GULF SHORES, Ala. (BP)–It’s your life. Would you choose to spend years in prison as a convicted felon? Would you choose to lose two young grandsons in the Oklahoma City bombing? Doubtful.
But could those experiences make you a powerful messenger for Christ? Definitely.
From destructive and tragic life experiences that no
sane person would desire for himself, evangelist Richard Coss has built a ministry which reaches people with the message: “I’ve been there.” And once people hear his story, they know he speaks the truth.
His tormented and traumatic life story makes 54-year-old Richard Coss, once met, simply unforgettable.
In his early years, the red-haired, freckle-faced Coss was the poster boy for bad behavior. From his first trips to a detention center at age 9, a state mental institution at age 11 and a state reformatory at age 12, it was obvious he was getting a head start on a life of crime. Between the ages of 15 and 25, Coss compiled 32 arrests and spent his time in city jails, county jails and prisons. He had assaulted police officers, was known to possess firearms and was considered dangerous by the FBI.
Then two men and a Bible changed all that.
While serving his third prison term, a 10-year sentence, Coss gave his life to Jesus Christ. As Coss puts it, what counselors, psychologists, sociologists, corrections officers, special schools and prison had been unable to do for him in 16 years, God did in one day.
On March 15, 1969, 40 Christian businessmen, mostly Baptists, went to the prison that Coss and 1,200 other men called home. The purpose was an all-day revival, and the men began by eating breakfast with the prisoners.
“Two Baptist deacons, one black and one white, asked me at the breakfast table to participate in the revival,” Coss said. “I responded to their love, not the gospel.”
While attending the services, Coss made the decision that would change his life. The decision eventually would impact the lives of thousands of others through his ministry.
“The Word of God began to get to me,” he said. “Prior to that day, I didn’t think he loved me. They read John 3:16 to me, and inserted my name, personalized it for me. They took me down the Roman road. I started crying, and I’m not a crying person. I trusted Christ.”
Coss was not home free. He served another year and a half in prison, but he began helping in the prison chapel until his release in 1970. By 1971, Coss had started a jail and prison ministry and had been ordained as a minister. The route he took seemed a perfect fit for him, and it is one he continues to follow almost 30 years later.
“I knew before I got out that I was called to be an evangelist, to work in prisons,” Coss said. “God has equipped me in the past to do the ministry I have today. Prison ministry is an easy ministry. The inmates will love you to death. I preach about being overcomers, because the challenges with them are overcoming anger, unforgiveness, hatred, resentment, loneliness — and letting Jesus take care of those areas.” Coss is the author of two books, “Wanted” and “Full Pardon.” He was pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1975.
His dramatic past helped make Coss a compelling speaker nationwide — not only for church revivals — but also for lectures at schools, colleges and civic clubs. To audiences of all sizes, he talks about his personal life, prison reform, prisoner reform, the death penalty, victim rights, gun control and the drug problem.
Usually, more than 50,000 students hear Coss’ message during each school year.
“With the students, I talk about home life, drugs, suicide, alcohol and peer pressure,” said Coss, of Gulf Shores, Ala. “I give them five reasons to stay in school, to obey their parents, to obey the law and to not go to prison. I tell them about the worst of prison life and what could happen to them if they enter prison.”
His 55-minute lecture is secular, but a 10-minute question-and-answer session inevitably leaves room for a question that never fails to come — “What was it that changed your life?”
Since the question is initiated by a student, Coss is able, even in a school setting, to share his salvation experience.
Coss turned a life of despair into an example of hope. His ministry grew, with appearances on Christian television shows, including the Trinity Broadcasting Network and the “700 Club” with Pat Robertson. Family life was comfortable, including a wife and four children. Coss even became a doting grandfather.
But fate’s calendar had April 19, 1995, waiting.
Coss was conducting a revival near Topeka, Kan., when the news first flashed on television screens everywhere about the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. His daughter, Edye Smith, worked a few blocks from the federal building, and her two sons, 2-year-old Colton and 3-year-old Chase, were in the day-care center housed in the building.
Colton and Chase were killed in the explosion, part of the death tally of 15 children and 154 adults. Their bodies were found by their uncle, Coss’ son, Danny, a police officer in a nearby suburb who had been dispatched to help at the scene.
A few days later, Coss preached the funeral of his two grandsons. He told the nearly 1,000 people in attendance, “Jesus has been in the search-and-rescue business for a long time.”
While a nation mourned with them, the Coss family struggled with pain and hurt and the loss of their future. Romans 8:28, “…all things work together for good to them that love God,” became a promise of making sense out of senselessness.
“During the bombing, that became a special verse for me and my family,” Coss said. “It literally jumped off the pages of the Bible. Those were hard days, but as I look back, I’m a better person now. My grandchildren are safe; we get to see them again, as my daughter said. I’m a better lover, soul-winner, warrior. God has made me a better person.”
Initially, Coss was a rock for his grieving family. “Knowing that God is all-sufficient helped,” he recounted. “I know the Scriptures are valid. There were many Scriptures, many tears during that time. I prayed for understanding for my family. God gave me the strength for my wife and I to help everyone through.”
A year later, the full extent of the loss finally hit Coss. He also dealt with with migraine headaches and an attitude of unforgiveness toward the men accused of the bombing.
“God would speak to me,” Coss said. “He would say, ‘You work with other killers, people who killed other families.’ God spoke some real harsh words to me, including, ‘Are you going to be a liar in the ministry?'” In the end, it was Coss’ daughter who forgave first. Her urging for him to do the same started the healing process for Coss, who sent letters of forgiveness and copies of his books to the men accused and convicted of killing his grandsons.
“You’ve got to come to a point of forgiveness,” he said. “It’s not up to us to see that retribution is done. God will deal with them. He will avenge us. There are more Terry Nichols out there who need to be saved. The only thing that will change those lives is the Good News.”
Coss acknowledged his life can be characterized by extreme highs and extreme lows.
“To have those mountaintop experiences, you have to experience the valleys,” he said. “We’ve got to put up with a bunch of junk, but we have a lot of promises. God has a lot of ‘school time’ for us.”
And what has Richard Coss learned?
“I trust the Lord more,” he said. “I always used to think that the worst thing that could happen to me was if one of my children were killed. But it was my grandkids, kids I wanted to play ball with, take fishing.” What would make many people bitter, Coss sees as a sign of God’s plan for his ministry. “God has told me he would use that for good. I can talk to people about forgiveness and say, ‘I’ve been there.'”
CORRECTION: In (BP) story titled “‘Mud-out’ duty next in Texas for Baptists vols from 3 states,” dated 10/28/98, please make the following corrections:
— In the 2nd paragraph, the number of Baptist temporary emergency child-care centers should be changed to two, instead of five.
— In the 7th paragraph, strike the second sentence and replace it with the following: Mississippi Baptists set up a similar center at the FEMA center in Victoria.