In 1959, I transferred to Birmingham-Southern College from a school in Georgia. For a brief time, I lived with my sister Patricia and her husband James, and we all joined West End Baptist Church. It was my introduction to Southern Baptists.
No sooner had we joined the church than I discovered the Baptists of Birmingham held a thriving twice-a-month gathering for their teens. On the first and third Saturday nights, upwards of 500 young people would gather in some Southern Baptist church for an inspirational program, followed by a fellowship time with refreshments.
I had grown up in rural Walker and Winston Counties of Alabama and although our little Free Will Baptist Church loved its young people, we had nothing like this.
I ate it up.
Soon, I was promoting the gathering among West End’s youth, encouraging ours to be the biggest group present. Some nights we would have 50 or more on the city buses which the church hired to transport us. (It was on one of those buses where I told the lovely Margaret Ann Henderson for the first time that I loved her. The date was December 3, 1960. She was 18 and I was 20.)
One evening, I was approached by Larry Andrews, our church’s music minister (and the father of best-selling inspirational author Andy Andrews). “Joe, I was talking to Bob Ford. He’s the associate pastor at Ensley Baptist and pastor advisor for the youth rally. Would you be interested in becoming program director for the rally?”
That’s how it happened that a green 19-year-old kid with a background in another denomination suddenly was charged with planning programs for hundreds and hundreds of Christian teenagers.
I held the job for over two years.
Chairing a committee that did not exist.
The term “program chairman” was a misnomer. There was no committee. I was it. In retrospect, this was a blessing. If a decision had to be made, I made it. No one questioned it, no one second-guessed it. (Oh, that all the ministry worked like this!)
The rally had a music director, usually a ministerial music student from local Samford University (still Howard College at the time). He would lead some hymns and/or choruses, then the president of the rally–always a young preacher from Howard (Tommy Halbrooks and Doug Olive are two I recall)–would convene us and oversee the roll call of churches. Then, a half-hour into the program, it was all on my shoulders.
Whatever happened from that moment on was up to me.
Don’t be impressed. Usually this meant calling a local pastor and asking, “Will you preach to the youth rally on the first Saturday of next month?” Once in a while, churches would notify me that they were bringing in a well-known speaker (evangelist, athlete, etc) who would love to speak to the young people if we had an opening. That’s how our youth heard Minnesota Twins pitcher Al Worthington, Argentine pastor Jose Quintero, Evangelist Angel Martinez, and others.
A side note. I never wanted to be the program chairman. I wanted to be the president. Each year when the floor was opened for nominations for the next presiding officer, my heart sped up in the hopes they would promote me.
How utterly foolish. Juvenile even.
I had the best job in town. All the president did was preside over my program.
I had been given a great opportunity, ideal preparation for everything the Lord was to do through me in the future. (Bear in mind, I was not a ministerial student, but was aiming to become a history professor in some college somewhere.)
During those years, we did a number of exciting and creative programs–dramas which we improvised, debates, and such, along with the standard fare of choir programs and sermons from popular youth preachers such as Ralph Feild and John Bob Riddle.
The youth rally spreads to other cities.
In 1964, Margaret and I took our one-year-old son to New Orleans and enrolled in the Baptist seminary. Among our classmates were some from the Birmingham youth rally. I was pastoring a church on a bayou 25 miles west of New Orleans, Phil Simmons served on staff of Memorial Baptist Church, and one or two others were on church staffs.
We decided the young people of New Orleans would benefit from a monthly rally. My little church bought a bus and I became its driver. We carted our youth across the Mississippi River Bridge many a Saturday night. One of those teens now pastors a Covenant church in the midwest.
The rally became the nucleus of an evangelistic crusade held at New Orleans’ Tad Gormley Stadium just after we moved away. Bill Glass, all-pro defensive end for the Cleveland Browns and upcoming evangelist, was the speaker. I drove down for the meeting and decided we needed to bring Bill Glass to our city.
After seminary, we moved to 300 miles upriver to Greenville, Mississippi, in order to pastor Emmanuel Baptist Church. Once again, we started a monthly youth rally.
This gathering, in Washington County, Mississippi, was a small replica of the twice-monthly Birmingham rally. We were pulling in upwards of a hundred youth and our resources were limited. However, considering that most of our churches had no more than a half-dozen teens, we quickly became a popular destination. Young people love to go where other teenagers are gathering.
Our programs were rather unimaginative, I confess–preachers and choirs, mostly. But, the leadership was the young people themselves. And for them, this was something new and exciting.
We were at Hollandale Baptist Church sometime in the late 1960s, when a choir from Mississippi State University and Mississippi State College for Women (later MS University for Women) presented a cutting-edge musical called “Good News,” complete with guitars, a powerful message, sweet harmony and unforgettable tunes. This was the first of a generation of youth musicals which would transform the church scene and become an integral part of “The Jesus Movement” of the late ’60’s/early 70’s.
Dr. Gene Henderson, in his mid-20s and serving Sunflower Baptist Church in the Delta, preached for us. His sermon was on LSD, initials for the scariest drug in the world just coming into view for most of us. Gene made the initials stand for Love, Salvation, and Deliverance. (You have to be good to preach a sermon still remembered over 40 years later!)
After we moved off in 1971 to join the staff of the First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi, the rally gradually died away. But it had accomplished some things.
For one thing, in late June of 1969, we brought in Bill Glass, who had just retired from football to do evangelism full-time, for a Delta-wide evangelistic crusade. This gathering at the high school stadium involved thousands, brought the races together, and reached hundreds for Christ.
Then, there were Charles Treadway and brothers Dennis and Bruce Morgan.
Charles was a teen in Hollandale Baptist Church and Dennis and Bruce came from Greenfield Baptist Church. They rose to the forefront in the youth rally leadership and made an impact on their peers.
Sometime after the years 2000, I had a note from Treadway who was then serving a Baptist church in Austin, Texas.
Charles had read my note in the Mississippi weekly, “The Baptist Record,” paying tribute to our great friend Dr. James Richardson who had recently died. That’s when he decided to phone me. I barely remembered him.
“Joe, I just want you to know that what James Richardson was to you, you were to me.”
Wow. How good is that.
He reminded me of those youth rallies in Washington County. Our selecting him to become an out-front leader had changed him forever, he said. God had called him into the ministry, he had gone to seminary in Fort Worth, and was now pouring his life into others.
Bruce and Dennis had similar stories. At this distance, I cannot tell you who did what, only that I recall their being fine specimens of Christian youth who would have done well in any church setting.
I made no attempt to keep up with any of these men. But Bruce has refused to turn me loose.
That’s how next weekend came about.
Bruce is one of the ministers of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, said to be the largest church of that denomination in the world. On Sunday, December 2, they’re dedicating a building to former President George H.W.Bush and Mrs. Barbara Bush, members of that congregation.
I’m flying to Houston to draw for the occasion.
To be exact, Bruce is “having” them fly me in, sketchbook and all. I’ll draw at some Saturday night gathering, then at the Sunday event, and fly home that evening.
This will be the first time I’ve seen Bruce since those days in the Mississippi Delta in 1970.
My grandchildren want to know if I will be able to sketch President and Mrs. Bush? Probably not. I imagine a large number of people will be pulling at them, needing “just a moment of your time.” Even so, just being there will be fun. And–knowing how these things work–who knows where this may lead, maybe invitations to do other things.
So, Birmingham Baptist Youth Rally, your influence continues. Through Treadway and Morgan and McKeever. And the Lord knows (literally) all the others brought into the Kingdom and blessed and encouraged because a long time ago, probably in the late 1940s, someone in Birmingham (influenced by the Youth For Christ movement of that period?) said, “Let’s get our young people together.”
Want to touch the future? Love a teen.