Dakota Conference communication director Jacquie Biloff interviewed sisters-in-law Paulette Bullinger and Debbie Hegney about being raised in Catholic families and independently finding Adventism. They shared their stories during a sermon at their home church in Mandan, North Dakota, and were subsequently asked to speak in other churches.
Paulette: It started many years ago when Debbie—then married to Greg—came to visit me. I was married to Greg’s brother Bob. Bob’s family of brothers and sisters were split up when Bob was six years old and Greg was two. Their mother had a heart attack and died when she was pregnant with baby number seven. The father was an alcoholic, and he abandoned the family after the mother died.
According to Catholic tradition, the Godparents take their Godchild and raise him or her. The children were split up, which was a shame in that small community. So the children were raised as cousins, not siblings. Bob, however, was old enough to remember his mother.
Greg was probably the most abused of the children. He was passed around to different families and eventually joined the military. When he came out of the service, he struggled to function in society.
Debbie: I owned salons in Williston and Ray, North Dakota. It was February 1984, and on that particular day it was 70 degrees. There was so much snow and my salon was in the lower level of a main street store. The landlord called a company that waterproofs basements with epoxy baseboards and funnels the water to a sump pump. Greg is the one who responded.
He was there most of the day talking in German. I went to him and told him, “I would appreciate if you wouldn’t swear in German. I understand what you are saying.” He looked surprised. Then I said, “You are forgiven,” and I walked away.
He was there a few days until it was complete, then he asked me out for a date. I found out he was 100 percent German, which meant the world to me because my heritage is important.
After a few dates, I absolutely fell in love with him. I could tell he was broken, I just didn’t know how deeply. I felt I could love him through it all and bring him to a point of recovery. We dated and were married in September.
Paulette: About 20 years ago, I started questioning my Catholic beliefs. Bob and I had divorced and we found out we couldn’t marry again in the church unless we both were given annulments. That is when I started searching and visiting other churches, trying to figure out what is truth.
It is funny how God works things out. I received a flyer in the mail for a prophecy seminar at the Civic Center in Bismarck. That started my transition into the Adventist faith, finding all kinds of new truth and meeting new sisters.
Debbie: When the oil boom stopped, we moved to Seattle. Alex, our first child, was born in Seattle and a couple years later our second son, Anton, was born. Greg found a job on a fishing vessel in the Bering Sea. They would work two months and have one month at home. I thought if military wives can do it, I could too. Alex was one-and-a-half when Greg left.
After a few rotations, things weren’t right anymore. I didn’t realize women were on the ships. He left with one of the girls on the ship. They stayed together, for which I am glad, but he never returned.
My second husband Terry and I were living in California when one day he said, “Let’s go to that Adventist Church in Roseville.” We went to a Bible study. We thought that was a safe way to start. It was so far over our heads; it made me feel ashamed I didn’t know my Bible better.
I worked for the Catholic Church while I was a single mom as one of my second jobs. Now we were going to church on Saturday, and I wasn’t sure about that. Then we moved to southern California, to Hemet. There was another beautiful Adventist Church there. We went to another series and were baptized.
We were going to come back to North Dakota for a vacation and I called Paulette to get a phone number.
Paulette said, “Oh, by the way, I left the church.” I said, “I did too.” Paulette said, “I’m a Seventh-day Adventist.” I responded in surprise, “So am I!”
Paulette: The whole point of the story is that after all these years of being sisters-in-law, now we are sisters in Christ.
Debbie: We became sisters in Christ into the same denomination. It is amazing how God puts things together.
Paulette: One thing I hope people learn from our experience is if you are in a bad situation right now, this isn’t the end of God’s timeline for you. We don’t know how God is going to lead in the moments of our lives to something more positive.
Debbie: You don’t know what is downstream. You may have fallen off the bridge but you don’t know where God is going to take you in that water—the water you think you are going to die in. Never give up. Persevere to the very last breath.