As I reflect on 80 years of life — at least 50 of them spent in some form of church ministry — I am blessed to think about the great people God used to teach me vital principles. As I thought about them, I happened across a thought by William Butler Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
The people I am citing in this three-part series (see here for part 1) truly “lit my fire” and have been used by God across the decades to keep it hot. Their light continues to shine and give me illumination.
I start this installment with Lula B. Connell, the secretary at my childhood home church … and briefly my boss. I started high school in 1956 when our family budget was tight. My mother fretted over how we would get the 50 cents a day for my lunch. Pastor Emmett Williams created a job for me working all day every Saturday as Miss Connell’s assistant. I discovered she could speak portions of nine languages and believed that turpentine would heal any disease. She was fierce in her focus, while in my mind I rode into countless sunsets with Roy Rogers until Miss Connell would lasso me and get me back on her trail. A major task there was printing and hand-folding 1,400 Sunday bulletins on an ink-splattering mimeograph machine. Despite its inkiness, Miss Connell would not tolerate even the slightest smudges. As a teenaged boy, I wanted to get my work done and get out into the quick-fading Saturday.
However, week by week, she kept me working until midnight and sometimes beyond. On one occasion she found one of those inky streaks, which was about the length of a strand of DNA, and she ordered me to take a pencil eraser and rub off the offending blotch from all 1,400 bulletins. I literally shook in anger and frustration. Then one day I discovered that because I worked on an hourly rate basis, Miss Connell was intentionally finding things wrong to extend my hours and hence my pay. Miss Connell taught me the principles of being sensitive to the hidden needs of others and helping them meet those needs through their own work. She also conveyed to me the importance of getting rid of all the “ink blotches” that seemed so small, but together could smear an entire project.
Dr. Emmett Williams, pastor of that church, didn’t like to be called “doctor” because his degree was honorary, and he felt he had done nothing to deserve it. However, if anyone deserved to be so honored, it was Emmett Williams. After all, he looked like Moses up there in the pulpit as he preached a carefully studied exposition of Scripture Sunday mornings and nights. I learned in Sunday School that I should read my Bible daily, and usually, I did. Sometimes I would run into questions about the Scriptures, but that was no problem because Dr. Williams lived around the corner from my house. I was about 9 when I discovered this amazing fact. I still remember a day when I ran head-on into one of those difficult passages, took my Bible, leaped onto my bike, and knocked on Pastor Williams’ front door. He and Ms. Williams graciously invited me in. Years later when I became a senior pastor, I thought about the principle I learned: Be like Jesus and His servant Emmett Williams and don’t turn the little ones away (or the big ones either).
Dr. Williams was my pastor in my youngest years, but H. Edwin Young became my pastor in later years. I joined his staff at Second Baptist Church, Houston, in 2002, and served under him for almost 20 years. I quickly discovered that Ed Young treasured whole-person health in spirit, soul, and body — and set the pace for all his staff and congregation. When Second Baptist’s pastor search committee reached out to him in 1978, the congregation had shrunk to an attendance of 300-500, while the church he was already serving had thousands of members and attendees. Nevertheless, Dr. Young listened to the Holy Spirit, and spent an exploratory week in Houston getting a vision, not just for one neighborhood, but the whole of America’s fourth largest metropolis.
Ultimately, Second Baptist would grow under his leadership to a membership of more than 80,000 on six campuses. Edwin would say frequently that his greatest thrill was not preaching to thousands but witnessing to and winning individuals to Christ. Remarkably, in his 80s he has continued to go every summer to beach retreat with thousands of teens, speaking to them nightly with the zest of a much younger man and baptizing multitudes.
Edwin inspired in me the importance of never writing off anyone either individually, generationally, racially, economically, or by any other category. When 40,000 evacuees descended on Houston after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Edwin committed Second Baptist to help house and feed them all. The principle that emerged was this: Everything stops when people are homeless, hungry, and dying. I learned through Ed Young that bigness without passion for evangelism, disciple-making, servanthood, and missions is nothing more than cold institutionalism.
Though I am old in years the fire lit in me by people like these still burns. Where I have done well, it is through their examples and teaching. Where I have missed the mark, I have no one to blame but myself.
So, young man and woman, focus on those who are lighting your fire for ministry now. They are the men and women whose memory will still be inspiring and informing you when you are 80.
Wallace B. Henley is a former pastor, daily newspaper editor, White House and Congressional aide. He served 18 years as a teaching pastor at Houston's Second Baptist Church. Henley is author or co-author of more than 25 books, including God and Churchill, co-authored with Sir Winston Churchill's great grandson, Jonathan Sandys. Henley's latest book is Who will rule the coming 'gods'? The looming spiritual crisis of artificial intelligence.