Finding God At


Finding God at Dartmouth

By Eric Waters

Eric Waters graduated from Dartmouth as the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Scholar before working in Siberia and later attending Yale Divinity School.  He is now Pastor of Upper Arlington Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio, and married to his Dartmouth sweetheart, Michelle, also an accomplished student and writer.  Eric and Michelle are raising five children.

I had no intention of looking at Dartmouth College.  I’d heard it was a “jock school,” and Brown University sounded much more appealing to a theater boy like me.  But Dartmouth was on the way to Rhode Island, so my parents made me stop and take a look.  I still remember the day: it was raining cats and dogs when we drove up the hill and into Hanover.  We parked the car, I got out and walked onto the Green in the pouring rain, looked around, and said to myself, “This is the place.”  I applied and was accepted early decision.

I started Dartmouth in the Fall of 1991 and felt I had to prove I belonged.  I’d get up early, go to class, stay at the library till late at night, and do it all again the next day, and all that work paid off.  My first semester I came home with a 4.0 GPA.  I joined the Dartmouth Glee Club and landed the role of Sergeant in Pirates of Penzance.  I was accepted into the Dartmouth Dodecaphonics, a co-ed a cappella group that sang on campus, visited other schools, and even traveled to the Puerto Vallarta Club Med!  I felt I’d “made it:” not only was I good enough for Dartmouth, I flourished.

Then I started looking beyond graduation.  I assumed the Ivy League was the easy road to the Good Life, not realizing that the Good Life comes at a steep price.  At nineteen it dawned on me that I was on a course to work even harder, put in even longer hours, and be under even more pressure for the rest of my life – and for what?  So that 45 years down the road, I could look back from retirement and wonder where all the time went?  For the first time in my life, it occurred to me that achievement was not the goal of life.

A tribute to the gracious persistence among people of faith & culture: after years covered by drywall, the Tiffany windows of Rollins Chapel, revealing Jesus and apostles, have been unveiled. With thanks to students, alumni, friends, and Dartmouth College.So what was, I wondered?  I tried partying, but a few hangovers put an end to that.  I tried romance, but a few heartbreaks put an end to that.  I even tried Buddhism and Taoism, but after a semester of getting up before dawn to trudge across campus and meditate, I was no closer to enlightenment, just tired.  Finally, almost out of sheer frustration, I tried Christianity.

I’d sung enough requiems and masses to know that anything which could inspire men to write music that still moved people centuries later, in a foreign language, had to have power.  But whatever it was about Christianity, I didn’t think it was for me.  “I’m too smart to be Christian,” I thought.  “Christianity is for old ladies with scarves on their heads, drawling Southerners with big hair.  It’s not for an Ivy Leaguer like me.”

But I gave it a try anyway.  My senior year I signed up for a course called “A Survey of Christian Thought,” and it blew me away.  Here I’d thought I was the only one who’d ever had questions about the Christian faith, and come to find that people far more intelligent than I can ever hope to be had been asking the same questions for centuries – and had come up with some good answers!  For the first time, Christianity began to seem credible.

That’s when I met Michelle.  She was the first Christian I’d ever really known.  Here she was, 1200 miles from home, yet she still went to church on Sundays (and Tuesdays!), and read her Bible daily, and said her prayers; plus she was smart, and pretty, and funny…I didn’t know Christians could be like that!  She began sharing her faith and her story with me, answering some of my questions and deflecting some of my accusations.  She stole my heart.

By the time I graduated in 1995, I had come to the point where I wanted to believe, but knew that I didn’t, and knew that I couldn’t make myself.  So I asked Michelle what to do.  She and her friends started praying for me and told me to pray for myself.  I remember saying my first prayer, feeling for all the world like a fool talking out loud to the ceiling.  Yet I kept praying, asking God, “If you’re real, let me know.”  And a few months later, on the other side of the world, he did.

I was a Russian major and planned to become a Russian professor, but I wanted to take a year off from academics first.  An opportunity came to accompany a friend and fellow Russian major to Siberia.  He had made some contacts with a forest ranger on one of our Dartmouth Foreign Study trips who invited us back to come and work with him.  I figured it would help me perfect my language skills and give me a story that would make me stand out from all the other applicants to grad school.

We left soon after graduation, flying into Moscow and taking the train 85 hours to Irkutsk.  From there we took a bus five hours into the forest to a town on the shore of Lake Baikal.  Then it was an hour and a half on foot to the ranger’s cabin in a meadow.  I loved it!  I had done a lot of backpacking at Dartmouth, but this was taking it to the next level: living deep in the woods, chopping wood, hauling water, cooking over an open fire.  It was our very own Siberian Walden: “I went to the woods to live deliberately…”

Dartmouth student fellowship with legendary Craig Parker, right side.

I took with me a small library, but spent most of my time on The Brothers Karamazov and the Bible.  Russian literature is famous for the russkaya dusha, the “Russian soul” with all its vibrancy and vitality and violent energy.  I wanted a soul like that.  As a Freshman I had always identified with the anarchists and nihilists who are almost stock characters in the literature, but as time went on I began to identify more and more with the monks and priests and religious peasants.  I suppose going to Siberia was my version of the monk’s life, an attempt to leave the world behind and draw closer to God.  It worked.

Reading The Brothers Karamazov gave me a template for a soul searching for God.  Reading the Bible gave me God’s Word.  I could hear him speaking to me, and I wanted to believe, but knew that I still didn’t.  So I kept praying that he would show me he’s real.  One rainy day, as I was stuck in the cabin, greasing my boots by the fire and not at all thinking about God, he gave me a vision in my mind’s eye that read “I love Christ” and “Christ loves me.”  That was it.  At that moment, I knew God was real and that my life belonged to him.

I dashed out into the rain and started running around the meadow, singing Amazing Grace.  When I came to the second verse, I made up the words as best as I could and kept running.  My soul had come to life at last!

I returned in October of 1996 and Michelle and I were engaged shortly after.  Since she was a Lutheran from Minnesota, I became a Lutheran, too.  I was confirmed at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Hanover, NH on Pentecost Day, 1996, at the age of 23.  I started Yale Divinity School that Fall to become a Lutheran pastor; but that’s another story…