Although I knew my Mom and Dad would be very pleased to learn I had given my heart to the Lord, it was several years before I told them the circumstances of my conversion. I didn't want to get into trouble for being in the National Guard Armory when I should have been coming straight home from school.
Still, I had an immediate desire to witness and tell others about Jesus. I teamed up with Paul for our initial venture into personal evangelism. We didn't have to look far to find our first target. He was Richard, a fat little kid who lived next door. Richard was the vilest sinner I knew.
It was on a balmy spring afternoon that Richard came over to our house, as he often did, to play. Our back yard was bordered by a small creek and along the bank grew an enormous Weeping Willow tree. The drooping outermost branches of the tree literally touched the ground, creating a wondrous natural enclosure. The circle of those branches, which swayed with every breeze, was my favorite spot in the yard, and maybe my favorite place in the entire universe. This is where we took Richard on that fateful day and sat him on the grass between us.
Paul and I had our attack planned and well rehearsed. We wasted little time. "Richard,” I began, “did you know that if your daddy doesn't stop drinking, he's going to go straight to Hell, where he will burn forever and ever?
"Richard's eyes grew wide and his mouth dropped open. We had caught him totally off guard. Before he could blink, Paul hit Richard from the other side. "Yeah, and your mommy's going to Hell too, if she doesn't stop running around the yard half naked in those short shorts and halters."
Richard looked stunned. It was obvious he had never been made to face the awful truth like this before. While Richard looked at each of us in turn, a quiver coming to his lips and the hint of a tear welling up in his eyes, I went in for the kill. "And that's not all. If you don't stop saying dirty words, you're going to Hell with them.
"But Richard didn't go to Hell -- not right then, anyway. Instead he puckered up and ran crying to his mother. She met her squalling son on the front porch, and after comforting him for a moment through his sobs, she yelled angrily at us, "You boys leave my baby alone!" It was a long, long time before Richard was allowed to come over to our house to play again.
"Oh well," I consoled myself, "sometimes the truth hurts." At least my conscience was clear. I had done my duty to God and my friend. If he rejected the message and was eternally lost, at least his blood wouldn't be on my hands.
With that first effort in soul-winning behind me, I turned next to mass-evangelism. It wasn't difficult to get a crowd. First, there were my many brothers and sisters, and also our big back yard was one of the nicest on the block. The Weeping Willow tree and the creek full of tadpoles, crawdads and other creatures was a magnet which drew kids from all over the neighborhood.
About three feet up from its base, the trunk of the willow split into three prongs. In the center of them was just enough room for one seven-year-old boy to stand. It made a dandy pulpit. One fine summer afternoon, with the help of Paul, Sarah and other siblings, we gathered all our friends and had them sit in rows beneath the sheltering green cathedral formed by the willow branches. Pulling our Red Ryder wagon over to the base of the willow, I used it as a step to mount to the crotch in the tree.
To an eager crowd of about a dozen kids, I announced it was time for the service to begin. First, Paul prayed an invocation, then Sarah led everybody in singing, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine... Let it shine till Jesus comes ... Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine." With the mood properly set and hearts mellowed by the worship, I began my sermon. It was one of my favorite Bible stories and one I felt especially appropriate for the setting.
I exhorted my congregation: "Zacheus was a wee little man, just about as little as we are, and he was a sinner too. One day, Zacheus heard that Jesus was passing by and he climbed up a Sycamore tree, just like I climbed up into this Weeping Willow. When Jesus saw him, he called out 'Zacheus, you come down from that tree.' After he climbed down, Jesus went to his house for tea. Just like Jesus went into Zacheus' home, He will come into your heart if you will repent of your sins, open the door of your heart, and let Him in.
"At that point I paused, lowered my voice, and instructed: "Every head bowed and every eye closed." I'd seen altar calls a thousand times in church and knew exactly how to do it. I asked those who had never invited Jesus to come into their hearts to raise their hands, and 3 or 4 of the kids did just that. Sarah was singing softly, "Just as I am, without one plea...."
I told those who had raised their hands to get down on their knees right there by the creek bank. As they did, and the rest of us "saints" gathered around. We laid our hands on them and prayed earnestly for their salvation with shouts of "Glory to God!" "Hallelujah" and "Thank You Jesus!"
It would be nine years before I preached my first real sermon. I was a happy, adventurous, mischievous boy, typical in many ways, but deadly serious about my religion.
The photo above, circa 1950, is of the six oldest Conn children in front of the Weeping Willow. They are, LtoR: Stephen, Sara (with Raymond,) Paul, Philip and Sharon.