Monday, April 18, 2011

Remembering Dad

My father, F. Burleigh Willard Sr., went to be with the Lord on March 16, 2011. As a missionary Bible teacher for 40 years, Dad influenced whole generations of Christian leaders in the Dominican 
Republic and Mexico. But his influence was not just in what he taught, but in how he lived. That is reflected in the following memory of Dad. It is in fictionalized form, as written for a Christian Writers Guild assignment (For example, my sister would have been about ten when this happened. She would not have spoken in such an infantile fashion); however, the substance of the story and many details are true.

“There are holes in the wall,” my little sister, Emily, said.

“Huh?” I said, turning and looking up at the front of the newly-dedicated church south of the border. “Those aren’t holes,” I informed her. “They’re glass blocks. They’re for decoration.”

I took another look at the building. I was pretty impressed with it, myself. Its façade was broad and tall enough to grab anyone’s attention, I thought, and the regular array of glass blocks made you look twice. It was different . . . interesting. Then there were the stairs leading up from street level to the church. They were as wide as the building and there were—a lot of them. Quite a climb. They gave the impression that the church was positioned in a lofty place—like heaven. I wouldn’t want anyone to know that a fifteen-year-old had such thoughts, but that’s kinda the feeling it gave me.

Maybe it was the whole occasion that had put me in that frame of mind. It was Easter Sunday. Now, Easter Sunday in Mexican mission churches is always a glorious experience—not because of pageantry, but because of the heartfelt celebration of people awakened out of darkness by the risen Lord. But this service was over the top.

It was not only Easter; it was the climax of an evangelistic crusade in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, 175 south of our home in Nogales, Arizona. Dad had taken his students from Nogales Bible School to Hermosillo to serve as choir members and counselors during the crusade. So on Sunday, the new Hermosillo church overflowed with new converts, bible school students, pastors from around Mexico, and American missionary families—like us.

There he was. My head turned to follow the wiry, black-headed man who had testified so powerfully before being baptized. His traditional Catholic family disowned him when he gave his life to Christ last week, but—seemingly—that had barely fazed him. Christ was so worth it. I wondered if I would ever love the Lord that much.

The steps were getting crowded now. Pastor Diego Sanchez—the pastor of this promising new church—walked up to my dad. As they talked, I watched the mixture of people now swarming the steps. Poorly-dressed worshippers from the nearby barrios mingled with neatly-dressed students from the bible school and Mexican pastors and businessmen in suits. Different from the uniformly simple folk who filled the rural and small-town mission churches I was used to visiting with my family.

Hermano [Brother] Ruben,” Pastor Sanchez called out. A roly-poly, brown-skinned man turned, face lighting up.

Hermano Willard,” Pastor Sanchez said to my father, “This is one of our new converts. He lives just down the street from the church.”

Mucho gusto, mucho gusto [pleasure to meet you],” the man said repeatedly, practically bowing as he shook my dad’s hand.

“He gave his life to Christ on the first night of the crusade last week, and by the end of the week his whole family was attending with him,” Pastor Sanchez told my dad, as the man beamed and looked nervously from Dad to Pastor Sanchez and back again.

Si, si,” the man said. “We heard about Christ like never, never before. We come now to this church. We need to know more.

“The Catholic Church—we’ve always gone there. Every Sunday . . . the holy days . . . the processions—you know. But now—we come here.”

“My cousin—he is a priest. And my daughter—she wanted to become a nun . . .”

Pastor Sanchez began to shift uneasily. The man rambled on. . . .

Suddenly, I understood. To this man, my father and Pastor Sanchez were great men. He didn’t know how to act in their presence, but did want to keep their attention as long as possible.

Brother Sanchez excused himself and moved away. I looked at my father. He smiled vaguely but kindly as the monologue continued.

“In the Church—the Catholic Church, you know—I know it’s not the only church . . . well, anyway—only the priests had Bibles,” the man was saying. “Now--I have a Bible. I read something yesterday—we have to obey all authorities. So, I guess the stupid laws—not just the good ones—we have to obey them.”

My father’s face became animated. “That’s right, Brother. You have understood that correctly.” The man looked surprised, then stood up a little straighter.

“The Scripture explains,” my dad continued, “that God puts people in authority. So when we cooperate with them, we are honoring God.

“Keep reading your Bible. It will change your life.” My dad shook the man’s hand, and walked away.

“Why is that man still staring at Daddy?” Emily asked as we headed in Mom’s direction.

“Dad . . . made him feel important,” I said. "He acted like he was the same as one of the pastors."

My head had been spinning from all the inspiring things that had happened that day, but now my heart was touched. I had seen a little bit of Christ in my Dad's attitude toward this awkward man. I felt that I would—from now on—treat people differently because of it.

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