“The Legacy Imperative: Part I,” with Bob Petterson
Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with Bob Petterson. Throughout his career as a speaker and author, Dr. Bob has carried on the time-honored tradition of storytelling, weaving unique, life-changing, and inspirational stories into all of his personal interactions with his readers. He has been senior pastor at some of America’s most well-known churches, counselor to community and industry leaders, has served on the boards of major nonprofit organizations, and was adjunct faculty at Covenant Theology Seminary. Dr. Bob is in demand worldwide as a speaker and has addressed audiences across America and in 30 countries internationally. But post-retirement he began a new work with the Legacy Imperative. Bob, thank you so much for joining us today.
Bob Petterson: Hey, Amanda. It’s good to come back home to my old alma mater, Seattle Pacific University.
Amanda: Well, you are such an accomplished person, holding both master’s and doctoral degrees. I mean, this is a feat for absolutely anyone, but once people know the story of your childhood and your background, all of a sudden, to me at least, I’ll speak for myself, those degrees take on a whole new meaning. Do you mind if we start out by you just sharing a bit about the early years of your life?
Bob: Sure. I don’t mind doing that. I’m a storyteller, as you said, and I love history because history is his story, God’s story. It’s also our story, and our story begins way before the first chapter, which is our birth, and it will go on after us in the lives of our children and grandchildren and those who follow us long after God has taken us home. My story began with a 15-year-old girl looking for love in all the wrong places up in the state of Maine. She found love in the arms of young men, and so many, she didn’t know who had impregnated her. She went home, and her father threw her out of the house. She wandered the streets of Bangor, Maine, until she came to a home for unwed mothers, where she gave birth to me. I was a no-name child. To this day, I don’t know or have never heard who my biological father was.
She snagged an Air Force guy at the large Air Force base in Bangor. They moved to the West Coast to eastern Washington, Larson Air Force Base, and he was gone for the next few years, for a while in Korea, for another while in Germany. During that time, she again went looking for love in all the wrong places, gave birth to five other children by, as far as we know, five different guys. It was my job until the age of six to care for the kids. My mother would sometimes be gone for four or five days in a row or maybe longer. Would leave a pan of fried oatmeal on the stove, and when that ran out, we would steal milk from the next-door neighbors back in the days when I delivered milk. Our lucky day was the days they had chocolate milk delivered and we ate ketchup sandwiches, and basically we were left alone.
One of the times when she was gone, the house caught on fire. I had to drag my siblings out of the house, and still bear scars on my back from that experience. She would often bring men home. Those men would use me sexually. I was repeatedly sodomized by those men. My mother involved me in their sexual games. I remember one night when she giggled as a man abused me sexually. When the authorities finally caught on, they removed us from the house. The first home we were in … we were sent out in pairs to keep some semblance of our family. The first home we were in, my sister and I, we were abused again by two people who were alcoholics. He often beat her when he was drunk and when he was sober, he beat her because she was drunk. And we watched one night in horror as he beat her to death with a hammer.
We then were put in other homes with several experiences in those homes. One of my most profound experiences as a child was the fact that I wet the bed. I wet the bed every night until I was 12. It was the greatest tragedy and struggle of my young life. I was punished in almost every home, everything they could to keep me from wetting the bed. I got to be very good at putting the sheets, the covers over the urine-stained beds. Would tell the mother of the house that I didn’t wet the bed and then have to climb back in at night. And of course, invariably when she washed the sheets, she would discover. And I remember that the one home where she decided that shame might work. And so she wrote on a piece of cardboard or painted on a piece of cardboard. This little boy still wets the bed.
I was about 10 years old in the fifth grade, and I stood out on the porch. We lived next to the school at the time as all my classmates came by, and I stood there with that sign saying, “This little boy wets the bed.” It was the most shameful moment of my life. It took me years afterwards to get over that, but at age 12, I had the sociability of a four-year-old, according to the test that the state authorities gave me. I didn’t know how to love anybody. I’d never heard the words, “I love you.” I was withdrawn. I don’t think I ever got above a C in school. I had one teacher write on my report card, “This boy needs to be institutionalized. He’ll never amount to anything.”
“[A]t age 12, I had the sociability of a four-year-old, according to the test that the state authorities gave me. I didn’t know how to love anybody. I’d never heard the words, ‘I love you.’ I was withdrawn. I don’t think I ever got above a C in school. I had one teacher write on my report card, ‘This boy needs to be institutionalized. He’ll never amount to anything.'”
Imagine a teacher writing that on a report card. Imagine what that does to a little boy’s psyche. That was my beginning. That’s the bad news in my life.
Amanda: Well, and it is so telling that after everything you’d been through, to most of us absolutely unimaginable, even one of those experiences, much less all of them put together. Unimaginable. And yet the things that as you are telling it, that you remember as the most painful, were the intentional shaming. It wasn’t even the abuse, it was shaming, which I feel happens a lot, even to this day, where we just feel like somehow shame is going to snap someone into doing what we want when I just don’t think that’s ever the case. I don’t think that’s ever how God wants us to handle a situation.
Bob: Well, God doesn’t try to shame us. I mean, God declares things to us. “You’re the apple of my eye.” “You’re my beloved.” “You’re my sons, you’re my daughters.” Even if we’re lost sons and daughters, we’re still his sons and daughters. And what happened to me, of course, Amanda, which changed everything, was when I was in the sixth grade or the seventh grade, I think, at Christmas 1959, Mary and Arnold Petterson came, and I remember the summer before, my two brothers, for the summer, all of us were reunited in the same town. So we had some time together, all six of us children, and they were adopted. I remember running after the car as they went down the road by a potato farm in eastern Washington. The smoke, the dust coming bac,k and their faces plastered against the back window.
And I was screaming, “Come back, come back.” And as the car disappeared over the hill, I remember falling into the side of the road into a dirty field, a potato field, and just weeping uncontrollably and getting up with mud caked on my face from the tears mixed with the dirt and just shaking my fist at the sky and saying, “God, if you exist, and I’m not sure you do, but if you do, I hate you. I hate you. I hate you” — as I thought God was responsible for all the problems in my life. I didn’t realize at that young age it was just the fallen sinful world in which we lived, that where everybody is messed up, including the most religious people. But at that exact time, we figured out later a woman by the name of Mary Petterson, the wife of a very successful commercial salmon fisherman who lived on Orcas Island, and she was the postmaster there, wanted, in the worst way, a son.
She had been rendered incapable of having children by a childhood disease. So she went to the welfare department there and they must have had a lot of kids that would be available for her to adopt. They brought out a picture book with about 500 kids over the age of 10 who were wards of the state. And they said, “Now you need to understand these kids are damaged goods.” And I was damaged goods, actually. “And it’s going to be really difficult to raise these kids.”
And she said, “Nevertheless, I want a son.” They opened the book and there were all these photographs of 500 kids, and I believe God was in this. The God that I hated at the time loved me so wonderfully that he put it on her heart. She saw my picture and she said, “That’s the boy I want.”
I’ll never forget, Amanda, when they came to see, I was standing on the porch, the welfare worker whispered in my ear, “Don’t mess this up. It’s probably the last chance you’ll ever get to get adopted.” I was the last kid in the family to get adopted. And Mary came slipping and sliding up that sidewalk, grabbed me, pulled me off the porch, buried my head in her rather ample bosoms. I was suffocating. It was the most delicious suffocating of my life. And she held me with both hands on my shoulders. And she said, “Bobby, I love you.” And Amanda, that was the first time in my life I ever remember hearing the three most precious words in the world. “I love you.” They took me bowling. I thought if I bowled a strike, they would adopt me. You got to want to adopt a kid that can bowl a strike.
Every ball went into the gutter. I knew I was done for. Then they took me to a Chinese restaurant. Never been to a restaurant in my life, much less a Chinese restaurant. But I noticed people eating with sticks. And I thought if I could just eat with sticks, I could recover the bowling. Now I could tell that Arnold wasn’t interested necessarily in adopting me. He was distant. And I found out later he really didn’t want to adopt a child. He was so passionately in love with Mary, he didn’t want to share her with someone else. And so when the food came, I don’t even remember what it was, but it was slimy and kind of hard to handle with the sticks. And the sticks went both directions and a glob of food went across the table right into Arnold’s lap.
And at that point I knew it was over and I began to weep. And then Arnold reached under the table and brought out a balsa wood boat that he had carved. A boat that was a model of one of his fishing boats. And Mary began to cry because that was the signal that if he wanted to adopt the boy, he’d give him the boat. I can’t tell you, Amanda, you couldn’t give me a million dollars for that boat. That old beat-up boat.
Amanda: Do you still have the boat?
Bob: Oh, it is somewhere in a very precious place and I hope to pass it on to my grandchildren. I’ve told them the stor,y and Amanda, he looked at me and he said the second most wonderful things anyone could hear, “Bobby, would you like to be my son and have my name?” I mean Amanda, I had been a Strickland, a Windward, an Edwards, a Lee. I had had so many names in my lifetime, I didn’t know who I was. But that day I got a new name. I became Robert Arnold — that was my dad’s name, Arnold — Petterson. And I became part of their family. Two weeks later, they took me back to Orcas Island, beautiful home on the beach. I was in my Roy Rogers bunk bed and my Davy Crockett pajamas sitting next to Mary. And all of a sudden I realized I was probably going to wet the bed.
And I remember saying to Mary, “Mom, I’m going to wet the bed and you’re not going to love me tomorrow.” And she grabbed me, suffocated me again as she held me close to her bosom. And then she said, “Bobby, we knew when we adopted you you wet the bed. We knew all about you. We love you anyway. And we put plastic sheets under the regular sheets. And if you wet the bed tonight, we’ll just wash the sheets and it is not going to make any difference.” That night, Amanda, I went to sleep for the first time in my life with peace. And I woke up for the first time in my life that I could remember in a dry bed. And I haven’t wet the bed since. You could ask my wife of 54 years. It was the most amazing what love can do to a little boy.
I went to school the next day and the kids all knew I was adopted and some of the kids were making fun of me on the playground. Kids can be so cruel on the playground. And they said, “You’re not real. You’re adopted.” I went home to my mom and said, “I’m not real.” It was my first encounter with existentialism. I thought I was real. And Mary again drew me to her bosom. Then she stepped back and she said, “Bobby, the rest of those parents had to take what they got at the hospital, but we went out and found you and we chose you. You’re special because you’re a chosen child of God and you’re our chosen child.” Amazing thing what love can do to make a little boy grow into a man.
“Then she stepped back and she said, ‘Bobby, the rest of those parents had to take what they got at the hospital, but we went out and found you and we chose you. You’re special because you’re a chosen child of God and you’re our chosen child.’ Amazing thing what love can do to make a little boy grow into a man.”
Amanda: It’s unfathomable the cruelty of society to look at a child who’s adopted and say, “You’re not real. You don’t matter.” When you knew it was so much more than growing up in a family. That this is your child. They gave you to your parents at the hospital. There was no choice involved that it should be more so. And I remember, and trust me, I’m making no comparison from my childhood to yours, but being raised by a single mother, I literally had someone tell me, “You probably won’t have a good marriage. And frankly, you’ll struggle your whole life with your faith because without a father in your life, you don’t know what that’s like.” Instead of, wait a minute, when you really think about it logically it should be the other way around, shouldn’t it? I have nothing else to compare it to. So shouldn’t my relationship with God be sort of pristine? I mean why do we have to look at things through a shame lens instead of, what’s the best way to look at this situation?
Bob: And I tell people everywhere, and that’s the motivation of my life, Amanda, that I’m not what I used to be. I’m not yet what I’m going to be, but God’s in me and he’s going to take me there and every day I can hardly wait to get out of bed and see what God’s going to do the next day. People I didn’t know existed before today are going to come into my life. Experiences I never had before. Some are going to be tough, some are going to be really fun, but they’re going to shape me because I know this, that the God who created me will not complete his work until I am conformed to the image of Christ. And the Christian life is all about change. It’s not about where we are today, it’s where God’s taking us tomorrow. And Seattle Pacific is a very important part of my story because it takes you a long time to climb out of that kind of a hole.
And I would say that to anybody who’s had that kind of a childhood or those kind of bad experiences in the past, there’s a sense in which those memories never quite go away. God just gives you a new software with which to interpret those memories. But I tell people all the time, “Sometimes the wolves in the cellar of my soul have been quiet for so long, I think they finally died, and then every once in a while they’ll wake up in certain situations and they’ll howl again.” And so I think it was Sandra Bullock in the movie Hope Floats who said, “Adulthood is spending the rest of your life getting over your childhood.” And so my childhood took on a whole new meaning when I got to Seattle Pacific University because there I went to a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting. And there I heard the message that God loved me. That he looked down out of heaven and saw me and all the people of the world and that he died for me.
And he offered me a chance to become the found son of God and to be adopted into God’s family. And really, Amanda, my whole life, and Mary and Arnold Petterson were living the gospel before me, so that when the gospel finally came to me, I was ready to receive it. And I think that that’s what we Christians don’t understand sometimes. It’s living the gospel, it’s the greatest apologetic of all. It’s not telling people the gospel, it’s living the gospel. We are the ones who prepare them like John the Baptist for Jesus to come. Now I’m preaching.
“And so my childhood took on a whole new meaning when I got to Seattle Pacific University, because there I went to a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting. And there I heard the message that God loved me. That he looked down out of heaven and saw me and all the people of the world and that he died for me. And he offered me a chance to become the found son of God and to be adopted into God’s family…. Mary and Arnold Petterson were living the gospel before me, so that when the gospel finally came to me, I was ready to receive it. And I think that that’s what we Christians don’t understand sometimes. It’s living the gospel, it’s the greatest apologetic of all. It’s not telling people the gospel, it’s living the gospel. We are the ones who prepare them like John the Baptist for Jesus to come. “
Amanda: I’ve heard many times throughout my life in church that the only thing no one can refute is your testimony. That you can talk about your theology, you can talk about history. But your testimony is the one thing no one can refute. And I’ll tell you, I was about 15 the first time I told a part of my testimony. And this boy who was a friend of mine laughed and said, “Oh sweet girl, you just have no idea how powerful the human mind can be.” And I was so taken aback because I felt like I’d been lied to, right? Like, “Wait, they said ….” And yet, of course the truth is that same boy and I over the next several years had so many conversations about God because he saw something in me and my life that he didn’t have in his life. So it wasn’t the one irrefutable story, it was relationship that over and over again, he was the one that brought up talking about God.
Because that kind of scared me away. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about God again with him. But he kept bringing it up because he saw something that he wanted in my life.
Bob: Well, Amanda, right now part of why we started this ministry called Legacy Imperative is that we saw how Gen Zs, Millennials, those under 40, 166 million of them in America, are abandoning the faith and the values of the faith. And probably there’s 152 million people under 40 who don’t know Jesus as their savior. And how do we reach them? And we’ve committed ourselves to helping grandparents, who 83% of Millennials and Gen Zs say their favorite people in the world are their grandparents. So how do we cross the generational divide? And they come to me all the time, saying, “How do we share the gospel with our grandkids? How do we talk to them about faith in a largely secularizing culture?”
And I tell them, “Here’s the starting point. The starting point is, love God with all your heart. Love Jesus with all your heart. Love your spouse with all your heart. Love your adult children, their parents, with all your heart. Love them with all your heart. Love one another with all your heart, and especially love with all your heart people whose values, whose choices are foreign to you, sometimes even abhorrent to you. Love with all your heart.” And that’s what’s going to bring young people back to the Lord. And that’s what they’re not seeing in Christians, particularly in these polarizing times, is just unadulterated love. Jesus said, “All men will know you’re my disciples if you love one another.” It’s love that’s the final and greatest apologetic. And that has to do with relationships. Even with people that we don’t agree with.
Amanda: Amen. Amen. All right, Bob, we’re going to take a quick pause as we end our part one of our interview with you here. And for all those who are listening, and I know it’s all of you, are very interested in the second half and the rest of what Bob has to say about the Legacy Imperative and his own story. So please tune into our next episode and we’ll see you again soon.