Why is the event so important? It happened 65 years ago when I was 16 years of age, a senior in High School, and living in Bloomingdale, Pennsylvania, with my father, mother, brother and sister. I was really the middle child—my brother was a year and a half and a day older and my sister was a year and a half and a day younger.
A young preacher named Parker Gamwell came to our “circuit” of Bloomingdale, Reyburn and Koonsville churches and, being young and enthusiastic, he actually believed that people could be “saved” and preached as if it would happen. Two of my neighbors were saved (a theological term), as well as a good friend who had just returned from service in Korea, and a girlfriend of mine who I had gotten to know through her brothers.
I remember that it was on a Sunday evening and that the pastor gave the traditional (and necessary, in our context) “altar call” and I “went forward”. Actually, I had been contemplating the move for some weeks but, being naturally shy and quiet (around most people), I had read the Bible and prayed and wanted to make some sort of commitment to God. The altar call was the context and the Bible verse I remember is John 1:12, “For as many as received Him, He gave power to become the children of God”, or, as the version I use today says, “Yet some people accepted him and put their faith in him. So he gave them the right to be the children of God.”
Things accelerated quickly, but none of them would have happened if it had not been for that night of January 8th, 1950. I decided to go to a Christian college and eventually become a missionary, rather than a coach, like I had dreamed of. I went off to a college in Delaware and met three men and a woman who were to play a significant part in my life by our interaction and their examples.
It didn’t happen immediately: my first roommates quickly dropped out of my life (and school as well), but by playing baseball and soccer I met Paul Wentling and Harry Sink. In due time I became friends and roommates with both—Paul my junior year and Harry my senior year. I visited Paul’s home a number of times and he and I were the “best man” at each others weddings. Harry, who studied to be a minister, was an outstanding athlete and musician, died somewhat tragically shortly just a few years after he was married and had a church and son.
Paul influenced me with his calm and friendly attitude. He was a member of a large family (six siblings) and became a highly successful teacher and soccer coach at a H.S. in Pennsylvania.
Harry influenced me with his enthusiasm and overt pleasure at being a Christian. He was helpful and compassionate, well regarded and liked by all who knew him.
The third man who influenced me at the college was Bernie May, also from Pennsylvania and also a psychology major. (He was good at it, I was not.) Bernie was learning to be pilot and I flew with him on a number of occasions—one time we had an engine failure.
But the person who influenced me most was a woman—Joice Barnett. She was in the same grade as me and we had several classes together and I knew that she was bright, pretty and gregarious. However, I knew her only slightly until my junior year in college. I had “broken up” with my Pennsylvania girlfriend and was not looking for another girlfriend. But we ended up working together in the college kitchen, scraping dishes, and found that we were both interested in missions. The relationship deepened and we were “going steady” by the end of college.
During the summers of my Junior and senior years, I boarded with college friends in Detroit, Michigan and worked at a diary factory. My first roommate had just finished college and was learning the way of the world. His family was dysfunctional and he wasn’t far behind. He came home many nights dead drunk, prompting me to sleep on the floor away from his boozy snoring. He later crashed his car and ended up in the hospital for a short stay. He influenced me to stay away from beer and whiskey—but I had already learned that by watching my dad.
After college, I decided to go to California for a year to study “Missionary Medicine” and while there I met Bernie again, who was studying aircraft mechanics at Lockheed. I often went to visit him and his wife on weekends and he gradually encouraged me to look into mission work with the Wycliffe Bible Translators. Joice and I wrote regularly and were moving toward engagement marriage, and missionary work.
That is the beginning of the story–all as a result of January 8th, 1950–but I will relate more later.