Shaun Bowman wanted to disappear.
Apprehensive but willing, the 25-year-old attended the weekend marriage conference in Boise, Idaho. He sank into a chair next to his wife, Ali, grateful that the throng of 300 people helped lower his visibility.
But Shaun soon found he couldn't hide from God at "A Weekend to Remember," sponsored by FamilyLife, the marriage and family ministry of Cru. One of the speakers, Doug Grimes, began to talk about the internal battle between good and evil. The speaker, Shaun felt, could have been speaking directly to him.
"I was trying to get on with my life but I couldn't get away from my sin," Shaun says. "Sin from my past would haunt me."
He had attempted a number of self-help methods, including earning his GED and quitting marijuana.
"I was trying to change my life, but nothing filled the void," he says.
Doug wrapped up the session and dismissed the group. Contrary to his taciturn character,
Shaun marched onto the stage to talk with Doug, and began crying and shaking visibly. Understanding that only God could free him from his sin, Shaun placed his trust in Jesus.
Shaun's life wasn't the only thing that changed on March 30, 2004. As a result, his marriage began to transform. And Shaun and Ali learned firsthand that one marriage can make a difference.
Their marriage, which began in 2001, had been making a negative mark up until then.
A second marriage for Ali, she brought into the relationship her 6-year-old daughter, Emily, and a deep mistrust of others. Keeping people at arm's length was the way she coped with pain in her life. Ali cautiously interacted with everyone, including her husband.
Shaun proposed to Ali nearly by accident; he gave her a ring with an amethyst stone for her birthday, but saw in her face that she expected an engagement ring. Feeling badly, he asked her to marry him. She said yes, but Shaun desperately hoped she would change her mind. She didn't, and he cried at their wedding, thinking his life was over.
"Our marriage was spiteful and loveless," says Ali. After working as a hotel maintenance manager, Shaun beelined to the television most every night, igniting the ever-present tense atmosphere.
Both frequently hurled threats that shook the marriage's foundation of trust. During their first year they fought weekly, and inevitably one or the other would threaten, "If you don't start treating me better, I'm leaving."
"I believed it. I was angry," Shaun says. "Twice I left for a day or two. A few times I'd go out with my friend and get drunk."
Ali dealt with her anger by manipulating, often by choosing not to eat. She longed for a reaction from her husband, wanting Shaun to urge her to eat and reassure her of his love.
One of the supreme hardships in the Bowman home was Shaun's strained relationship with Emily, Ali's daughter from her first marriage. Shaun didn't know how to relate to his 6-year-old stepdaughter other than mandating her behavior or grounding her to do what he wanted.
"I felt like I wanted to say something," the now-fifth-grader says, "but I had knots inside me. On the outside I would just walk away; I'd go play basketball or go to my room."
The turmoil escalated to a point when the 2 lived 6 months without speaking to each other.
That strained relationship prompted Shaun and Ali to seek counsel from Ali's parents, Rick and Denise Brown. They didn't know where else to go for parenting help and couldn't afford counseling. The Browns encouraged them to attend a FamilyLife conference, assuring them that as they focused on their marriage, their family would be positively affected too.
After the conference and Shaun's decision to follow Jesus, Shaun's outlook radically changed. He recognized that Ali was God's gift to him, and awakened to the fact that he really loved her and wanted to be with her.
Shaun began learning what it means to be a godly man, in part from his weekly coffee appointments with former Cru staff member Jon Strain. Doug Grimes had introduced Shaun to Jon, who lived locally, and Jon began mentoring Shaun in his new faith.
"He's a guy who, when he understands something, he's conscientious about it," says Jon.
Upon learning of the importance of the Bible, for example, Shaun began reading it regularly.
Ali began to thrive next to a husband who demonstrated his love and commitment to her, to Emily and to their almost-3-year-old, Kylee. Shaun began pitching in more frequently in the kitchen or with the girls, no longer as focused on himself. He smiles with pride as he talks about the wife and mother Ali has become, and appreciates the deeper level of trust and intimacy in their marriage.
Grinning, Emily says her stepdad still gets on her nerves once in a while. But more often than not, she says she likes the new Shaun. Now instead of nights alone on the couch, Shaun initiates a family walk, a basketball game with Emily or playing with Kylee.
Their marriage has also influenced people outside their home. Ali's friend Barbara Robbins called one evening, complaining to Ali about her husband -- a sport Ali used to join in by venting about Shaun. Ali suggested they meet at Hooligan's Pub.
Sitting across from Barbara, Ali told her about all the changes in her marriage and then asked, "What are some good things about Willie?" The comment perplexed Barbara -- Ali had not been a fan of Barbara's husband. The 2 women talked more and even prayed together about Barbara's marriage.
Elated about the change she was beginning to see in her friend, Ali later told Shaun, "I don't know whether to cry or jump up and down." He laughed. "Let's do both."
Barrett Nelson, a friend of Shaun's since high school, also noted a difference in the Bowmans during a recent visit.
"I used to be the go-to guy," Barrett explains. "If they had an issue, Ali would come to me and I'd go to him."
Shaun demonstrated that God was now his go-to guy. He told Barrett how he became a Christian, gave him a Bible, and marked verses especially for him. Back home in Alaska and frequently insomnia-struck, Barrett surprised himself by reading some of the words Shaun marked in the Bible.
Reflecting on his visit, Barrett says, "Shaun realizes his No. 1 priority is his family."
Ali sighs with gratitude that their family is a priority to both of them now.
"It's a relief that we're not enemies of each other," she says. "We're treating each other with care, not kid gloves, but acknowledging feelings."
Ali's father noticed a change. "There are things about their relationship that my wife and I would like to have," he says, "like communicating."
In the Bowman family room hangs a store-bought poster of 10 house rules based on the 10 Commandments. No. 10: Be happy with what you have and don't wish for others' things. No. 1: Love God more than you love anyone else.
Shaun and Ali are learning that loving God, and not trying to hide from Him, makes all the difference in the world.