An old and influential friend died yesterday and the best way I know to honor my friend is to reminisce about the good times.
My friend actually isn’t a person, it is – or was – the communications department of the International Mission board made up of extremely gifted people who became my friends. At one time, many of these friends, before I knew them as friends, bordered on being my idols. I read their stories, I gazed endlessly at their photos and let their videos wash over me. I wanted to be like them.
The writers who produced copy for The Commission magazine were rock stars to me. I knew them by name and could give you a rundown of their story packages from around the world like reciting stats from the back of a Ryne Sandberg baseball card. I still can 20 years later. People like Erich Bridges, Mike Creswell, Don Martin, Craig Bird, Mark Kelly, Marty Croll, Mary Jane Welch and Anita Bowden took me places I had to find in an atlas. And then there was Mary Speidel.
I was cutting my grass one day in 1997 when an issue of The Commission landed in our mailbox. I took one look at the cover photo and it sent a shockwave through my soul. The image was taken by the incomparable Don Rutledge and is vividly seared in my mind. I stood there in the Memphis heat staring into the desperate eyes of a young Brazilian man staring back at me, industrial glue bottle just below his nose. I sat on the curb and read Mary’s entire story package. At the time I was a sports writer at a small weekly paper and feeling stalled out. “God, this is what I want to do.”
I called a matriarch in my church, Bobbie Jackson, who was an IMB trustee at the time and told her about my passion. She encouraged – no, demanded – I “call up there” and find out what I needed to do to be a writer for the magazine. I tried to help her understand it just didn’t work that way. “Young man,” she firmly said. “You call up there and find out. I’ve been praying for eight years that God would open that door and I want you to do what I told you to do.”
I did. Immediately.
There is a reason why many sports writers aren’t considered “real writers,” and so the impression of me when my portfolio arrived on the desk of Anita Bowden, the editorial manager, was pretty low before the envelope was opened. Fortunately, Anita was intrigued enough to have me fly to Richmond, Va., for an interview. I was not aware a group interview was part of the process so when I walked into a room with Erich, and Mary, and Mark, and Marty, and Mary Jane, and Norman Miller and Julie McGowan, I about passed out. This lineup was the Murderer’s Row of missions reporting. They were responsible for giving shape to my missions calling. In my mind they were the “Lukes” of the 20th Century, continuing to “compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1). These were those God had called out to tell the story of how He was actively moving in cultures around the world, sharing with Southern Baptists the “certainty of the things [we’ve] been taught” about the advance of the Great Commission.
And by God’s grace, I became a rookie on that team.
I traveled first to Spain and then to India, where I spent three weeks with Don Rutledge. No one in the history of the world captured that nanosecond moment of human connection like Don. He never missed. All people, despite the poverty and squalor in which they lived, have dignity because they are created in God’s image. Don taught me that by watching him work and seeing his pictures.
Erich taught me to do whatever it takes to get the best story. Mark, Marty and Julie taught me that even though I may think my story is art, grammar really matters. Mike taught me how to travel internationally and be a correspondent. Mary taught me to labor over the details. Mary Jane taught me the importance of seeing the larger story package. Anita taught me what it means to be an organizational communicator. People like Dan Beatty, Van Payne and Bill Bangham helped me to see stories visually, and turn what I saw into words so other people could “see” too.
Life moves on and so did I. I had the opportunity to work in 37 countries while honing the gift God has given me (and to think I started out an accounting major, not that there is anything wrong with that). The communications office at the International Mission Board facilitated the opportunity, but it was the people – the people – who helped shape me personally and professionally and as a result it has altered the trajectory of my life. It’s turned out to be more than a journey. It’s been an adventure.
So, today, while I grieve that I lost a friend in that department, I celebrate the many friends who actually were the department. To them, thank you. You will always be rock stars to me.