Only two converts. One died six weeks after she was baptized; the other drifted away within the year. The “effort” lasted all summer, conducted by four college students and the wife of the only one who was married. They spent a summer that they could ill afford when college bills had mounted and a new school year loomed on the horizon. Was it a waste of talent that could have been more wisely used?
It began like this: I had been drafted into the Army after spending one year in college. I had just returned to my home town, the tiny crossroads community of Wimer, Oregon, when Ted and Bernie, two young men from Walla Walla College, came to spend the summer doing evangelism. I can’t remember anyone being baptized but it was a time of revival for the few members, and Ted and Bernie were certainly role models for me. I was impressed and thought it would be a good thing if all college students could spend a summer working more directly for God.
When I returned to my college studies I mentioned to my friend, Bill Dopp—a theology major in his junior year—that I had been impressed by Ted and Bernie. I said, “Bill, I think it would be a good thing if all college students could have an experience like that. It could certainly deepen a person’s walk with God.” Bill’s reply: “Bruce, I think that is a great idea. Let’s do it this summer.”
I immediately began to back-paddle. I thought it was a good idea but wasn’t prepared for the possibility that it would begin now. After all, I had just finished my freshman year and I wasn’t even taking theology. “Bill,” I objected, “I haven’t any experience. I have never preached a sermon in my life. I’m just not prepared.”
Bill was an enthusiastic type who always looked on the bright side of anything that had to do with advancing the Lord’s work. “I have an appointment to preach up at Dayton (a small town a few miles from WWC) two weeks from now. You can preach instead of me and then you will have some experience.” He didn’t listen to my protest that I had not taken homiletics (the class for training preachers to preach) and he wouldn’t take my loud “no” for an answer. I was in a pickle. I was in way over my head.
I did have a sermon. Ted had asked me to type a sermon for him on Heaven from a book of evangelistic sermons. For a reason I did not know at the time, I slipped a carbon in the typewriter and made a copy for myself. So I had a sermon—a good sermon that had been prepared and preached by one of the denomination’s leading evangelists. But I died a thousand deaths between the decision to preach and the day to deliver.
That Sabbath morning, after a night of fitful sleep, and sick to my stomach, I had no appetite for breakfast. But at last I stood before the small congregation, preaching my first sermon from a pulpit once used by Ellen G. White, the elder said. Somehow I ground through. I now had one sermon under my belt. I could no longer say that I had no experience.
We soon were on our way to Forks, Washington, the town on the Olympic Peninsula that the conference deemed “one of the best places in the conference” for students to colporteur (sell religious books) and to hold a series of evangelistic meetings. “Lots of people live in that area,” said the publishing secretary.
Bill’s wife, Francis, his brother Matthew “Bud,” who also had just returned from the army, Eugene Fletcher, a theology major with top musical skills, and I made up the team. A kind church member family, away for the summer, let us use their home. We advertised the meetings and waited expectantly for a large crowd to fill the little church.
At the announced time of the meeting only a few people had come. “This is a logging community
and the people are not accustomed to coming out to evangelistic meetings on time,” we assured each other. But after a few more minutes we knew it was now or never. We did not have the expected delight of hearing the ushers putting extra chairs in the aisle. We began with the few and continued through the summer. Francis, Bill’s wife, made friends with Mrs. Paige, our next door neighbor and she attended faithfully.
As colporteurs we were soon out of territory in the sparsely populated area. We pitched hay and did other odd jobs to keep food on the table. All the while, however, we firmly held to our conviction that we were doing what God wanted us to do.
The summer ended and we returned to WWC with assurance from the pastor of the district that he would continue giving Bible studies to the few who were interested. He did so, and by Christmas time there were two who were ready for baptism. I shall never forget standing at the baptistery as Mrs. Paige came out of the water. She had a radiant glow in her face and she grabbed my hand and said, “This is the happiest day of my life, and it’s all your fault!” Now, I had taken the blame for a lot of things in my day, but I didn’t mind taking the blame for Mrs. Paige’s baptism! Of course, all five of us had a hand in it, especially Francis who got her coming to the meetings and it was the work of the Holy Spirit working through all of us. All glory must go to God.
Six weeks later Mrs. Paige was dead. The shocking news caused us to believe that God’s timing is perfect and that He had led us to Forks at just the right time to help Mrs. Paige make her decision to follow Christ. I decided that God was tapping me on the shoulder and calling me to be a minister. We never regretted spending a summer working to bring people to the Savior.
The years rolled by and 40 years later I was invited, as president of the Washington Conference, to officiate at the dedication of the new Forks church. I was delighted to accept. Nostalgia welled up. This was a place where I had emotional roots.
After the dedication service I went to a table where refreshments were being served. A young woman asked, “Elder Johnston, does the name Cowles ring a bell with you? My mother is a Cowles and she attended the meetings in Forks that you students conducted. She was not baptized with the others because she was very pregnant with me, but a few weeks later she was. She is still faithful. I am her daughter and I am in the church, my husband and my children are in the church. Do you see the woman at the next table? She is my sister. She is in the church, her husband is in the church and their children are in the church. See the man standing in that group of men? He is in the church and his family is in the church.” I could not believe my ears.
A few weeks later my wife and I attended another church and were astonished to hear the Sabbath School superintendent tell about a group of college students holding evangelistic meetings in a little church up in Washington State and that her mother had been baptized. This was another daughter of Mrs. Cowles. She counted 18 people who are in the church, mostly as a result of those meetings conducted by novices so many years before.
But the story doesn’t end there. I took a group to India in October of 2001. Joseph, a grandson of Mrs. Cowles, was in that group working to bring people to Christ. Then in June, 2002, my wife and I attended the Washington Conference camp meeting. We walked into Rainier Auditorium and found a stack of evangelism newsletters lying on a table at the entrance. We read of an Ivan Cowles who had conducted a DVD evangelistic series in a little town not far from Forks. Five people had been baptized. Imagine my delight to discover that Ivan is a son of the same Mrs. Cowles who was baptized in Forks. He is planning, with other members of the church, to hold meetings in Forks soon. I also met another daughter of Mrs. Cowles, who, with her husband, are missionaries in Peru.
I thank the Lord that He gave me this thrilling news that so gladdened my heart. Never again will I say of any series of meetings, I guess that series didn’t contribute much to the growth of the church. Never, till we are on the Sea of Glass, will we know the true outreach of the Advent message. •