Out of the Coalfields of Western PA.

By Ken Barnes

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Colossians 2:6-7 NIV)

I grew up in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, and attended the First Christian Church in this small coal-mining town. I am writing this piece out of gratefulness to the people of this Church for my spiritual roots. I will mention some people who most people reading this will not remember, but I remember them because they were an early part of my Christian education.

I was born in western Tennessee in 1946 and moved to Brownsville as a baby. Though my Mom did not attend the Church much, she made sure I was in Sunday School in the Church on Second Street. I had all the perfect attendance pins down one lapel and the other of my little suitcoat. Kids wore suits to Sunday School in those days.

My junior high school Sunday school teacher, was a man named Clarence Johnson, a Fuller Brush salesman. He was a fire and brimstone type of guy. One time he spoke at a Sunday morning service, and I thought for sure that he would scorch the paint off the walls. We should have had more people like him in those days.

In my high school days, my Sunday school teacher was Sarah McCloy, my elementary school teacher and Principal at Prospect Street Elementary School, where I attended. She was an old-school, teacher—she didn’t teach to live; she lived to teach. She was a strict disciplinarian—if you didn’t fear God when you went into her office, at least you would have the fear of man (or woman) when you came out. Mrs. McCloy believed that if you spared the rod, you spoiled the child. Mrs. McCloy never spared too many rods.

Several students and I got caught throwing snowballs on the school playground on a snowy day. She lined us to take us in to discipline us; momentarily, she turned away, and I snuck out of the line. I never got caught and never made it right with her at Church. Maybe, this admission will have to do.

The two pastors I remember most were John Haniford and Dr. Wayne Tolson. Rev. Haniford was my Pastor during my high school years and Dr. Tolson during my college years and afterward. Dr. Tolson was an outstanding preacher. Another prominent person in my spiritual life was an Elder, Melvin Dearth. Melvin saw something in me that I was not ready to see.

Mr. Dearth was the Elder in charge of picking the speaker for Laymen’s Sunday. One year Melvin asked me to speak, and he saw that I could put some syllables into words and words into paragraphs in a talk to the Church. From that Sunday, Melvin was intent on getting me to go to Bible College and Seminary, of which I had two interests, little and none. At first, I liked the recognition I got for being in the pulpit on those Sundays, but things started to change toward the end of my high school years and during college. I realized a huge gap between what I was saying in the pulpit and how I lived. I knew when the Lyman’s Sunday was coming up, and I avoided Melvin like the plague. If he came in the front door of the Church, I would go out the back. If he sat on the right side of the Church, I sat on the left. Eventually, he would corner me, and I would grudgingly agree to speak. One year I said no. I decided that if I was not going to walk the walk, then I was not going to talk the talk. There was a lot of right and wrong in that decision.

In understanding my story, you must consider the church culture of the day. In the 1950s and 60s, my friends from all strata of life went to Church on Sunday, yet it did not affect how we acted the rest of the week. I looked pretty good on Sunday morning and was adept and hiding some glaring weaknesses that would arise during the week. It was a dual lifestyle. I was not appreciably different from any of my non-Christian friends.  One of my friends had on his magazine table his denominational magazine covering his Playboy Magazine. I thought it was funny. Songwriter Barry McGuire summed up the hypocrisy of the day in his song The Eve of Destruction. He wrote, “you hate your next-door neighbor but don’t forget to say grace.”

Life went on, and I graduated from California State College, now PennWest California, and got a teaching job in Belle Vernon, PA. I married a gal from the Methodist Church down the street from my Church, Sharon Gilmore. I guess I won the theological argument as she started attending my Church and joined the Church later. Life on the surface was going pretty well for me, but there was unrest in my soul. I dabbled in psychological answers, some pretty weird, but nothing seemed to satisfy. When I prayed, I would often see a half-moon, but never knew why.

One Sunday, I talked with Doug Tunney, we had grown up together in our Church. He was attending Cal State and part of a Christian group on campus. They were planning a campus-wide meeting and had invited a speaker from Switzerland, and he asked me to come. I thought that he must have something to say if he had come from Europe. So, I decided to go.

The speaker for that meeting was Loren Cunningham, the founder of Youth With A Mission, which I would later join. I don’t remember much of what Loren said that night, but he spoke some words I will never forget. In the end, he said, “God does not want half of you or three-quarters of you, He wants of you.” Intuitively I started to understand what the half-moon meant. God wanted all of me. I was living a life of one foot in the Church and one foot in the world, and it didn’t work. I felt this urge to go forward when Loren gave the invitation, but there was a problem. At the bottom of the bleacher where I was, sat an Elder from my Church. It was Earl Tunney, Doug’s father. I thought that if I went forward, he would think I had been a hypocrite, who I was; I did not want Earl to know it. Pride is always the great hindrance to salvation. I took a deep breath, and as I walked past Earl, I looked in the other direction. I told the Lord that night that he wasn’t getting much, but what I had, He could have all of it. 

I went home that night and told my wife what had happened, and she looked at me like I was a little weird. I knew something had happened. Several months later, my wife went forward at an evangelistic meeting at  Baptist Church, and she became strange also. Was I a Christian before that night at Hamer Hall? The honest answer to that question is, I do not know? At about twelve or thirteen, I had made a profession of faith at my Church. Maybe I just had fire insurance; I don’t know. I know that from that night at my college gymnasium, I would never again be the same. When you get honest with God, He gets honest with you.

I started to attend the Bible study on campus, and I noticed they had something I did not have, a relationship with Christ, not just religion. I will be eternally grateful to Doug Tunney, who, through a simple invitation and the nurture that Bible study gave me, changed my life’s whole trajectory. Incidentally, Doug is the leader of Youth With A Mission in Philadelphia, PA. 

I started to get involved with my Church with a newfound zeal. Although, some who previously had wanted me to speak in Church were not so sure anymore. They may have thought that I had caught some kind of fever. Not so with Melvin Dearth; I think he was happy I was finally using my gifts and calling. He possibly was tempted to tell me; I told you so.

I went on to serve God as best I could. I spent seventeen years as a missionary with YWAM, recruiting and training young adults for short-term missionary trips. I traveled in South America to Paraguay, Chile, and Argentina with missionary teams. I have worked in Spain and Ukraine in Europe. I have published two books about my missionary experience, and I am working on a third, a devotional. I have been a leader and base director and am now on the Board of Directors for Youth With A Mission in Richmond, VA. I have done a few things for God, but my greatest claim to fame is that I am a child of God. You can’t have a title better than a child of the King.

In closing, I have two regrets. First, I regret that it took me so long to thank the people who helped me along on my spiritual journey—some of whom can no longer read this. Thank you to the pastors and Sunday school teachers at the First Christian Church who taught me the Word of God and where I first heard the name of Jesus. Thank you, Melvin Dearth, for what you saw in me and Doug Tunney for being an example to me. Others have followed in other Churches and YWAM, but that is for another time.

Second, I regret that it took me twenty-five to thirty years to let go of my life and put it in the hands of God. Living on the fence between God and the world is neither fun nor productive for you nor God. The Book of Revelations tells us that God hates lukewarm Christians. Young people reading this in any church, go big or go home. The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them” (Ecc 12:1 NIV). Don’t miss so many productive years as I did—God has always used young people for his glory. As the South African missionary C.T. Studd once said, “only one life twill some be passed, only what is done for Christ will last.”

The image is from Facebook.

Ken Barnes is the author of “Broken Vessels” published in February 2021 and “The Chicken Farm and Other Sacred Places”, published by YWAM Publishing in 2011.

Ken’s Website— https://kenbarnes.us/
Ken blogs at https://kenbarnes.us/blog/
Email- contact@kenbarnes.us


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