College Life in Minnesota

Learning new skills: I entered Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1964. I learned that none of my Mississippi winter clothes were going to work at -30°, much less at -60°. I learned that it can feel like nice spring weather in February if it accidentally goes up as high as 10° above zero. For a study break one morning, I went outside in shirt sleeves and tossed a football around with some guys in the relatively warm air. It felt fine. I learned to use the space between the outer window and the inner window of my dorm room as a miniature deep freezer for my ice cream. And I learned it was not so easy to make A’s as it had been in high school.
Country boy meets city slickers up north: Being a Mississippi bred country boy in a high class northern college made me a genuine hick from the sticks. I was among a bunch of high toned, well-dressed city people, who asked me mock seriously if there was indoor plumbing and electric lights where I came from. But I didn’t care. It was like permanent Christmas for me. The cold, the five-foot deep snowdrifts, the ice-covered trees, and gorgeous girls everywhere kept me in a constant romantic frame of mind when I wasn’t frantically learning how to study. I learned that northern girls didn’t like having doors opened for them. It just made them suspicious! During my freshman, sophomore, and junior years, I also slowly learned that not all gorgeous girls are nice. I got my good taste in members of the opposite sex the same way everyone else did, through the school of hard knocks.
I slowly learned how to speak northern. They clip their vowels. They don’t say good morning; they say “gdmrng.” When the president of the college gave his welcoming address, he sounded like a machine gun to me. I understood about half of what he was saying. They said anything good was “neat.” And when they said yeah, they pronounced it “y ah” – which is from the German, Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian ja. They didn’t say “Are you going with me?” They said, simply, “Are you going with?”
I learned things that my mom had tried unsuccessfully to teach me. I learned that it is not a good idea to wash your dirty thick red floor rug in the same load as your nice white underwear. That is, unless you like undressing in the basketball locker room in permanently stained pink underwear where the other guys can see and be amazed. I also learned that I should have paid more attention when Mom was teaching me to iron my own clothes.
While there I learned, when you go ice fishing on weekends for Northern Pike, you had better bring working gloves. Northern Pike have teeth. You can see 30 or 40 feet down through the ice to the bait on your hook, and you can watch the pike back off and cock himself like a gun, then hit the bait in a blur. Well and good. But when you pull him to the surface through your hole in the ice, you better get the hook out as fast as you can and then throw him out on the ice before he tears your hand off. In the cold air, he freezes stiff in about a minute. I also learned that it is not a good idea to walk on an iced-over lake if the ice is less than a foot thick.
Dumb freshman pranks: I learned that if you smear peanut butter on someone’s lightbulb, after a while it begins to stink and they can’t figure out where it is coming from. I learned to lock my small one-person freshman dorm room if I didn’t want to find it filled to the ceiling with wads of newspaper. I learned that when the rest of the guys on your floor want you to come watch Star Trek in the rec room with them, they will resort to anything to get you to unlock your room – including shooting lighter fluid under your door and lighting it.
More silly college guy stuff: Dayton Hall, a guys’ dormitory, elected one guy of their own as a very special guy. The poor guy was from Canada and no one could figure him out, so they elected him Snow Queen. It was not a hate crime, either; they did it all in good fun. Another guy used to wait on his balcony overlooking the sidewalk outside the college fence. In the fall as junior high school came into session, he dressed in a yellow raincoat with a yellow raincoat hat even though it was not raining. He put his feet in a bucket of water and smoked a big cigar, and sat on the balcony about twenty feet up. As the junior high girls went by in their uniforms, he would cackle and say, “Hello, little girl. Would you like a cookie? Would you like a nice cookie, little girl?” Then he would give an evil laugh. Because this was a more innocent time, he got a big following among the seventh and eighth grade girls every afternoon. He would throw cookies to them, the idiot.
Now to the good stuff. Living off campus in my sophomore year made a lasting improvement in my prank learning curve. Four of us guys lived in a single room in a big house. The rent was reasonable when split four ways. Ross D. and another guy pulled a triple prank on one of our room mates. I was an innocent bystander, but was in on the jokes. Our highly esteemed victim room mate was named George. George was of German nationality, and Ross decided to break him in to the ancient American custom of a short-sheeted bed. Ross shorted George’s sheet. He put a tape recorder under the bed, which he turned on while George was brushing his teeth. When George tried to get in his bed, he found that the covers looked normal, except he could only get his toes into his bed about two feet. Then the sheet, which was folded, ended. Frustrated and angry, George began to curse. Fluently. Finally, Ross pulled out the tape player and played it back for George. Ross finally got George into a good humor before we turned out the lights, by promising to buy George’s lunch the next day in the campus cafeteria.
Next day Ross bought George a nice big expensive lunch. Ross knew that George liked to smoke a cigarette after meals. He had removed George’s cigarettes from his coat pocket in advance. When the meal was over, George couldn’t find his cigarettes so Ross offered him one of his. On about the fourth draw, the cigarette exploded with a very nice bang. George threw it down and yelled, “Son of a ….!” – but fortunately Ross threw his hand over George’s mouth in time to keep things suitable for a G audience. The entire cafeteria of several hundred students applauded and whistled and laughed. Ross didn’t know quite what to expect of George, but somehow George held it together. George wasn’t exactly sore; he did, however, become very wary of Ross.
The next day was day three. In line on the stairs at the cafeteria, George wouldn’t stand next to Ross. Ross managed not to show any particular emotion except pleasant acceptance. Suddenly, though, the girl which the 2,000+ student body had elected Snow Queen, i.e. most beautiful, left her spot in line, stepped down to where George stood, grabbed him, and bent him over backwards. She laid a kiss on him so profoundly that it seemed it would never end. She stood him up, totally stunned, and went back to her place in line. The entire line, most of whom had been there the day before for the exploding cigarette, howled with appreciation.
George raised his hands for quiet. There was a hush. “ROSS!” George shouted. “YOU ARE FORGIVEN.” The applause in the stairwell was deafening. The moral to the story, of course, is well known: not all college education occurs in class rooms!

The Last, the Least, and the Lost – Part Three

I want to warn you that reading this final part three will likely exhaust you. It’s about working to help the seriously poor among us. That is hard work! It is emotionally very exhausting. This is the last article on the last, least, and lost; because unless God calls you to it, it’s overwhelming. Read on if you dare.
I believe that the Christian churches of America ought to be the ones taking care of the poor. We alone have the motivation to help them, and the philosophy of individual responsibility, necessary to bring them out of poverty. Biblically speaking, all welfare is commanded by God, but all of it is voluntary. It ought not to be the business of our government. That is a recent development in America’s history.
A look at America’s past history is instructive. Davy Crockett was born in 1786 and served in the U.S. Congress (1825-31, 1833-35). He died at the Alamo in 1836. While he was in Congress, there was a move to pay money out of the national treasury for widows from the Civil War. It failed, because people believed so strongly that the government ought to stay out of the charity business and leave that to the churches.
Interestingly, those who had tried to get Congressional money and failed reached into their own pockets instead. The rest of Congress joined in giving a large sum of their own private money to the neediest of the widows that had come to their attention. The Congress also listened to Davy Crockett about lessening the tax burden on the poor. I conclude that the idea of voluntary and not governmental help for the poor is the only true American way, and the truly Christian way, to solve the problems of the poor.
Across the highway from Kalem Methodist Church, in south Mississippi, is a trailer park full of very poor people. I spent five years pastoring there, delighting in the love and care of the needy shown by Kalem’s little Methodist church. It is very hard work to help the poor, but Kalem Methodists have been equal to the task. Let me tell you what I mean, and also tell you of the problems with truly helping the poor.
The poor are mostly on welfare. The exceptions to this are few. They work for minimum wage, some of them, and barely keep it together because they have no economic skills. Many women have children by multiple fathers, because if you have a husband you can’t get on welfare. Aside from straight welfare for poor mothers, there are what is called “crazy checks.” If you can convince Health and Human Services that you have mental problems keeping you from working, you get a crazy check. If that is all the income you get, you also qualify for an IRS refund, usually in the range of $4,000 to $10,000 depending on the number of children. Men either get crazy checks and work on the side for cash, or quit their jobs if they are making too much money. Or they deal dope, or steal. You can get a crazy check for being an alcoholic! Then you sit back and receive money to sustain your drinking habit. I kid you not.
It is hard to tell the story of what it is really like to live in these conditions. A high percentage of the poor live in trailers – mobile homes. It is not much different with those who rent cheap rundown houses. When years go by with tenants who don’t take care of these houses or trailer homes, the living quarters become wrecks. Poor people still rent them, because typically they have spent their welfare money on rich food, liquor, vacations, expensive toys, and so on. They wind up with no money to pay the light bill or the gas bill. They don’t fix the holes they punch in the walls when drunk or fighting. They don’t fix the washing machine, dryer, refrigerator, roof, floor, or the furniture. They never heard of painting the walls or making minor repairs. They expect the landlord to fix or replace these things when they tear them up. They tear their yards up and expect the landlord to mow what grass there is left. They get behind in the rent, and when sweet talking the landlord doesn’t work any more, they move and leave their debts behind them. Over and over!
Their children typically run wild. If you give one of these children a school bag, they are bright eyed and thankful, but later that day you will see it left in their yard in the rain. After school, if they go to school, these children go in packs from trailer to trailer looking for junk food, leaving the plastic bags where they drop them. In the winter they drop their new coats and shoes, given to them by the church, on the ground. They don’t care for their own property or the property of others. Their parents beat them, yell at them, and leave them to fend for themselves while the parents go to bars and carouse.
The immorality can be very great. Some parents have sex in front of their children. Explicit sex magazines are everywhere. It is frightening at what age young girls have experienced sex. Young men – white, black, and brown – sweet talk the girls constantly. Husbands cheat on wives, and wives are secretly slipping into town and prostituting themselves or visiting their lovers. Very few are faithful or have a long lasting relationship. Most have been divorced multiple times, and have all different kinds of stepchildren.
The church teaches them about Jesus and about real love. The church teaches them not to trash the church halls or rooms or sanctuary or the yard. Adults become surrogate parents to many of these children, at least for as long as they stay. So often, kids have to move when their parents split apart or move elsewhere because they have run up huge debts. The church teaches them hygiene and morality, giving them the why of it. The church teaches them to sing together, not hog the microphone, and even to try their hand at speaking before the indulgent congregation. The church brings turkey dinners to their families for holidays. The church buys them new clothes for the start of school, and new back packs. The church has a bus to collect the kids for Sunday School. The church can barely pay its bills, because so much of its resources goes to caring for these needy people.
Many of the poor are uneducated and ignorant. Some are downright foolish, or have mental problems due to malnutrition from birth. They don’t know what a budget is. They don’t know how to resist the urge to spend, and don’t know how to save. Many of them have only a few years in school. For example, Hispanics have about two years of schooling on average in my experience. Many whites and blacks are like that also, due to constant moving to flee the people they owe money.
Many are also deeply touched by the church. Churches really do have success stories with many of these children and also with some of the adults. They can learn eventually to stop trying to con church members. They can learn responsibility, goodness, and caring for others. They do get baptized and many times it sticks. However, church members involved in this kind of work can burn out. Whole churches can burn out on the constant demands of working with the poor.
The rewards from this kind of work are eternal. I believe that the treasure in heaven about which Jesus spoke is simply love. When you love and care for these people, all you get back that lasts is love. And that is all you can take with you when you die.
If God has called you to this type of ministry, be sure and listen to the Lord about taking time off so you don’t burn out. Sometimes you might even need to take years off in order to recover. Above all, guard against cynicism and burnout! Even Jesus went off into the mountains to recover, and so can you. “He restoreth my soul.” And if you do hear God’s call to this, may God go with you!

The Last, the Least, and the Lost – Part Two

We got back from South America and returned to the Methodist pastoral ministry in 1986. If I ever get around to recounting my days in the pastorate, I’ll tell you about 1986-2008 sometime, but for now I’m sticking to my subject – the last, the least, and the lost.
In 2008, I was appointed to the East Jackson District Hispanic Ministry. I served in that capacity until 2013, when I retired. During those five years, I had many experiences with the very poor among Latinos, almost 100% of whom were illegal aliens. They came mostly from every country in Central America, and a few from as far away as the continent of South America. I love them all very much.
They feared to have checking accounts lest they be required to provide proof of citizenship. So they had no bank accounts and dealt only in cash. They carried big amounts of money on their person, because it would be stolen from their bedrooms. Most of them went in with other undocumented Hispanics and rented all the rooms of a house. Each one would live in one room. They were at the mercy of thugs who would beat them and rob them of their money, because they were afraid to go to the police. And with reason: police in many towns would turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a heartbeat.
The houses they live in are very low rent. This means cockroaches, flies, and no air conditioning. They do the best they can, but are ignorant of how to get rid of cockroaches. I would take them to the drugstore and explain to them how to use boric acid powder.
They couldn’t get married, either. To get married, you have to produce identification. So couples live together and have children together without benefit of marriage. They crowd together and have baby cribs in their one bedroom.
They don’t know basic rules of health. Their children rot their teeth drinking sweet drinks through a straw. I took them to the dentist. They don’t know basic rules of nutrition. If it were not for WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), many Hispanic children would go hungry and be malnourished. Their children are born in the U.S., and right or wrong become U.S. citizens. Because the household income is so low, they qualify for welfare through age 18. The fathers love their children and wives, but even if they have somehow found a way to get married, they must hide it.
They send money home for a reason. Men have wives and children back in their home country who would starve if they didn’t receive money from their men. In our little house church, we were constantly raising money for so-and-so’s grandfather who had two broken legs and no money for the hospital, etc. etc. This is why they are so highly motivated to come work in America. They can make five times as much money per hour here. It is a matter of survival for their mothers, fathers, sisters, wives, and children that they sneak into the U.S.
A high percent of women who cross through the deserts of Mexico are raped. I know one woman in her thirties. At first I thought she was in her 50’s or 60’s, judging by her face. She had been beaten and raped by Mexican men and left naked in the desert to die. Someone on the edge of the desert heard her crying, and brought her a roll of toilet paper which she used to cover herself. She told me it was an angel. She was delirious from heat stroke. She survived all that, got clothes, and made it to Mississippi. She got a room with bare floor and walls, about the size of a prison cell, living on the charity of 14 Hispanic men in a house on the edge of a town. This is where she became due to have the baby. I took her to the hospital. The University of Mississippi took her as a charity case. When the lady doctor, with me interpreting, told her that in America women have their babies while lying on their back, she panicked. She wanted to have it on her hands and knees, which she considered normal. Both she and the doctor would not let me leave the room; both needed me to interpret so they could communicate. I did not have time to be embarrassed, and neither did the woman or the doctor.
The doctor was giving instructions and I was translating as fast as I could. My friend was telling the doctor how unnatural it was to have a baby on her back, she wasn’t going to be able, she would die, etc. This being her third child, the labor didn’t last long. The baby boy was born and was fine. Now covered back up, the mother told me she wanted to name the baby after me! Yikes! I got her to settle on David as a name instead. Later, taking her to the county health clinic for follow-up on her and the baby, I overheard the nurse ask her if she wanted birth control rods inserted in her arm. She said she did. I realized then how she was paying for her place to stay with those 14 men back at her house. As far as I am concerned, she had a harder life than the barefooted Aymara women living in their mud huts on the altiplano of Bolivia, eating chuño, cooking over a wood fire on the ground, and wearing homespun clothes. Chuño, you may recall, consists of small potatoes dry frozen by pounding them with the feet every morning to squeeze out the liquid. Tastes like dirt because the dirt gets pounded in. My Guatemalan friend had all her belongings in a black garbage bag on the floor of her room, plus the few things the hospital gave her for her baby. Other than that, there was a light bulb overhead. No windows.
I have written elsewhere about my political views on undocumented (illegal) aliens. I can’t avoid a little politics here, but I am coming from a Christian point of view. Biblically, I believe the U.S. has a right to protect its borders. We consider people sneaking into America to be merely a misdemeanor, which is very lenient. Further, our paying for a flight home for a trespasser is miles ahead of what they do in other countries with trespassing aliens. In Mexico, for example, a first offense lands you in a Mexican jail for two years; a second offense results in ten years behind bars. Therefore, it is highly hypocritical for Mexicans who cross the border illegally to moan and groan about being mistreated in America! If we treated them as they treat us, imagine how they would howl. That is one reason why Guatemalans and Hondurans don’t stop in Mexico. In actual practice, Central American Indians can expect to face a fair possibility of being shot or beaten unless they bribe their way through Mexico if they are men, or being beaten and raped and even killed if they are women. You really have to be desperately poor and needy to risk death to come to America. That makes a difference in my mind.
Furthermore, I know what God says in the Bible. Leviticus 19:33-34 says, 33When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” Numbers 15:14-16 says, 14An alien who lives with you, or who takes up permanent residence among you, and wishes to offer an offering by fire, a pleasing odor to the LORD, shall do as you do. 15As for the assembly, there shall be for both you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the LORD. 16You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.” Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you took Me in.” (Matt. 25:35)
George Washington had this to say: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.” He adds, “[T]he policy or advantage of [immigration] taking place in a body (I mean the settling of them in a body) may be much questioned; for, by so doing, they retain the Language, habits and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them. Whereas by an intermixture with our people, they, or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, measures and laws: in a word, soon become one people.” (letter to John Adams, 15 November 1794) Reference: The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, Fitzpatrick, Ed., vol. 34 (American Memory Co.)
In 1876, the Statue of Liberty was installed with these words at its base: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” That hits me! Can’t help it.
Thomas Jefferson saw both sides of the problem of too much immigration. He said, “”[Is] rapid population [growth] by as great importations of foreigners as possible… founded in good policy?… They will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing, as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty. These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their number, they will share with us the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass… If they come of themselves, they are entitled to all the rights of citizenship: but I doubt the expediency of inviting them by extraordinary encouragements.” – Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.VIII, 1782. ME 2:118.
On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson saw the value of craftsmen from other countries, provided they integrated into the American culture. He said, “I mean not that these doubts should be extended to the importation of useful artificers. The policy of that measure depends on very different considerations. Spare no expense in obtaining them. They will after a while go to the plough and the hoe; but in the meantime, they will teach us something we do not know.” –Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.VIII, 1782. ME 2:121.
It is ironic but true that Mexico used to own the area north of the present border with the U.S. When English speaking settlers came to what was then Mexico, the Mexican landowners faced a quandary. Should they allow what they saw as an invasion of illegal aliens with their English language and customs, which threatened to overwhelm the Mexican way of life? Or, since the invaders from the United States were such hard workers for lesser pay than Mexicans would work for, should they keep the invaders as beneficial to their economy? Eventually, of course, the gringos took over the areas which are now Arizona, New Mexico, California, and so on. This is why there is such indignation among Mexican immigrants about the United States treating them as aliens in a land which was once part of Mexico. Anyone trying to balance the causes of justice must, like Solomon, have the help of Almighty God to solve it.
I believe America wants to, and must, guard its national borders. Yet here is another factor to consider before we decide: The two groups which produce the most babies in America per capita are Muslims and Hispanics. The Muslims hate Christians, and have had a practice of overwhelming immigration and takeover which we see now in the Islamicization of Europe. On the other hand, the Hispanics are 99% Catholic Christians. If we send twelve million Hispanics packing, some estimate that it will only take 50 years for the Muslims to be the majority of our U.S. population! Do you want to keep the U.S. as a majority Christian nation or not?
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord!” (Ps. 33:12) My prayer is that we might remain one nation under God Almighty alone, and that we remain indivisible – that is, a melting pot in which English is the official language, and in which real Christian culture rules.

The Last, the Least, and the Lost – Part One

                Alina Baraza was a wealthy woman. She owned a whole city bus line of her own in the city of La Paz, Bolivia. She was also the treasurer of the Methodist Church of Bolivia, and spent a good amount of her time in its offices, besides running her transit system. She gave in secret to many needy people, and was not at all impressed with her wealth; she viewed it as money she was steward of before the Lord. One day there was an attempt at a coup. The president of Bolivia was being threatened by communist elements. These communists had gotten their start when Fidel Castro’s lieutenant, Che Guevara, had come to Bolivia right after the takeover of Batista in Cuba. The Colombian military captured and executed Guevara, but not before he had established a guerilla group. These fomented revolution among the poor people of the country, especially among workers in La Paz. They marched on the presidential palace in the capital city, La Paz. They wanted to start a communist government.

                There was gunfire in the streets. The Bolivian military had no pity, and murdered large numbers of the protesters, ending the attempted coup. The downtown area was pockmarked from machine gun bullets. The streets were covered with the dead. There were military police everywhere, and no one was allowed to touch the bodies. Many of these people killed were dupes, desperate for some kind of way to make a living, and had hitched their wagon to the wrong star; now they were dead and the organizers had left them.

                Alina Baraza showed no fear. She commandeered her buses. She personally confronted the military when they tried to stop her. She ignored them and their machine guns and loaded her buses with the wounded first; and later, with the dead. She did what she could to care for those who were still alive. She could care less about the politics of the dead and wounded. I admire her for this, and for another reason. When my wife and I ran out of money, having spent all our savings, she sent us a small stipend by the hands of our district superintendent, Milton Robinson, so we didn’t have to leave the country. She enabled us to stay on. I will never forget her generosity.

                The poor often don’t know what they want. They are easily led, and easily misled, because the truly poor are desperate. Many of them become self-centered and greedy. It requires a lot of patience and compassion to keep your respect for people willing to trick you into giving them what they want.

                Sometimes what the poor want, you have no way to give them right then. In Santa Marta, Colombia, for example, one of my converts was walking with me as he and I walked down a dark alley on the way to visit some people. I noticed his tennis shoes and complimented him on how nice they looked. He told me that they were his sister’s shoes, loaned to him so he could walk with me. He said, “I don’t have any nice shoes like you have. All I have are plastic flip-flops.” Then, “Give me your shoes, you’re rich!” Of course he thought I was rich; by his standards, I was indeed rich. I pointed out to him that my feet were much bigger than his, and he would soon trip and fall in my size 12’s. He saw my point immediately, and happily went on without a second thought.

                What I should have done was sit on the side of the alley and take off my shoes and give them to him! Then he would have seen me limping along in the muddy, rock-filled alley. He would have seen himself walking in shoes too big for him. He couldn’t give me his shoes in exchange, because they belonged to his sister; and besides, they wouldn’t fit me! He would have to give me my shoes back.  I just didn’t think of calling his bluff. I wish I had!

                In Santa Marta, Colombia, there are many street urchins. For a multitude of reasons, they have no parents or guardians. They run wild in packs, sleeping on the shores of the Caribbean Sea on the edge of town. Some are orphans; some have run away; some have perhaps a drunken father or mother at home who cannot or will not take care of them. They hang around the ice cream parlors, begging from handsome young men with their beautiful dates. They are given money just to get rid of them. They hang out in front of grocery stores or other shops, looking for people who might give them money.

                They are barefoot, or only have the very cheapest of plastic sandals on their feet. They wear all kinds of different clothing, depending on how successful they are at begging. Some of them make as much as taxi drivers! You can’t just assume that because they are begging, they have nothing. They also learn to steal in this street culture. In a town like Santa Marta, where 20% of the male population is unemployed, a lot of youth learn to steal at an early age. This is why most houses are surrounded by high adobe walls with concrete on top, in which bits of broken bottles are stuck with sharp ends sticking up. It is why anyone with any money puts iron bars on every window, and has a front door made of wrought iron with several locks.

                How do you deal with such people? You need the Holy Spirit to guide you. One day, a street urchin approached me and asked for “Pan, por favor” – bread, please. The Lord inspired me to say, “Fine, let’s go to the grocery store on the corner and I’ll buy you some bread.” He replied, translating: “Oh, no, mister – just give me a dollar! Give me 50 cents!” I said, “Well, if you don’t really want bread, I don’t have any money to give you.” This 10-year old was too bright, too cunning, and too well-dressed to have been in true need. He might have had a drunken father who sent him out to beg money for liquor. Or he might have planned to buy who knows what. One thing was for sure: he wasn’t hungry. You have to watch for the signs of genuine need, because you don’t want to mistreat someone truly worthy of help.

                Some friends were laughing about a thief on a bicycle. They said there was a pretty young girl walking down the street where there was a wall and no curb. He came up behind her. On his right hand’s ring finger, he had a ring with a razor blade welded on. He caught hold of her necklace, sliced through the delicate chain links, and as he rode off picking up speed, he called over his shoulder, “Lo siento, mi amor,” “I’m sorry, my love!”

                Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.”  Perhaps our biggest danger as Christians is to avoid them and not love them.

Experiences with God – Part Five

In June of 1977 I was appointed to the Carolina Charge. The Carolina Charge had four churches, and we lived in a parsonage next to one of them. My three year old son, noticing the many potholes in the roads in the Carolina community, named the road the Carolina Bumpity Road. As he put it, “Daddy, this road makes my head say yes.” We had some truly great times there, but I’ll pass over them for now because this is just about my experiences with God.
I began to notice that God was with me – or rather I was with Him – in the ministry. Many times I saw people healed. I’m not saying it was because of my prayers; I’m saying that I got to see God at work, because very few of those in the hospital only had me praying for them. The other thing I noticed was that when there was an emergency, God helped me get there quicker. A young church member somehow bumped and broke a bone in the back of her head playing touch football and the ambulance came and took her to Tupelo. I made a deal with God not to break the speed limit because I didn’t think that would be His style, and when I arrived in my car in Tupelo, strangely enough, all the lights were green. When I got to the elevator to go to Intensive Care, the elevator opened before I could press the button. As a result of things like this, I began to worry. Was I getting puffed up? If I did, wouldn’t that be bragging?
And what about when people liked my sermons? I didn’t need to worry there about being puffed up! The Lord would enter my thoughts about five minutes after I preached and the service was over, and He would let me know exactly what I left out, or where I embroidered a story too much. In fact, I believe He is letting me write this right now, if and only if I keep it as accurate as possible. Also, I think He is letting me write this to remind me of how frail and stupid I have been all during my 40 years of ministry. He is also letting me write this to teach me a lesson: He did all these things, and He has just been kind enough to let me watch Him at work.
The thing is, any preacher is in danger of becoming a Pharisee at any time. In fact, the closer you are to God and the better you are at following His will, the more you are in danger. This is why the Lord has let me have flat tires, spend too much money on junk food and then be short of money, and so on. He doesn’t like pride, God doesn’t. God has had to jerk me up and get me on my knees all my life in the ministry. If you get nothing else from my writings, you should get this: no preacher, no bishop, no man or woman of God is any more important to the Lord than YOU are yourself. He doesn’t have favorites, except in the sense that He promises to favor you when you obey Him. And often I think He can use the prodigals more than He can the elder sons, because the elder sons get stupid thinking that all their work gives them special status. It doesn’t. (I want to be country and say, It shore don’t!)
One afternoon in 1980, I was in my study at the church. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking about, but somehow my mind filled up with thoughts of Bolivia. I had promised God that He was my absolute Boss, and my mind turned to the idea that seven years had gone by since our time in Bolivia. A thought popped into my head; or, if you prefer, God spoke to me. He said, in essence, “It’s about time you went back to the foreign mission field, don’t you think?” That began a conversation of several months while my wife and I sought, and got, more guidance.
The upshot of this conversation was that we did go back. I let my district superintendent know I wouldn’t be returning to the Carolina Charge. Some people let us stay for a year in a little two room cottage for free. We found South America Mission and were accepted as members of a church planting team going to Santa Marta, Colombia. I got a job working on a machine that ground compressor crankshafts for refrigerators in a plant in Verona, Mississippi, named Tecumseh. I worked there a year while visiting churches every Sunday.
I laid a fleece before God. I needed assurance that I was in God’s will. My fleece was that we would not ask for a dime from any church; our only message was that we planned to go to South America to help start a church, and we were there to ask if perhaps God was calling anyone to the mission field as He had called us. If God was leading us, then He would move in people’s hearts to support us. The other prayer I prayed (we prayed) was if we were going the way God wanted, we asked Him to open a door for us that no one could shut; and if we weren’t going in the right direction, we asked God to shut the door so no one could open it. These two understandings with God gave my wife and me the assurance we needed.
When we left for Colombia, our daughter was 4 years old and our son was 7. Over the next four years, they went to schools where the lessons were in Spanish. They played in the neighborhood with kids who only spoke Spanish. We had many adventures there, some of which I have already recounted in previous chapters. One thing I have not yet covered adequately is how afraid I was, going out into the streets to preach the gospel and win people for Christ using only a foreign language that I was still learning.
We were in a dangerous city. There was on average a murder every day, and the newspapers showed all the gruesome details. Our kids were in danger of being kidnapped for ransom, and our Mission made us promise not to pay a ransom. The reason was that missionaries all over the world would be more liable to being kidnapped if any of us paid a ransom. Chester Bitterman, a Mennonite missionary with Wycliff Bible Translators, was shot in the heart by M-19 in Bogota the year before we arrived in Santa Marta. The country’s communist terrorists, M-19, had demanded a ransom, saying he was with the CIA. Wycliff refused to pay, and they shot him and left his body in an abandoned bus. His family donated an ambulance to his village, gaining much support for Wycliff and turning the tables on the terrorists. God got the glory in the end.
Part of my job was to start Bible studies. First I went door to door, giving out little Bible study pamphlets from a Christian company in Georgia called Source of Light. Then I invited my students, mostly youth, to gather in one of their homes so we could study the Bible together. They got three diplomas for each of the three levels of study, and they dearly loved those diplomas. I started several of these Bible studies in the Almendros neighborhood, one of the poorer sections of town, and also where thieves, pickpockets, drug addicts, and the Colombian Mafia lived. My landlady, Carmen de Barros, was high in the Mafia, as I have recounted elsewhere.
All of this danger drastically affected my prayer life. Many times, I would leave the house just after dark, quite anxious. At that time I didn’t know that my landlady the Mafiosa had told all the criminals in the neighborhood to leave me alone. I didn’t know that, so my prayers were quite fervent. I would say, “Lord Jesus, I don’t want to go out there tonight unless You lead the way.” I would imagine Jesus walking just ahead of me. Funny thing, though; by the time my Bible study was over, I was so carefree and high from having a good time with my students young and old, I was totally unafraid. This repeated itself over and over: I would leave the house very anxious and return home giddy with happiness. If I had to go out there right now and do it again, I would still be petrified. I had some of my students murdered, and grieved over their dead bodies. You would be stupid not to be scared after that.
I have already talked elsewhere about my narrow misses with death in Colombia. However, some of my encounters with God were much more mundane. For example, when we first arrived, our Mission (South America Mission, which we called SAM) had taken out their fees and expenses and left us with not even enough money to pay the rent! I had a little discussion with the Lord about it, and it went like this. Me: “Lord, we have tithed every day of our marriage. We have trusted You and are walking by faith that You will take care of us!” The Lord: “You aren’t tithing.” Me: “What? We give 12% of the offerings to us to SAM as their payment for handling our finances. They are a Mission agency. Isn’t that tithing?” The Lord: “Nope. You are employing SAM. You are merely paying SAM for working on your behalf. That’s not tithing.” Ooops. But the Lord was right. After checking with the Lord some more, I borrowed some money from another missionary, Amby Powell. Our very next remittance from our supporters was double what we needed! I paid Amby back in full. Needless to say, we tithed off the top, even before giving SAM their 12%. And we never ran short again over the entire four years we were in Santa Marta.
Truly, God watches after fools, children, and missionaries. Please keep that in mind if you plan to do stuff with God: He’s going to point out how childish and foolish you are at every turn. As we say in the coffee shop, “If you can’t take it, you can’t stay!” His goal is to grow us all up.

 

Experiences with God – Part Four

I served the Houston South Charge from 1975 to 1977. I remember several encounters with God during that time. I had five churches, and each Sunday I would preach at three of them while a lay speaker would cover the other two. I bought a motorcycle for the fun of it, and to save gas. One Sunday, it looked very much like rain, but being distracted, I didn’t even put on a raincoat. About seven miles down the road, I told God I was sorry to ask, and it was my own fault, but would He protect me from the rain between churches? I knew I didn’t deserve any help from Him, and my wife had warned me of this when I got the bike, a little 100 cc Suzuki. Too small, but the only thing within my budget. Anyway, and nevertheless, without my deserving it, the rain held off till I got to Pleasant Grove, my most distant church, at 9:00 a.m. The instant I entered the church doors, a downpour came. I remember thinking that all my hope was in the Lord. I had to speak loudly over the rain so people could hear.
As the service ended at ten minutes till 10:00 a.m., it stopped raining. I wiped the rain off the seat, got on my motorcycle, and scooted to the next church, Foster’s Chapel. Same thing happened; as I entered the church, the rains came again. I preached, and at ten minutes to 11:00, the rain stopped. The skies were dark, and again I wiped off my motorcycle seat and hightailed it down the road to McCondy Methodist Church, my final service. I walked through the doors and it started to pour again!
Young idiot that I was, I began to swagger in my heart. As the service ended, I fully expected God to stop the rain for me one more time. Uh uh! The rains came down, and by the time I had made it the fourteen long miles to the house, I was as wet as a sponge in the ocean. As I drove along as fast as my little bike would go in the downpour, my thoughts turned heavenward, a question forming in my mind. God simply said, “I protected you for your services, didn’t I? We didn’t have any deal for your trip home!”
There was a young bride who wanted to have children. Her wonderful husband did too. But her coccyx, her tail bone, was so painfully brittle that the doctor said having a child would kill her. She was not even to cross over a railroad track in the car except at a crawl. At Wednesday night prayer meeting she asked for prayer. You should have heard us! We enthusiastically prayed long and hard for her, but no results: it still hurt. Next Wednesday night, the same thing, only we prayed with a tiny bit less fervor, and there were a lot of “if it be Thy will” prayers. Nothing. Never mind, she still wanted prayer on the third Wednesday night. We surrounded her and prayed as usual, still less fervently. But suddenly in the middle of our prayers, she gave a little sound and said she felt warmth in her tailbone! She went to the doctor the next day. He took X-rays and showed her the old alongside the new X-ray. He said he didn’t believe it, but the X-ray showed she was well. His last words to her were something like, “Go home and get pregnant.” She did, and now her son is grown. As we believers say, to God be the glory, for real.
It was about 9:00 or later one Sunday night as I came back from some church services. My wife had taken pity on me and I was in our car. As I went past the Houston Hospital, I had this thought which I recognized as being from God. The thought was, “It would be good for you to go to the hospital now.” “But Lord,” I complained, “I haven’t had supper yet, and all three of my church members in the hospital will be asleep by now.” Stubbornly, I drove on to the house a couple blocks away. I was in the driveway about to go into the garage when I stopped. I grumbled, “Oh, all right,” turned the car around, and went back to the hospital.
I visited all three of my patients and they were all fast asleep. “See, Lord? I told you,” I said as I walked down the stairs to the lobby. As I opened the door from the stairwell to the lobby, I nearly knocked over a man who was trying to go up the stairs. “Hey!” I said. What are you doing here?” He said, “My brother just died.” “His wife is down at the Emergency with him.” I went. There she was, in shock, staring down at the dead body of her husband. His body was yellowish from jaundice and looked awful. We stayed with her until the funeral home’s hearse arrived, and I comforted her as best I could. At least she wasn’t hysterical any more. On the way home, I thanked God for letting me know about this, and I think I promised Him to be more respectful to Him and less doubting the next time something like that happened.
It wasn’t long before God tried me out again. There was a sweet elderly lady who was on the verge of death at Houston Hospital’s nursing home wing. I liked her a lot, and visited her often because she didn’t have a soul in the world to care for her except for the nurses. I was sound asleep early one morning just before daybreak, when the Lord woke me up and said, “You need to go to the hospital and visit her right now.” “Yes, Lord!” I said, and went back to sleep. About a half hour later, my eyes popped open, I got dressed, and hurried to the nursing home wing of the hospital. I asked if I could see this lady. The nurse looked at me sadly and said, “I’m sorry, but she passed away just a few minutes ago.” In the parking lot, shaken, I apologized to the Lord. “When will I ever learn?” I asked. I could tell God wasn’t mad at me, but He didn’t say anything, either.
Once I heard the Lord tell me, on the way to church at McCondy, that they needed a men’s breakfast. This excited me very much, and so I announced it at church: “What if we started a men’s breakfast on Sunday mornings?” They all said fine. We met once or twice, and then the numbers just dwindled to nothing. I asked the Lord, what gives? He said, “I didn’t say to start it yet.” It had never occurred to me that He was telling me something between Him and me, which I should have held until He gave me the go-ahead. I felt very chagrined once again. It was pretty apparent that I was a slow learner.
One last remarkable thing happened while I was on the Houston South Charge. There was a sick church member in the nursing home over in nearby Okolona. Her whole family had gathered on this particular night, and as I drove over on my motorcycle, I prayed the whole time for God to heal her. Back then, I felt it was my duty to ask God for this every time someone was sick unto death. I got to the hospital at Okolona, and there in the hall were about 15 people. They ushered me in to this lady’s bedside. She was someone I cared about. She was in a coma, they said. I knelt down and prayed with her anyway. As I prayed, I felt her hands grow warm. When I ended with the Lord’s prayer, she said it with me.
While I was praying, I had a vision or daydream, whatever you want to call it. Above my head, it was as if I was in a deep canyon. Up above, on the canyon’s rim, were angels rustling their wings in excitement as if they were waiting for a party to start. I said amen, very satisfied that she had awakened to say the Lord’s prayer with me, though I was puzzled by sensing the angels. She was already asleep, so I excused myself and went back into the hall. The doctor came down the hall, walked into the room, and about five minutes later he came out and said “She’s gone.” No one was more surprised than I was. On the way home, going down the Natchez Trace back to Houston, I was upset. I really did care for this lady. “God,” I said, “I thought I felt you assuring me that she was going to be healed!” God said very simply, “She IS healed.”
If there is a point to these encounters, what I take from them is that developing a relationship with God takes time. These were like baby steps. God was patient with me because He knew I was trying my best. However, theory is one thing and learning is another. I have a lot more sympathy for the twelve disciples now. I can relate to feeling like a fool when the Lord is around. Really, it was more like feeling I am a sinful idiot who forgets his lessons! Most of my lessons have been about increasing my faith, as you can easily see. But they are also lessons about respecting God as boss and being totally submitted to Him. I’m still learning, I assure you.

Experiences with God – Part Three

I returned to seminary in the fall of 1972. The Campus Church group from the U. of Minnesota had spent at least an hour a day together, praying. This kept me close to God. Also, there was a Catholic priest and a Jesuit monk who were inspirations, too; I met them because it was the Catholic Church which put up the Campus Church kids in one of their retreats in the mountains.
My seminary, just north of Minneapolis, was very liberal. However, I had returned to my roots, carried my Bible to class unlike the rest of the students, and argued the conservative biblical cause in my classes and in my papers – and got straight A’s. In the spring of 1973, I had another experience with God. I was looking out the window of our apartment, watching the sunrise (or sunset, I can’t recall exactly). I was telling God I would go anywhere and do anything He asked me to, when He spoke in his quiet, still voice: “What do you want to do?” Remembering the hate stares from the children in Bolivia, I said, “All I want is to go to someplace where I will be loved.”
Three days later, I opened a letter from Col. John Castlen of First Methodist Church in Greenville, Mississippi. He invited me to come interview for a job as associate pastor. The church flew me down to Greenville. Col. Castlen was the chair of the PPR committee. I met with Blanton Doggett, the pastor, who knew me, and with the PPR committee, which consisted of two of my former Sunday School teachers when I was a boy. Mr. R. P. Whittington looked at Mr. Charles McCormick and said, laughing, “Well, we’ve got to take him; he’s our own product, and it would reflect badly on us to turn him down!”
I was very happy at Greenville First. Half the people in church had once bounced me on their knee, so to speak. One evening, however, I was fretting over the large youth group. I was worried that they weren’t learning enough and were spending too much time playing. I couldn’t go to sleep, until God simply spoke my name: “Wally.” In the tone of His voice I heard a bit of exasperation, a bit of good humor, and yet His assurance that I needn’t worry. I went from worried to excited that God had spoken to me without my having spoken to Him first. I fell asleep immediately, all aglow.
While at Greenville First, another important encounter with God took place. It was concerning my girlfriend from my freshman year at college, the girl I had wanted to marry. Here I was, seven years later, very happily married, and still harboring bitterness and loss from that old relationship. I was at the church, on the carpet in the dark before the altar, face down, seeking God. I had a daydream; call it a vision if you must, but it felt just like a daydream to me. In this dream, I saw a deep canyon with a huge dam blocking the water at one end. The floor of the canyon in front of the dam was bone dry; not even the cactus and acacia bushes could live there. It was just desolate for lack of water. It came to me that the water behind the dam was God’s love. The blocks of the dam were my unforgiveness and clinging to the hurt of rejection. Every time God would increase the level of His love, I was busily adding another line of blocks, raising the level of the dam. My own unwillingness to let go of the hurt was blocking God from flooding my life with His love. Just as I realized this, the dam began to crack. Water spewed at first; then the dam gave way completely, and with it my resistance to God’s love. I was flooded in it. I was in God’s love and God’s love was in me. It was a very powerful feeling. It made me feel like Corrie ten Boom must have felt when she shook hands with the Nazi who had been responsible for the death of her sister. Corrie said her whole body filled with warmth. It was that way for me, too, as I let go of that old hurt.
I met some charismatics while in Greenville. Because of their intense seeking for God, my own desire rose even higher than before. I fasted for a full four days, water included. The group went to see an elderly black woman who was known to have counseled Oral Roberts in her day. I asked her to pray for me and she laid hands on my head. She spoke for the Lord, saying “Have I not given you a double portion?” That was it. That was all, but it was very comforting. I realize now I was just seeking the approval of the Lord. I don’t suppose there is anything wrong with that, but it does show my immaturity at the time. Another illustration of this was my constant prayer to actually see Jesus, perhaps as a hitchhiker. I would pick Him up, He would talk to me, and then disappear.
I had another dream while at Greenville First, near dawn. This dream showed me more about where I really was with the Lord: very immature. I would have been about 28 years old. In the dream, I was in the middle of a desert, maybe in Egypt somewhere. There was a swimming pool with a high diving board, a good three meters. The edge of the pool was filled all the way around with bathing beauties in bikinis, and they were oohing and aahing after every one of my dives. (Don’t laugh, this is embarrassing to tell!) Way in the distance, from up on the diving board, I saw two figures coming out of the desert, heading straight for me. I took a dive, and was about to hoist myself out of the water to chase these guys off. Both were wearing simple brown burnooses; one had golden yellow hair just like a lion, and the other one had brown hair, somewhat more under control. I said, “What do you want? I’m busy!”
The one with the brown hair said, “We want to get to know you better.” With that, in my dream I jumped out of the water. I hurled the one with the golden hair aside, and got astraddle the other one and was punching him in the face…but then the face I was punching was Jesus! The other one was John the Baptist. And just that quickly, I woke up. I knew the message immediately: Jesus wanted to get to know me better, but my lust for approval and desirability were punching the Lord in the face. I stayed humiliated a long time over that one. I would like to think I have changed a lot since then.
Two years later, the bishop appointed me to the Houston South Charge. The way my district superintendent explained it to me was this: “Don’t you think it’s unfair for Greenville First to have two preachers and Houston South has none?” They were short of preachers. I saw the logic, but didn’t like it. On the way home from Annual Conference, I pouted, “God, You don’t love me!” I didn’t want to leave Greenville. I was really upset. God didn’t say a word, but His love of me was like His arms being around me. The car was so filled with His love, I actually felt as if the car were filled with incense smoke.
Grace has been defined as unmerited favor. I know I didn’t merit any of these experiences; but I did definitely want to be closer to God. Maybe that’s all it takes.

Experiences with God – Part Two

My call to the ministry happened like this. It was about a week before I graduated from Macalester College with a B.A. in history and a minor in psychology. I was at Ken Beitler’s apartment and he said, “I only have two weeks left before it’s too late to sign up for seminary.” As he uttered these words, my life flashed before my eyes. I recalled climbing trees as a boy and looking toward the sky through the leaves, contemplating God and His Creation. I remembered all the incidents between God and me over the years. I said to Ken, “You just saw me decide to go to seminary.” It was a really arrogant thing to say, because I didn’t consult with God at all. It was more like He had just shown me my life, granted; and it’s true that He didn’t demand I do it. It was more like an offer. Still, looking back, I wish I had spent more time discussing it with Him, even though the outcome would have probably been the same.
The next major encounter happened after the year spent in Bolivia. I’ve already told you about Bolivia. What I didn’t tell you was that I was totally defeated afterwards. I was angry with God. The main reason was my immaturity. When I asked God for something in prayer, I thought He should just hop to and do my bidding. When things went poorly in Ancoraimes, my feelings got hurt. I felt that God had not played fair with me. When I got back home, instead of taking my final year of classes at seminary, I got a full time job at Jacob Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul, Minnesota. However, I was ambivalent about quitting seminary. I took some Clinical Pastoral Education courses from my seminary on the side. I worked as a street pastor in West St. Paul on my own time, taking troublemaker teenage boys on sightseeing trips and visiting young delinquent men in their 20’s to try and help them turn their lives around.
My job at the brewery was on the bottle house side. It was boring work, but I was used to that from my days as a cowhand when I was a teenager myself. After a year, however, I woke up to realize that I was not being fair to God. One night I was riding my bicycle home at 3:30 in the morning. It was misting rain, but I didn’t mind as I zoomed along under the streetlights. The streets were empty. I had been reading the New Testament during my time off in the brewery. I had had my usual beer at first break, two beers at second break, and a final beer at third break – four beers. I began singing to God. I don’t think I even realized how much I had let God down.
Innocently, I said, “Lord, I’ve messed up my life.” Silence. “Do You have a better plan for my life than this?” Came the answer, “Yes.” I said, “Well, what is it, then?” He said, “I’m not going to tell you.” Hm. Curious. “Why not?” “Because you’d just mess it up again.” That made total sense. I remembered that Milton Robinson, district superintendent of the Lake District of the Methodist Church in Bolivia, had offered me a full time job pastoring a rural church. I had turned him down because I felt my Spanish was not up to it. It began to dawn on me that I had been disobedient, that my spirit was arrogant and presumptuous toward God, and that God had really been patient with me during the past year in the brewery.
I became very aware of my sinfulness. I said, “God, I want to give myself totally to You, but I’m sinful from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet.” Something I had heard Oral Roberts say. I continued, “I’m not worth anything.” He replied, “You are to Me.” “Well, for what I’m worth, here I am, Lord. I’m yours. Please be my boss. If You have to drag me kicking and screaming, please just let me have Your plan for my life.” I felt the Lord’s assent to that.
I was flooded with joy. The beer odor left my clothes, and I realized I was totally sober. I felt as if a 100-lb. monkey had been torn off my back. I asked, “Lord, what would You have me do? Quit the brewery? Tomorrow?” “No,” the Lord said. “Give them a month’s notice. I want you to testify to your co-workers that you have given your life to Me.” I said, “Okay, then what?” He said, “Go to Puerto Rico with the Campus Church students.” God was referring to a group of Christians at Campus Church, a body of believers at the U. of M. My wife and I had been helping them with their Spanish in preparation for a two month trip to witness for Christ in the plazas of several towns in Puerto Rico.
That is exactly what I did. My wife was all for it. The students told me they had been praying for us to go with them and for me to quit smoking. I quit smoking during my last month in the brewery. And I witnessed to just about every single person I worked with. They would ask, “Why are you quitting this fabulous job, you’re getting paid so much!” I said, “I love Jesus more than money.” If only they knew how glad I was to be right with God again. I was no longer God’s boss; He was mine.
     While in Puerto Rico, I met someone who also had encountered God. His name was José Figueroa Millón, and he had been a drunk most of his life. The nuns in his little mountain village of Aguas Buenas could do nothing with him, though they tried mightily. José wanted to quit drinking but he didn’t have to will power. One night a hurricane was hitting Puerto Rico with great force. José went out into the rain, the wind, and the lightning and stood in a field. He tore off his shirt and shouted to God, “Lord, I can’t stand being a drunk any longer! Either take it from me or take my life!” He went straight to a bar and ordered a drink. He had been sitting there for a half hour, not touching the drink, when one of the nuns came running into the bar. “Oh, José, not again!” she cried. José said, “Don’t worry, Sister. God has taken it away from me. I just had to come see if it was true.” José began to work, bought a house, and one by one he found other alcoholics in the gutters of Aguas Buenas. That was in the summer of 1972. If he is still alive, I suppose José is still inviting drunks to sober up and come to his house, where he prays with them, feeds them, gives them a place to sleep, and helps them get free of alcohol.

Experiences with God – Part One

     When I was around 3 or 4 years old, I let Jesus into my heart. My great aunt Mattie Bergman, whom I called Auntie, read to me at her house out of a big purple Bible book with stories from the Creation to Revelation.  When I went to Vacation Bible School, I already knew almost all the Bible characters. Auntie taught me to pray at bdtime, and she also took me to church when she was baby sitting me. She let me draw on the bulletin. She said I could have half a stick of Spearmint gum at the start of the service as long as I would be quiet. If I was still quiet by time for the sermon, I would get the other half of the stick. It was okay to lie on the rug under the pews so long as I didn’t kick the seat above my head. We went to the First Methodist Church in Greenville, Mississippi.

One day, I had been particularly good. I asked Auntie if I could go sit in the balcony to hear the sermon. Auntie gave me the second half of the stick of gum and said I could have it, but only if I was good. I took the stick of gum and walked up the stairs all by myself, sitting down on the front row and leaning out over the balcony. The stained glass in the window behind me threw colored light over me and the pew – red, green, yellow, and blue.

     Rev. Thad Farrell was preaching on letting Jesus into your heart. He said if you did that Jesus would be with you everywhere you went, and all the time. That sounded great to me. I was chewing gum, kicking my legs in the air, and taking in every word he said. At some point during the sermon, I asked Jesus if He would like to come into my heart. He replied, “That would be very good.” So I said, “Come on in, then.” I felt an immediate change, almost physical. The still, small voice was not coming from outside of me but from within me. I don’t remember very clearly anything past that moment, but that moment is still sharp in my mind.

My mom and dad moved to Glen Allen, Mississippi, where I attended the first through the fourth grades. At the end of the fourth grade, my mother left my father and moved us to 626 Orlando Street, Greenville. I went to Carrie Stern for the fifth grade. Then Mom moved us into the apartment over Auntie’s garage, on 236 South Shelby, and I attended the sixth and seventh grades at E.E. Bass Junior High School. Around the end of the seventh grade, Dad came to say good-bye. He had done all he could for those two years to be with us, but now he was going back into the Air Force and getting his old rank back as Master Sergeant. The court would allow him to have us for three months every summer. He cried as he kissed David and me good-bye, and then he drove off.

“I guess I don’t have a father any more,” I said as I walked through Auntie’s back yard on the way to the stairs on the side of her garage leading to our apartment on top. Immediately God said, so clearly it had the same effect as if I had heard it audibly, “I’ll be your Father.” It calmed me down and I stopped crying. Later that night, at bedtime, I was crying myself to sleep, and God came and sort of emotionally tucked me in. He continued tucking me in night after night until I was in my fifties. Like a dummy, I asked Him to stop since I was a little old to be tucked in. However, after a year or so of not having Him present at bedtime, I asked Him to tuck me in again. As I write this, I am 67 and God is still tucking me in!

Mom got married that summer. She married Ed Frank, a cattle order buyer from Lake Village, Arkansas. We moved there and Pop, as we called Ed, immediately gave David and me horses to ride. I was 14 and David was 12. I had a fast quarterhorse named Tiger, and David had a Clydesdale named Baldie. At Lakeside High School, my new school, one of my classmates, Carol Carlton, invited me to attend her church, Lakeside Presbyterian. I did so the whole time from the eighth grade through the twelfth grade. I stayed close to God all that time. I especially remember asking God to send a cloud on hot summer days when David and I were on horseback riding herd all day. Those cool breezes! When I grew up, I wanted to live where the climate was much less hot.

     My pastor at Lakeside Presbyterian was Rev. Irwin Mitchell. He coaxed me into applying to a Presbyterian college in Minnesota. Macalester College gave me a full academic scholarship so I could afford it, and so I went to college in Minnesota. The first time it snowed it felt like I had arrived in heaven! I fell in love with a girl in my English class, and we went together for a year. She broke it off with me at the beginning of our sophomore year, though. I spent my whole sophomore year in romantic misery. Sometime in early spring as my sophomore year was drawing to a close, I found myself sitting on a park bench alone, next to an Episcopal cathedral. I was in despair and thinking of ending my life. “God,” I said, “If You are real, You better show Yourself right now, because I am about to give up on You.”

The wind blew in my face. “God, is that you?” I asked. It blew again. I said, “Okay, if it’s You, let the wind be still.” The wind ceased. I got off the park bench and turned around. Newspapers had been blowing across the ground, and treetops had been twisting and turning in the wind just a second earlier. Now everything was absolutely still as far as I could see in all directions. I sat back down. I said, “If Your answer is yes, blow on my right cheek; if no, blow on my left.” Then I asked, “Are You mean and hateful, just out to test me and make me miserable?” The wind blew on my left cheek. “Do you really love me?” The wind blew on my right cheek. I got up out of the park bench and began walking the mile from the college to the Mississippi River. The whole way, God answered my questions, yes or no. When I arrived at the River, I asked God to go away because I couldn’t stand it any more; it was too miraculous. That was in 1966, and as I write this it is 2014. In between then and now, I have never had such a long personal encounter with God.

I talked with God this way for a week. Every evening after eating at the college cafeteria, I would sit on that park bench and then go for a walk to the River and talk with God. At the end of that week, I told God, “I am very weak now. You have assured me that You love me. When I am stronger, I will love you back. But for now, I just have enough strength to accept Your love for me.”  Then it was as if God stretched out his hand from heaven and shook my hand. “It’s a deal,” I heard Him say. And that was that. I went into the Episcopal cathedral next to the park bench. I sat down and memorized “Amazing Grace” and some other hymns. I began to do this every day at dusk, till my sophomore year was at an end. In the Episcopal prayer book I found these verses, which I quote here from memory.

Now from the altar of my heart let incense flames arise;

Assist me, Lord, to offer up mine evening sacrifice.

Minutes and mercies multiplied have made up all this day;

Minutes came quick but mercies were more fleet and free than they.

New time, new favors, and new joys do a new song require;

Till I shall praise Thee as I would, accept my heart’s desire.

Two Cops Do Battle on the Natchez Trace Parkway

     The following story was told to me as true. Only the names have been eliminated to protect the guilty, and just warning you, I have capitalized inconsistently, and embroidered the tale, just as I see fit. This was told to me by a government official. Apparently it is known about in Mississippi highway patrol circles, too. It seems that a state highway patrolman was in a hurry. He left from Tupelo on his way to Jackson, MS, by way of the Natchez Trace, a federal park road linking the two cities. The speed limit on the Trace is 50 miles per hour, and is enforced by federal police officers with green flashing lights on their cars. The Trace is designed for only 50 mph, with many curves. You can’t see what’s beyond the next curve in the road, so 50 is truly the safest speed, except for a few straight stretches of a mile or so. For every mile per hour you are clocked over the speed limit, the fine is $100. If you get caught going 65 even on a straightaway, the fine would be $1,500.

Our dear friend the state highway patrolman was doing way in excess of the speed limit to say the least. The federal speed cop, or Park Ranger as they are called on the Trace, couldn’t catch him! The park ranger decided to lay for the patrolman, figuring he would be coming back up the Trace. He hid behind a curve in the road and waited. Sure enough, here comes the highway patrolman, going like the proverbial bat from the hot place, heading back north to Tupelo.

Yoicks! The chase was on! The car with the flashing green lights on was right behind the car with the blue lights off. The highway patrolman kept the pedal to the metal until he got to a turnoff. He took the exit at a very high speed, with the Trace cop in red hot pursuit. Up Mississippi Highway 12 they roared, now headed for Ackerman, MS, the highway patrol car still in the lead by a car length.

Suddenly the highway patrolman turns on his blue lights and eases to a stop on the side of the road. The Trace cop comes out of his own patrol car, green lights flashing – the Trace cop car behind the Highway Patrol car. Each cop gets out of his flashing patrol car. They meet. The Park Ranger is furious. He is writing a ticket for all sorts of federal crimes: speeding, not stopping for a patrol car, reckless endangerment, etc. etc.

Meanwhile, the State Highway Patrolman is writing a ticket, too. He takes the Trace cop’s ticket, and then hands the Trace cop a ticket. This infuriates the Trace cop to the height of passion. “What the blankety-blank are you writing ME a ticket for!” he yells at the highway patrolman. “Why, for speeding, of course. Also reckless endangerment. I can’t get you for failing to stop, because you did stop when I turned on my lights. I’m going easy on you.” The Trace cop utters some words – perhaps he only said something like, “We’ll see about this” – and stormed off and back to the Trace.

Time passes. In about a week, on one fine day in Jackson, MS, the head of the Mississippi Highway Patrol was at a luncheon at the Governor’s mansion, no doubt eating steak or some other equally fine meal. Sitting opposite him was the federal officer in charge of the entire Natchez Trace. The Trace bigwig says to the Highway bigwig, something like “It seems we have a problem with one of your officers.” “Yes,” the Highway bigwig says, “And vice versa.” The matter is discussed over the meal.

I feel fairly certain that it was not until dessert, or perhaps cigars and brandies, that a compromise was reached. Each bigwig hands his own officer’s ticket over to the other bigwig. On the count of three, or perhaps just grinning at each other, they tear up each other’s tickets.

Now, remember, I wasn’t there. I have been embroidering this story for all it is worth. After all, there is no newspaper clipping about this; nothing on Youtube or Ask.com; only rumors. As far as I can tell, the one who told me this will deny ever having told me this story, now that I am blabbing. Therefore, I believe I am going to get away scot free! And you, dear reader, will have to figure out where I ad libbed like crazy, and where I was relating it exactly as it was told to me.

While we are on the subject of the Natchez Trace Park Rangers, I have another story – and I swear to you, this one is pure bunkum, a fib, hogwash, claptrap, and a dastardly lie. There was this Park Ranger going along at 50 mph when up ahead there was a car going about 45. That was well and good, but then about 30 female turkeys came out of the woods and crossed right in front of the car. The car slowed and swerved, but still hit one of the turkeys, and flipped it high in the air. The thoroughly dead turkey landed right smack in the center of the windshield of the Park Ranger’s car.

The Ranger turned on his green lights. The car in front of him stopped, and the Ranger got out and stalked over to the car window. “But Officer,” wailed the driver, “I did everything I could to avoid hitting it, and besides, I know I was going under the speed limit. What are you giving me a ticket for?” “Not for speeding, sir, and not for the accident resulting in the death of wildlife,” responded the Ranger. “I am giving you this ticket for flipping me the bird.”