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The terror of Sept. 11 stirred couple toward lives of faith

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–Although pollsters see no lasting spiritual effects among Americans from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, one couple marks that date as the beginning of a new spiritual pilgrimage.

The summer of 2001 found Justin Jablonski and Tara Spears living in a blur of school and jobs, and in a lifestyle that did not include God. Tara was a student at University of Central Florida seeking a master’s degree in mental health counseling and working as a dancer at an Orlando strip club “to help pay the bills,” she said. Justin worked as an interior architect in Winter Park, Fla. They planned to get married in August 2002.

Then, like most Americans, they were stunned when terrorists proved that America was vulnerable to attack.

Josh and Tara point to 9/11 as a turning point in their lives. In a testimony given at Delaney Street Baptist Church in Orlando Sept. 11, 2002, Tara described her condition only a year before as “defeated.” Even though she had made a profession of faith at age 8 in a Tallahassee church, she had “never completely understood what it meant to give your life to Christ. I remained an immature Christian.

“On Sept. 11, 2001, my perception of reality and the world around us changed. I needed to believe there was something bigger than all of us controlling the universe.”

She felt “completely alone and lost,” and her heart “cried out for the Lord.”

Two days later Tara asked a classmate about attending church and was invited to join her friend at an Episcopalian church. Tara worried about how attending a church would affect her fiance, who “neither believed in God nor organized religion.” Justin reluctantly agreed to go with her, and the next Sunday, Tara attended her first worship service in three years.

Her Baptist background made her “not completely comfortable” in the liturgical service, so she asked her father for a recommendation of a Baptist church in Orlando. He directed his daughter to his former pastor, Steve Rayburn, at Delaney Street Baptist Church. About a month later, she attended her first service there.

Tara said the first weeks back in church were difficult because of dealing with her “own guilt … and nourishing an unequally yoked relationship.”

“The hardest part was thinking that God would never love or accept me again,” she said. “How could he love someone like me … a sinner who had denied his name and existence for years? I cried out for the Lord’s forgiveness and help, and he showed me grace that very day and hour.”

Justin was experiencing his own spiritual transformation. At first, he begrudgingly accompanied Tara to the Baptist church but after a month began to “want” to go with Tara. They were able to stay anonymous and uninvolved only a few weeks. The congregation was preparing for its annual fall festival and was signing up helpers for various booths. The couple agreed to help. They also began attending Sunday School.

During the October event, Peter O’Driscoll, a layman from First Baptist Church in Winter Park, gave a testimony on prayer.

“At the end, they asked people to raise their hands if they wanted to become a Christian. I looked up and Justin had his arm raised,” Tara recounted.

Delaney Street pastor Steve Rayburn said of Justin’s pilgrimage: “I believe that he saw in Tara a commitment to get her life with the Lord, and that made the biggest difference. Also, they started going to Sunday School, and they were sitting under biblical preaching.”

Soon after that Tara said, “The Lord started to work on our lives and called us to make drastic changes. … I quit dancing. I needed to get rid of the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that go with it.” She works now as an accounting clerk at a construction company.

The couple also decided to move their wedding date to Feb. 23, 2002 -six months earlier than planned — “to avoid cohabiting.” They were married in a private ceremony and celebrated a vow renewal ceremony with extended family and friends at Delaney Street on their original August wedding date.

At the juncture of their first wedding anniversary, Justin and Tara feed Orlando’s homeless on Saturday mornings, sing in the adult choir, and Tara volunteers as a big sister at House of Hope, a residential facility for teenage girls. Tara’s degree will include certification in marriage and family counseling, which she hopes to use in helping couples and families.

“After studying the Bible, Justin and I have found that it’s OK for a husband and wife to have different roles — not the egalitarian philosophy that is popular now,” Tara said. “We also have learned to pray about our finances and our differences.”

Rayburn has also noticed the difference.

“Tara and Justin have given our church such joy,” Rayburn said. “We see a couple with whom God has done a miraculous work. It’s a joy to see them growing. We’re just glad to be a part of it.”

Tara sees her salvation and walk with Christ as “memorials we can give to the people who suffered in the terrorist attacks.”

“When people ask where God was on that tragic morning, I tell them that he was everywhere. He was with the victims of the attacks; he was with the friends and families of those who unjustly died; he was with the rescue workers … and he was with everyone who mourned the loss of life that day. Sept. 11 taught me that God can work through even the most tragic events to bring about good.”
Nichols is a newswriter for Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: FAITH BEYOND 9/11.

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  • Carolyn Nichols