After my first feeble attempt at preaching, in the Raleigh County Jail, I was very discouraged with my poor performance. I decided that maybe I wasn’t called to preach after all. Maybe that invitation to preach, and the sermon that seemed to miraculously fall into my lap, was just a fluke.
So I prayed and told God that if He ever wanted me to preach again, all He had to do was have someone invite me to preach. I promised God that any time I was ever asked, I would preach. If I were never asked again, I would never preach again, but under no circumstances would I announce that I was called to preach, or ask someone to let me preach.
About six weeks later the second invitation came. I had been going to the Bradley County Workhouse in Cleveland, every Sunday afternoon that I was in town, with Bill Wooten, a Lee ministerial student, who held services there. My part in the service was to help with the singing and then witness to the men and pray with those who desired prayer at the close of the service. One Sunday after the workhouse service Bill asked me if I would bring the message the following week. I agreed.
I studied and prayed much the next week and prepared myself as best as I could. As before, my sermon would be “The Way of Salvation.” The service was held in a large room in the workhouse where about twenty men sat on their bunks and listened. When I was introduced to preach, I stepped forward, and the sound of my own voice surprised me. I thought I actually sounded like a preacher, and people were listening to what I had to say. I did better than that first effort in Beckley. This time I preached for 7 or 8 minutes. During the course of the summer I preached three times at the workhouse, and each time I thought I did better than before.
The next fall, although I was only a junior at Bradley High School, I was invited me to go on another invasion to the tiny village of Cohutta, Georgia. A street service was scheduled, and they needed a preacher. The invasion leader heard that I had been preaching some at the workhouse, so he asked me to do the street service. The thought of preaching on a street corner made me a bit apprehensive, but remembering the promise I had made to God, I said I would do it.
Downtown Cohutta consisted on a garage, a general store, and a small cluster of houses – not the ideal street service venue. Our team set up in front of the garage, facing the General Store, and began to sing. When I got up and started preaching not a soul was in sight. However, during the course of my message, a few people drove by slowly and gawked, and a couple of people walked in and out of the General Store, casting a glance our way. I hoped maybe they heard something that touched their heart.
During the fall long weekend at Lee, a Pioneers for Christ team was traveling to southeastern Louisiana, and I was invited. It was a small team, only six of us in a car – three girls and three boys.
We held services in Baton Rouge, Covington and Hammond, Louisiana. Because there was no one else on the team to lead singing, I was assigned that task. It was the first time I ever led singing in church.
On Sunday morning we had a “Countdown Service” scheduled in Bogalusa. I was asked to be the one who stayed after the others went out to witness at 11:30. My message to those who did not go out witnessing was the only thing I knew how to preach: “The Way of Salvation.”
Bogalusa Church of God was a fairly good sized church, with about 200 people present that morning. They had come expecting to hear a college ministerial student. Instead they heard a high school junior give his first church sermon. I was elated that I did better than I expected.
After that weekend I began to travel with the Pioneers for Christ frequently. On regular weekends we traveled to churches within a five hour radius of Cleveland, in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. On long weekends and school holidays we went much further.
I never told anyone I was called to preach, but the word must have gotten out, because invitations began to come in frequently. I never turned a single one down for any reason, unless I was already scheduled to preach somewhere else that day.
An elderly black lady, who lived just off East Inman Street in Cleveland, was a shut-in, and wanted to have preaching service in her home. For many weeks I took a group of the North Cleveland youth group with me and we held Thursday night services for Sister Johnson, and neighbors who she would invite to come.
When school was out that summer, I took over the responsibility of the Bradley County Workhouse service on Sunday afternoons. When I was out of town preaching in a church, I found someone else to fill in for me.
During that same summer, I organized a local Pioneers for Christ Club out of the youth group of our church. After the workhouse service every Sunday afternoon, we divided up into teams of two and went door-to-door witnessing. Sometimes there would be a dozen of us, and sometimes only 3 or 4, but a few went witnessing with me every Sunday.
During my senior year at Bradley High School I was made one of the invasion directors for the Lee College PFC, even though I was not yet in college. I was in charge of leading witnessing teams to towns such as Andrews, North Carolina; McCaysville, Georgia, and Fort Payne, Alabama.
During this time I began to develop other sermons, and my favorite sermon topic was soul-winning. The promise I had made the lord to preach every time I was invited is one I took very seriously. After I started attending Lee College, my opportunities increased. The Pioneers for Christ not only held weekend invasions, but also regular services in nursing home, jails, and street corners, in several locations within a 30 or 40 mile radius of Cleveland.
I also began to be invited to preach at area churches for youth rallies, revivals, or regular Sunday worship services.
One November afternoon, during my freshman year at Lee, I was at Walker Hall, a men’s dormitory, studying with some friends. A telephone call came on the phone in the lobby. It was the young people’s president from the Oak Grove Church of God, wanting to know if there might be a student preacher who could come and speak for their youth service the following Friday night.
The guy who answered the phone came to the room where I was studying, with three other student preachers, and asked if any of us wanted to preach. The other three all turned the opportunity down. They had dates for a special function that was going to be held at Lee that Friday night. I had a date too, but to me I would be reneging on my promise to God if I turned down an invitation to preach. I went to the telephone and accepted the invitation.
I told my girlfriend that we could either break the date, or she could go with me. We found another couple to double with us and the four of us planned to go to Oak Grove for the Y.P.E. service.
That Friday afternoon, a few hours before the service, I was in the Central Avenue Barber Shop getting my hair cut. A man came running down the street, burst into the barber shop, and blurted out, “The President’s been shot! The President’s been shot!” He turned and ran on down Central Avenue, spreading the news to every business along the way. One of the barbers turned on the radio, and we heard the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
It seemed the whole world stopped revolving. The event planned for Lee College that night was cancelled, as were many thousands of events throughout the United States. The entire country was in shock and mourning.
But it was still to be church as usual at Oak Grove, a rural church in northern Hamilton County, about 20 miles from Cleveland.
The only mention made of the President’s assassination that night was during prayer request time. A man stood and said, “I guess you all heard about our president being shot. It’s too late for us to pray for him, but I just want us to pray for that there woman (Jacqueline Kennedy) and them there kids.”
In the service that night it was obvious that we had three sinners present: two teenage boys and an older man. They were sitting, sour faced, on the back row, and did not participate in the service at all. Everyone else in the church was jumping and thumping, praising God in typical Pentecostal style.
When I was introduced to preach, I stepped up to the pulpit, and with total but misguided sincerity, I announced: “I’m not here to preach to you folks who already know the Lord. This sermon is for you who are lost. And when I am finished and give the altar call, I expect to see every sinner that’s here tonight, come to the altar and give your heart to the Lord.”
I then read my text - Hebrews 2:3: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation.”
Next, I bowed my head and prayed earnestly that God would take the message I was about to deliver and use it to pierce the heart of every sinner or backslider in the building, and bring conviction that would lead to their salvation.
I opened my eyes from the prayer saw that the back row was empty. All three of my sinners had escaped, and it was to late now to change my sermon.
The 40 or so saints who were still with me, looked to the back of the building, and then back up to me, with very concerned expressions. I heard someone whisper aloud, “Bless him, Jesus.”
Brother Ritchie, the pastor, who was sitting on the front row, turned and fell on his knees at his seat. He didn’t get back up until after I had finished preaching.
I decided there was no turning back now. I suspected that the three sinners might still be standing out on the front porch, taking a smoke. So I preached Hell and Salvation loudly enough that they could hear me if my suppositions were right. When I gave the altar call, I plead for the sinners to come back in the door and walk down the aisle. They didn’t.
After the service was dismissed, I walked out into the chilly autumn night and there, on the front steps of the church, were all three of my sinners. I tried to catch their eye as I passed them, but they all turned and looked the other way.
During my freshman year at Lee I took on two ministry projects for the school year. Every weekend, except when I was leading a Pioneers for Christ invasion, I would round up a group of Lee students and we went to Athens, Tennessee, about 30 miles north of Cleveland, for a regular street service. We always carried a public address system, musicians, and a student preacher.
On the weekends I was traveling I found student preachers at Lee to take over for me. Two brothers who helped were Ronnie and Steve Brock, from Lindale, Georgia.
We always sat up in front of the McMinn County Courthouse. One of the ladies who worked in the county clerk’s office would open a window so we could plug in our equipment. We could usually count on a few folk to take a seat on the benches around the court house and listen to us.
I was discouraged that we didn’t have many converts from those services. However, one Saturday, after we had been having services for more than six months, we were joined as we were setting up by a well dressed businessman from Athens. He told us he was the local State Farm agent, and said he had been listening to us every Saturday from his office window, on the second story above a shop on the court house square. Through our witness he had made a re-commitment of his life to the Lord. Every Saturday, for the rest of the school year, he always joined with us, helping us sing and giving his testimony during the services.
After holding the street service on Saturday mornings, I went to Gum Hollow on Saturday afternoons for soul-winning. Gum Hollow was the site of Cleveland’s city dump, and where about 200 of the very poorest people in the county lived in a shanty town. This was Appalachian poverty at its worse.
Many of the people of Gum Hollow were squatters, with no real home of their own. They lived in makeshift shelters constructed of materials they had scavenged from the dump. A few years later, after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty, the shanties were bulldozed, the dump was replaced with a sanitary landfill opposite side of town, and the people were put in government housing. But in those days the people of Gum Hollow were fending for themselves.
I have a vivid memory of watching a little blond haired, blue eyed girl, about 6 years old, rummaging through the dump. She found the remains of a hard boiled egg in somebody’s garbage, and popped it into her mouth. The only other place I ever saw a scene like that was many years later on a missionary trip to Haiti. My heart went out to these whom I called “The last, the least, and the lost” of Cleveland.
Dudley Dixon, and older Lee Student, shared my desire to minister to these people. We recruited some other help and began holding Sunday morning services. Dudley wasn’t a preacher, but he was a good businessman, and he had a vehicle. It was an old Bell Telephone truck, painted olive drab, with a lighter green splotch where the Bell had been before the phone company got rid of it.
Every Saturday afternoon Dudley and I, with whoever we could find to help us, went door-to-door witnessing to the people of Gum Hollow. The poorest of them lived in lean-to structures built of refrigerator cartons, and with dirt floors. In these the only means of heat in winter was a fire in the middle of the floor, with the smoke finding its way out of a crack in the ceiling.
Dudley took his old telephone truck to places of business and solicited food items which we gave out to these families, in addition to telling them about Jesus.
On Sunday mornings we would make a round of the neighborhood, waking people up, and telling them we would be back in about an hour to pick them up for Sunday School. Then we would go to Fike Funeral Home and pick up a load of folding chairs, which they let us borrow, and come back and set up for church. Our first few services were held under a large Oak tree in a vacant overgrown lot.
While I sat up the chairs Dudley would go back around the neighborhood, making several trips, shuttling people to church. We bribed them to come by offering free food.
Within a few months we were having as many as 100 people in our services. Needing a more permanent place for worship, Dudley made arrangements to rent a small four-room house on a ridge overlooking the hollow, and we moved our services there. Someone donated an old upright piano, which we sat up in the living room. A woman who was an excellent pianist and singer, Delilah, volunteered to help with the music. Lee College students taught the Sunday School classes.
In good weather we sat up our funeral home chairs in the front lawn of the little house. When it was cold or raining, we jammed as many people as we could inside. They filled all four rooms. I stood in a small hallway in the center of the house when I preached. From that vantage point I could turn to see into every room of the house.
Dudley recognized the need of a permanent facility, so he worked diligently to raise funds from local businessmen. An empty lot a few doors down from the little house was purchased and we built a simple but attractive concrete block building for a permanent church. We called it the Hillview Church of God.
The front of the church was concave, with a high concrete platform in front. I sometimes preached from that platform, with speakers blaring out over Gum Hollow.
After Dudley and I both moved away from Cleveland, the building was taken over by the North Cleveland Church of God, which operated it for many years as a mission.
The Lee College Pioneers for Christ sent out summer witnessing teams each year to work in home missions. At the beginning of my freshman year, Charles Beach asked me if I would be available to lead one of the teams the following summer. He gave me a choice. I could either lead a team to plant a new church in Montana, or in Hawaii.
I volunteered for Montana because I really wanted to go to Hawaii. But I was afraid that my desire to go the islands was a selfish one. To me, the will of God was always the thing you wanted to do least. So it must be God’s will for me to go to Montana.
Even before I felt God was calling me to preach, I was afraid to pray too hard for God to have His will in my life. If I did I was sure he would tell me to marry an ugly woman and go to Africa as a missionary.
The team of seven students who were to accompany me to Montana was chosen several months before the end of the school year. In preparation we had to raise all of the money to support ourselves for the entire summer. Also, we prepared by learning to work together as a team, by traveling on several PFC invasions. These included a nine-day trip over Spring Break, in which we ministered in churches in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
By the time school dismissed for the summer we were primed and ready to go to the Big Sky Country. We had an old Desoto automobile, loaned to us by a used car dealer in Lenoir City, Tennessee. We filled both the trunk and a car-top carrier with luggage, gospel tracks and song books, and headed toward the Rocky Mountain Northwest.