stories from the book
by James V. Browning
From Bewilderment to Amazement
I was dazed, dumbfounded and bewildered. Life was too full of mystery, hurt and death. My brother and bed-partner, six years my senior, was killed on a motorcycle when I was 12. Two months later, my 45-year-old mother died of a massive coronary. We moved from Oklahoma to West Texas, next door to a childless aunt and uncle. Dad had five children at home and I was the eldest at 12. Six months later, my uncle was murdered and five months after his death, my aunt died of a heart attack. Too much for my Father to handle—he began to neglect his own children.
An Oklahoma Baptist deacon uncle made arrangements for us to live in the Oklahoma Baptist Children's Home. Dr. H. Truman Maxey, the Superintendent in 1953, allowed me to come even though I was one year older than children they normally accepted. He was the first in a long line of adults at the Children’s Home who believed in me, who were willing to take a risk on me, who gave me hope, confidence and the possibility of a future.
The transition to a dormitory with 60 boys living there was not as difficult as I would have expected. I had been responsible for four younger siblings. I had known hunger, fear, confusion and far too much responsibility for my age. I had grown to resent my Father. My disappointment in him grew into anger. At the Children’s Home, at least I knew my siblings and I would not go hungry. We would be clothed and protected. I came to realize I would not need to drop out of high school to help earn a living as my two older brothers had done.
I don’t want you to think life at the Home was without its difficulties. Living in a dorm with 60 boys—20 on my floor, four in my room—was not without problems. Our housemother would have made a military sergeant look soft! I now understand her hard rules, but then I thought she was grossly unfair to treat all of us alike, to punish us all when she couldn’t determine whom the transgressor had been, and to make us keep our bodies, as well as our rooms, clean!
Happiness came in many forms and experiences. It was heaven when a new boy’s cottage was built and I had only one roommate. He was a good role model—smart, high school football player, two years my elder, lived by the rules, and insisted I do the same. He also taught me Mr. Browning, our new Superintendent at the Home, would take us “out to eat” and to a movie if we made the high school honor roll. That was worth working for.
My first Christmas at the Home was beyond anything I had known or dreamed possible. My Oklahoma Baptist deacon uncle brought me a reconditioned bicycle, freshly painted red. That year, I came to understand what the initials WMU (Women’s Missionary Union) meant. The WMU of First Baptist Church, Perry, became my sponsor. At Christmas, many of them sent me gifts. I had come from a very poor family. Christmas had never been celebrated with such abundance and I was grateful. Several summers, I visited First Baptist Church, Perry, and began to put faces with the names of the women who had been so good to me. And the preacher’s daughter was pretty!
Education had not been valued in my farm family. Mr. Browning knew what he was doing in rewarding academic excellence. I began to enjoy school and began applying myself. The adults at the Home gave you special attention if you did well in school. I liked that. During my high school years, I began to entertain the possibility of going to college. My Oklahoma Baptist deacon uncle was the only one in our family who had ever done so. Unknowingly, he provided me a role model and a hope.
It is difficult for me to differentiate between the co-impact of education and Christianity in my life. They have always gone together in my experience. The more I have learned, the more treasured my relationship to God; and the more I know of God, the more I treasure learning. My family had been poor, but religious. My father had been ordained a deacon before I was born. My mother had been church pianist in a rural Baptist church before she married. I had become a Christian before I moved to the Children’s Home. But I was not prepared for all the religion I would get at the Home. I didn’t mind going to church, but three times a week?!! We had devotionals every night as a group and were encouraged to have private devotionals, as well. We prayed before every meal and were strongly encouraged to tithe our meager allowances.
In the summer we were allowed and encouraged to attend a variety of religious camps and retreats. This “onslaught of religion” began to take root in my life and shape my personage. I fell in love with the church. I found role models there in my teachers, encouraging adults and peers. My best friends were developed there. My pastor’s son became my college roommate and lifelong friend. Our families continue to stay in close touch, even taking vacations together 35 years after college.
As my relationship with God grew, I began to sense a call to ministry. I had no idea what that meant or where it would lead, but I was ready and eager for the journey. I started preaching some as a teenager and loved it. I heard stories of those who “fought the call to preach”; I would have fought for the opportunities to do so.
The adults in my church and the adults at the Home encouraged my pursuit of the ministry. My church licensed me to preach. College and seminary were no longer an option; they became a passion. But how would I afford it? Mr. C. A. Henderson and his dear wife, Barbara, came to my rescue. They paid most of my way through four years of college and six years of seminary. I will ever be grateful to this Christian couple who helped me. Mr. Henderson felt he was repaying a debt to a country doctor who had provided assistance to him in college.
I was frightened when I left the security of the Children’s Home for the mystery of college life. I came to thrive on education. I fell in love with history and philosophy. I came to understand that Jesus prepared 30 years for a three-year ministry. I came to realize I want a doctor to work on my body who has graduated from an accredited medical school. I want him to have all the education and training he can get. Is the soul not of more eternal significance than the body? My future was determined—I would get all the education I could get. I earned a Doctorate in Church History at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, have done post-doctoral studies at Oxford, and love learning more at 57 than any other time in my life. Thank you, Mr. Browning for rewarding academic excellence.
I also fell in love with Charlotte at Oklahoma Baptist University. She has shared my love of learning and value of education. She started reading to our children when they were infants and we instilled in them the value of learning. They both excelled in school. Our daughter is an attorney in Dallas and our son is on an academic scholarship at Baylor University.
Charlotte has also shared my love of the church. She earned her Masters in Religious Education at Southwestern Seminary and was in de-facto our minister of education in student churches. We served three student churches in Oklahoma (eight years) and spent six years at First Baptist Church, Siloam Springs, Arkansas; 12 years at Central Baptist Church of Bearden, Knoxville, Tennessee; and 10 years at First Baptist Church, Abilene, Texas. All our full-time pastorates were in towns with universities and we love ministering in churches with academic settings.
Ours has been a wonderful journey. I was a pastor for almost 35 years. I had the opportunity to preach, write, study and travel the world. Now I am finishing my career with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, soliciting support for a new theological education for the 21st century, and support for a new way to do global missions.
When I stand before the Lord, if He recognizes any good I might have done for the Kingdom, I will have to express to Him in person my enduring gratitude for Dr. and Mrs. Maxey, Mr. and Mrs. J. V. Browning, Mr. and Mrs. Judson Cook, and a host of adults at the Baptist Children’s Home. I will also be eternally grateful for Dr. and Mrs. Robert Scales and a multitude of adults at the Trinity Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. These people believed in me. They built my confidence in myself and helped me believe in me. They loved me unconditionally. They took risks on me unreservedly. They gave themselves to me. They empowered me and will bless me as long as I have memory. After all, they guided me from bewilderment to amazement.