Article brought to you by: Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
'Encounter' helps couple complete trek from love to misery and back
By Malea Hargett
May 4th, 2007
Arkansas Catholic (www.arkansas-catholic.org)
ADONA , Ark. (Arkansas Catholic) -- J.C. and Debbie Finton enjoy a recent sunny morning sitting on their back porch swing. Worldwide Marriage Encounter helped them strengthen their marriage and faith.
They live down a dirt road in Conway County in a log cabin home nestled on four acres by a small pond. The couple seems to be at peace in the world and in their marriage.
But everything was not right in their relationship several years ago. The lessons they have learned about each other and communication as a couple have spurred them on to openly share their story in hopes they can help other Catholic couples who might have had similar experiences.
J.C. Finton grew up in Clinton and attended the Methodist Church. He has always been a nice guy, but admits he handled his emotions by being a class clown and telling jokes.
Debbie Finton moved around a lot as a child. She settled in Clinton as a junior in high school in 1966 and met J.C., also known to his friends as Johnny. She was not impressed.
"It wasn't love at first sight. He was geeky," Debbie recalled. "I thought I was much cooler than that. ... I was looking for the good dancer."
Her family life was not very stable and she soon realized J.C. Finton would be a good influence in her life.
"It was his humor that finally did it for me."
They started dating after high school graduation in 1968. While he was attending the University of Arkansas and she was attending Arkansas Tech University, they kept in contact with each other through love letters.
They married on March 21, 1970, at St. Mary Church in North Little Rock.
The afternoon wedding was simple, with only two attendants and a few guests. They spent $20 on white carnations, family members made the cake and punch, and Debbie borrowed her dress.
While they married in the Catholic church, it look another 20 years before J.C. was comfortable attending Mass and sharing his faith.
When he was 14 years old, he stopped attending church.
"I was just too lazy to go to church," he said, "but not to busy to go fishing."
Debbie added, "If I brought up religion, he would turn it into a joke. We didn't talk about religion for about 20 years."
Debbie, however, was raised in the Catholic church thanks to the influence of her maternal grandmother. Her husband's ambivalence toward religion was a source of stress in their marriage.
Other stresses came as they started their family. The couple decided to drop out of college and move to Houston, Texas, where jobs for pipe fitters were more plentiful for J.C. Debbie also was able to stay at home to raise their children.
Over the years, they had two boys and two girls. When their oldest child became a teenager, Debbie said she became depressed.
"I thought I had raised my best friend," she said. "When she declared her independence, I felt abandoned."
In 1986 the Fintons attended family counseling to address some of the problems.
"There was a lot of friction between she and I," Debbie said of her oldest daughter.
The couple never discussed divorce, but J.C. was developing his escape plan.
"I figured when we had our kids raised I was out of here," he said.
"He was that unhappy," Debbie said, "but we never discussed it."
Some of the problems surfaced around how they saw themselves as parents.
"I raised the kids alone," Debbie recalled.
J.C. openly admitted, "I was the fifth child. ... I had no input. I was an observer."
To cope with his stressful family situation and the miserable state his wife was in, J.C. developed a new hobby.
"Johnny took up sailing," Debbie said. "He was determined to go sailing regardless of whether I wanted to go."
For strength, Debbie turned to a prayer group at her parish in Houston. There she learned more about Worldwide Marriage Encounter, which are weekend enrichment events for Catholic couples presented by other married couples and a trained priest.
She also heard a couple talk about it at Mass and was handed a brochure about the next weekend. Debbie figured J.C. wouldn't attend because it was associated with the Catholic church.
With her birthday approaching, Debbie remembered what the Marriage Encounter promoters suggested: "Ask for it as a gift."
J.C. reluctantly agreed to attend the weekend.
Throughout the weekend in November 1991, Debbie remembered what her husband told her before they left home: "If it gets too much into God, I am out of here."
Debbie said what took place during the weekend was a "miracle." At the closing Mass, she heard her husband pray aloud. "I said the Our Father at Mass," J.C. said.
Of his transformation, he said, "It was about surrender. It was about Jesus laying his hand on my shoulder and saying, 'Enough already.' It was pride."
Debbie added, "I literally had never heard him pray."
When the couple returned from the weekend, they realized they had the tools to communicate about their challenges.
"They presented a method of communication where there was no right or wrong," J.C. said. "With feelings there is neither right nor wrong. To me, that freed me to communicate with Deb."
The weekend helped them rediscover why they got married.
"I loved him to the core of my being," she said. "I never doubted I loved him."
The couple stayed in contact with the Marriage Encounter "community" and were eventually asked to join as a presenting team. Another major transformation had occurred. J.C. decided he wanted to become Catholic.
On Oct. 10, 1993, J.C. joined the Church.
"I wanted to be in full communion with Debbie," he said. "The Church and all of that was just gravy."
A few months after J.C.'s reception into the Church, the Fintons presented their first Marriage Encounter weekend. Since that time, they have participated in 50 WWME weekends in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Tennessee and Arkansas.
As J.C. Finton approached his 55th birthday, the couple decided to look for a place where they could retire. They wanted to return to their roots in Arkansas. It was also an incentive to relocate to the state because WWME was not active in the Diocese of Little Rock.
In 2002 they began the process of building their log cabin in the woods near Oppelo and also started promoting WWME through the diocesan Family Life Office.
In 2005 the couple finally called Arkansas home again.
They continue to lead presentations for the weekends at St. John Center in Little Rock and Subiaco Abbey with the assistance of two couples and a priest from outside the diocese.
They feel blessed to have been given a second chance on their marriage and hope their actions show other couples that WWME can make good marriages stronger and help rekindle the love once felt.
Many people comment that the Fintons act more like they are dating than being married for 37 years.
"We are not afraid to hold hands," she said. "Back when you first get married, you have that attitude that you are never going to be old fogies, but it is so easy for it to happen."
Since their first WWME weekend, the couple still has to face difficult situations but now they rely on each other through constant communication and sharing of feelings. Last fall they learned that their oldest son was battling mental illness and would need to relocate to Arkansas to live with his parents.
They said they hope their ministry has strengthened other married couples.
"Put your relationship first," J.C. recommended. "Everything else flows from your relationship."
Debbie added, "Don't lose your romance ... Treat your spouse like you did when you were dating. That would really, really help you take into consideration their feelings."
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