Ep. 6 -- 1971 - Part 1: THE CAST - You can't tell the players without a program
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When one goes to a theater to see a play, they are given a program that includes the list of characters and a brief description of their role in the story. I feel the need to introduce the main characters in this year of our story, at least. The story I’m about to tell spans 45 years, and the list of characters alone would fill a book. By the way, Tolstoy’s War and Peace holds the record for the most named characters in a book…600! For fiction writers, the recommended number of main characters is from 3 to 5, max. But in non-fiction, of course, the author doesn’t have the option of simply inventing characters for the sake of promoting a story line. Writers of non-fiction have to work with the characters they encounter in the narrative, and the crafting of the non-fictional story work
s contrary to that required in laying out a fictional work. In fiction, the writer’s work is to determine the maximum number of characters to be invented and their role in the storyline; the task of the non-fiction author is to prune the list of characters encountered along the way and reduce to a minimum the number of those who are essential to moving the story forward. This episode sets the stage for our story and for 1971, in particular.
In my last episode, I summarized our situation. I had quit my job, and we had given up our rented mobile home in Wisconsin. Our 1968 VW bus became our mobile home in the truest sense of the word, as we “officially” launched our missionary journey from my parents’ house in Colorado on January 14. Eleven months later, on December 17, we arrived back at our starting point, having travelled 24,000 miles, during which time I had preached in 14 states and one Canadian province and taken a 10-week linguistics course.
I thought it was going to be easy to narrate our experiences. I kept detailed journals from the early years, from 1971 to 1981, at least, so there’s no problem with sequences of events or a lack of material to draw from. But it’s been nearly 8 months since my last post on this podcast. What is the problem? For one thing, reading a journal written over 50
years ago is hard work. On nearly every page I encounter references to events and people I had completely forgotten about, or others I happen to remember and would rather forget. And how do I extract the nuggets of useful lessons from the dross of drudgery of everyday life and produce a story that is more than just entertaining? It would be so easy to slide down the slippery slope of sentimentality and wax long on the good old days and recall dear ones who are no longer with us. I realize that those good old days were not always so good after all and that helps keep sentimentality in check. But it would be worse to go the route of exaggeration just to “sell the story”. Here’s my stab at being instructive and not merely informative. I want this to be a realistic narrative, not a reactionary diatribe against offences, perceived or real, on the one hand, or a romanticized cover-up of the actual difficulties we had to de
al with. Many a missionary family has shipwrecked on the rocks of disillusionment when they discover that life on the foreign mission field is not the glamorous adventure they had created in their minds.
THE CAST OF CHARACTERS
I’ll start with a brief presentation of the key players in this story, some of whom were flesh and blood people, while others are inanimate objects or abstract spiritual and emotional challenges and situations.
Our family in 1971: Ed (24), accompanied by Abbie (23), Rachel (3) and Rick (2).
[When I mention our ages, the brief thought flashes through my mind, “What in the world were we thinking?”]
1968 VW bus. The fifth member of our family was our yellow VW bus, aged 3 and a half years and 74,000 miles at the end of the year. [I see Volkswagen is planning to revive the Kombi, an EV model, I believe. If the only consideration were sentimentality, I’d be first in line to buy one. (Don’t worry. Not happening.)] It was literally our home for the entire year. See the following episode “1971 – Part II” for more on that. It was part of the family. It ate even when we didn’t and saw its doctors more often than we consulted ours. As for demanding our attention, it was worse than the kids. At various times during the trip, I had
to reset the points (who does that anymore?). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I won’t bother to explain it here. Google it. Just know that if the points were worn out or not set right, the engine wouldn’t run smoothly or at all. One time I had pull off to the side of the road and reset the points just so we could get across the mountains in Washington on the way to Tacoma. In July, there was an oil leak and the engine had to be pulled twice in one month. Then there were shock absorbers and later brake shoes that had to be replaced, not to mention flats and worn tires. By the time we got back to Colorado in December, the transmission wouldn’t stay in 4th gear and needed major work. For the engine rebuild and transmission work, there were men in the churches who offered the labor; we just had to come up with the parts. So, not only did we have to deal with Rachel’s and Rick’s bouts of fever and infection on a couple of occas
ions, or Abbie’s urgent need for dental work, the VW’s health was a constant concern and a strain on our finances. Family. You put up a lot with them.
Abbie’s piano. Although Abbie’s piano only appeared briefly in this part of our story, over the years, it had a key role [no pun, folks], which was played by different pianos [no pun again]. Be advised you will hear about her piano several times throughout these 45 years.
Bro. Gene Garner, pastor of the Landmark Missionary Baptist Church of Rockford, Illinois This was the church where we were members. We were not affiliated with any mission board or sending agency, and when we heard the call of God to go to Brazil, we asked them to send us out, modeled after the example of Paul and Barnabas being sent on their first missionary journey by the church at Antioch in Acts 13. The church and pastor helped us wit
h the paperwork for our visas through the Brazilian consulate in Chicago, but they were a small church and so was the financial support, less than $100 for the year, according to my records. More about our financial situation “1971 – Part III”. Bro. Garner and the church in Rockford appear mainly in 1971-72 and the early years in Brazil.
Veteran missionaries: Bro. Steve Montgomery—whose funeral we attended in the summer of 2022, see Episode 3 “Thoughts on the passing of a generation”—and Bro. Don Ross. We met them when they came by our church in Colorado when I was a teenager, and they were God’s instruments for putting the mission field in Brazil on our hearts. By the time we arrived on the field, these men and their families had been there almost 20 years. Bro. Ross worked in the suburbs of São Paulo, and he did his best to convince me to work with him in a school for training preachers. Bro. Steve began his mission work in Brazil in São Paulo, but then moved to the interior of São Paulo state, where he organized several churches in small towns. I felt called to do church planting, and accordingly we ended up living next door to the Montgomerys in the interior of São Paulo state, 250 miles w
est of the capital city. These two missionaries were responsible for giving us contacts with many of the churches we visited.
Bro. Edward Byrd: Otherwise known as “Dad” to Abbie. In other words, he was my father-in-law, but I found it hard to call him anything except “Bro. Byrd”, although in private correspondence towards the end of his life, I did address him as “Dad”. When I was 9, he was my pastor in Colorado and baptized me. He and the family moved on shortly after that, and it was only 7 years later that our paths crossed again. This time I was much more interested in his 15-yr old daughter than I was when I was 9. Truth be told, I was also much more interested in her than I was in him.
I mention him here, however, primarily not because of the family connection. His role in our missionary experien
ces went far beyond family ties, as will become clear, as the years pass. He taught NT Greek at the Missionary Baptist Seminary in Little Rock in the late 1940s, which was an arm of the American Baptist Association. Sometime in the early 50s, he fell into disfavor with the leadership of the ABA and the school. He was forced to leave the school and spent the rest of his life pastoring small independent Missionary Baptist churches in Colorado, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Texas, as well as in Arkansas, of course. He spent a few years or so at each place, several times leaving one state to work in another, then later returning and pastoring another church in the area where he had pastored earlier. Abbie went to 10 different schools in 5 different states before she graduated from high school.
“The Reminder”: An 8-page letter-size paper self-published monthly by “Bro. Byrd” for 40 years or more. In the early years, the paper was mimeographed, but he eventually bought an offset printer and burned the metal plates himself, which he used in printing the paper. The content
of the paper consisted mainly of his commentary on Bible passages and his interpretation of doctrinal issues. He mailed around 600 copies a month all over the US, and this, more than any other medium, was the tie that connected the churches we visited, and it played a major role in the later events surrounding our work abroad.
In the end, it was the
doctrinal positions taken by my father-in-law in the Reminder that overshadowed all our relationships with churches, wherever we went. I was first and foremost “Bro. Byrd’s son-in-law”, for good or for bad. It was a situation that took almost 30 years to come to full fruition.
FORESHADOWING THE FUTURE --- In reading my journal for 1971, I became aware of the seeds that were sown or began to sprout in the first 12 months of our mission work. Some seeds lay dormant, and it was years later that they burst forth in full bloom; others were constant factors that we accepted as a natural part of our walk with God. Some people might describe them as sacrifices, although I can’t think of anything we really thought of as being a sacrifice. We were just obeying God.
I see three main areas where events foreshadowed what the future would hold for us.
1. HOME AND FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS
2. FINANCIAL ISSUES
3. DOCTRINAL QUESTIONS
Each of these is more fully explained in the next three episodes.