The Lord preserved my life and sustained our family through my first difficult years of life. As I shared in the first part of my testimony, God redirected my parents from the mission field to service in the States.
When I was only a few months old, my dad accepted a call to serve as interim pastor at a church in Georgetown, Illinois.
Since my dad was a pastor, I basically grew up at church. One of my earliest memories of church came from when I was four. I took part in a Vacation Bible School program at church and, as part of the program, we made a craft. Our teacher brought a Bible and picture of Jesus in a frame.
She set them up on a table, and we each got to have our picture taken sitting next to the small table. We then took our picture, pasted it on a piece of black construction paper, and wrote “I love Jesus” next to the picture. We then pasted orange yarn around the edge of the paper to make a frame.
For some reason, that simple craft found its way into our family photo album.
That photo of me with a Bible and a picture of Jesus captures well how I grew up—the Bible was the word of God, and Jesus was my Lord and Savior. From my earlier age until now, that has always been what I believed.
When I was about ten years old, I began to understand that it wasn’t enough to believe that Jesus was my Lord and Savior in the quiet of my own heart. No, I should profess my faith in Jesus Christ before the church and beyond.
As it says in Romans 10:9, “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved.”
And more than that, I knew that I should get baptized, and that should also be done before the church. I often heard Acts 2:38, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”
For a reserved ten-year-old, the idea of being in front of the entire congregation struck fear in me. Well, I had a plan. I decided that I would wait until I was much older, maybe 21 or so, and then go to a church where no one knew me. Then, I could go before a congregation of strangers and not be embarrassed.
In the summer of 1976, I went to church camp for a week at Hanging Rock Christian Service Camp, just 10 miles from our home, in Williamsport, Indiana.
In addition to all the regular camp activities, there was a nightly service. These services had an evangelistic emphasis. On the last night of camp, the pastor exhorted us to come forward and make a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ.
As I listened, I was convicted by the fact that I was too embarrassed to profess my faith in Christ. I was gripped by the realization that I should step forward and profess my faith in Christ in a public fashion. And so I went forward.
Two days later, on June 20, 1976, I was home at our church. Standing with my dad, I made a public profession of faith in front of our church and then my dad baptized me.
When I came out of the baptismal, my mom was waiting for me. She took me into a side room where she helped me change into my church clothes.
She had a blow drier with her, and she dried my hair as the congregation sang, and when they paused between hymns, she turned it off and we waited.
While she helped me, I remember being a little disappointed that I hadn’t felt some kind of electrical charge or something supernatural when I went under the water. For as long as I could remember, we were told not to play near the baptismal or touch the baptismal water. But my thoughts soon turned to a more serious thought.
I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Now I really have to be good.” I think I was expressing, in a ten-year old’s way of saying it, that I had made a public declaration of my faith in Christ and now, more than ever, I needed to walk in a manner pleasing to my Lord.
This is the Christian life–turning from our sinful self and our sinful impulses to serve the living God.
From this early age I began to ask myself how I could serve the Lord. I remember thinking one day that I wanted to serve the Lord, but not as a pastor. I wanted to serve in a way different from my dad, perhaps even in a different part of the world.
About two years later, when I was twelve, we moved from Indiana to Statesboro, Georgia, where my family lived for over thirty years.
When I was in high school, I asked my dad one day if I could put some National Geographic maps up on the wall of my bedroom.
Now, in my family, the maps that came from time to time in the National Geographic magazine were considered almost sacred.
When they arrived, they were carefully put away in my dad’s desk and only taken out for reference. But for some reason, I asked my dad if I could put some of them up in my room and, to my amazement, he said I could. So, I tacked up as many maps as I could.
And I remember putting the map of Africa right by my bed. I became increasingly fascinated by Africa. My desire to serve the Lord became gradually focused on Africa.
During my senior year in high school, I studied German. As I studied German, I gradually realized that I enjoyed learning a foreign language. I especially found the grammar of German fascinating.
One day, my older brother gave me a book about linguistics. It was called Word Play: What Happens When People Talk by Peter Farb. It was a very engaging introduction to the study of language. As I read the book, it occurred to me that what I enjoyed about studying German was linguistics. I decided to study linguistics when I got to college.
In August 1984, my entire family, my parents, my four brothers and myself, loaded our mini-van and headed north to Bloomington, Indiana. I had been accepted at Indiana University.
I was attracted to Indiana University because I was homesick. We moved from Indiana to Georgia when I was twelve, but my heart never left Indiana.
But more than being homesick for Indiana, I was excited to attend Indiana University because I could major in linguistics and even study four African languages.
My first semester of classes, I took Introduction to Linguistics. I thoroughly enjoyed the class and had no desire but to study more linguistics.
One day, while walking back to my dorm, I crossed paths with Bill Anderson. Bill was a Christian and a linguistics major. Being more advanced in linguistics than myself, he liked to carry around grammars of exotic languages. He’d read them and tell me what he thought was fascinating about one language or another.
On that day, Bill asked me why I was studying linguistics. I told him that I wanted to serve the Lord in Africa. He asked me if I knew about Wycliffe Bible Translators. I told him that I hadn’t heard about this mission agency. So, he proceeded to tell me about Wycliffe.
I spent the summer of 1986 at the Summer Institute of Linguistics, hosted on the campus of the University of North Dakota.
Every summer, missionaries from around the world who served with Wycliffe Bible Translators came together for this special summer program. They taught courses in linguistics and translation to students who are preparing to serve in the ministry of Bible translation.
It was exciting for me to be with so many students who were studying linguistics for the purpose of missions. But more than that, I was able to spend a lot of time with the missionaries serving as faculty and staff.
The faculty, staff, and students ate their meals in a common dining hall. It was like one large family. And the Wycliffe missionaries were eager to share about their lives and ministries with us, the students. When I finished the summer program, I felt even more strongly that the Lord was calling me to the ministry of Bible translation.
I graduated from Indiana University in May 1987. And a few months later, I stepped off a Greyhound bus in downtown Los Angeles, eager to pursue advanced studies in linguistics and African languages at UCLA.
Looking back on this period of my life, I see that the Lord deepened my faith and took what I had, a broad desire to serve Him, an interest in Africa, and a love for linguistics; and wove them into a single, focused vision.
The Lord was preparing me to serve in the ministry of Bible translation in Africa.