful for knowing me. You said you should do that more often but I got the message loud and clear. It was at a time in my life where I needed love and grace. Something horrific was alleged against me, and others I knew to include yourself responded with grace and love. Your love was a comforting balm on me bruised and battered soul which was trying to recover from what took place on May 8, 2013.
I have to tell you this I don’t think you know how much of a healthy influence you have been on me. During the early times I knew you I struggled with wondering how we could have connected. What are the odds? A guy in the Kansas City area getting to know someone in the Washington, D.C. area so intimately? Today I have to credit the Lord for engineering it…I’ve thought about it in the past and that is the only way I can see that happening. In this context you kept engaging and responding in love. True friends are hard to find but your friendship Scott was one of the most beautiful things that I walked away with in my faith crisis.
However, there is one thing that troubled me but in time came to be. You see Scott you are one of the most tender hearted, loving, generous, thoughtful individuals I’ve met. I’ve met a lot of people who are fathers and I thought with your characteristics and attributes I thought you were one of the best candidates I have ever met to be a father. When you and your wife were able to adopt I was so thrilled for you. At long last you became a father and every day your life is blessed by your son. Honestly I can’t tell you how happy I am for you and your family. My one hope is to hear the first words from your son be Milwaukee Road, Little Joe or 261! So keep posting the pictures of cuteness on Facebook from Missouri! I have two streams of cuteness invading my Facebook page, one is out of Fredericksburg, and the other is yours out of Missouri.
In winding this down I don’t think I have to say what’s on my mind as you already know. You know me deeply Scott. You see I told you about the terse email I got from Andrew White 9 days ago. In that email Andrew said the following, “I still stand by those words: we have both forgiven each other and nothing else is required/necessary/desired at this point in terms of our relationship.” I wish that were true and that everything was resolved…but Andrew never owned his false accusation against me. He refuses to listen to how his pain hurt my Mother when her husband was recovering from a stage 3 brain tumor. My Mother deserves as much respect as your wife Scott or Andrew’s wife Gillian. All I want to do is show Andrew grace and create a situation where we can heal each other and give glory to the Lord in the process. Instead he acts like Jonah and is fleeing. He believes that he can run from his sin in Washington, D.C. and not have it follow him to Colorado Springs, Colorado. All he is doing is digging a hole and digging it deeper the more he fights and resists. I’d love to journal this but why can’t Christians own their mistakes? What is it with Christians who refuse to admit they are wrong? Mistakes are an opportunity to show grace, love, and to redeem one’s life. Andrew is going against the Gospel by how he is responding. Anyhow, when I told you the latest by text you responded by saying you will pray for Andrew. Thanks brother, that is much appreciated, please keep praying.
In closing I just want to say thank you for all you have done. Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for your love grace and fellowship. I have to say that I love you dearly as a friend. There were times I wish we lived in the same city and could hang out in a coffee shop or watch trains together. My life is richer by having you involved as a friend. Your family is lucky to have you. Your son is lucky to have you as his father. Your rescue mission in KC is lucky to have you, and your church where you serve as an Elder is lucky to have you. And I have to say that your finger prints and theology are all over me. You’ve taught me a lot Scott, you’ve taught me so much. Most importantly thank you for not abandoning me, and while I walked through hell, thanks for walking alongside me. You are a rare friend Scott.
Finally I saw on Facebook the other day about how you were watching trains with your son, and trying to introduce him to DC Talk. So with that I’ll leave these two videos for you to watch with your son. Perhaps this can help you bond with him deeper. The first one is Toby Mac’s “City on Our Knees”. I selected it because the message of what is possible with the Gospel, and if people prayed. Imagine how much different things would be if the church prayed deeply and lived their life on their knees. And I know you grew deeply in Chicago when you were at Moody, so I think all the images of your former home town will be cherished by you. Next I posted this video of the Nickel Plate Road 765 on the Pittsburgh Division of Norfolk Southern. This has some good video of one of the neatest railroad engineering feats in the United States – Horseshoe Curve. I was actually on this train trip by the way. I look forward to our next conversation.
Take care brother! I love you Scott,