ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–Glancing at a package nestled in the corner of his office, J.B. Collingsworth points to a visible sign that Payne Stewart has not been forgotten. Shipped by an admirer, the box holds a pillow for Stewart’s widow, Tracey.
About the same time the package arrived, the assistant pastor at First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla., received a three-page, handwritten letter from an inmate in southern West Virginia.
Inspired by the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelet that Stewart wore at the 1999 U.S. Open, the man told of accepting Christ in prison. He dreams of becoming a better person and asked Collingsworth to pray that God would direct him in the future.
Although requests have slowed, the church still receives orders for the video of Stewart’s October 1999 memorial service. To date, 15,000 copies have been shipped around the world.
“It seems every time I turn around God has given me openings to share the gospel,” said Collingsworth, who has led so many in prayers to receive Christ as a result of Stewart’s death that he has lost count.
Strangers have talked to him about Stewart and the Lord at airports or on shuttle buses. Last spring he witnessed to a bellhop at the Nashville’s Opryland Hotel after the employee learned he was from Orlando and was a golf enthusiast.
“It’s a great entree,” Collingsworth said. “I don’t bring it up but other people do. It’s been pretty amazing how it continues. Now I’m hearing from people who are reading the book.” Published by Broadman & Holman and written by Tracey Stewart with well-known author Ken Abraham, the authorized biography was released last June. It reached number one in Christian bookstore sales that month.
Despite the outpouring of reaction to the popular golfer’s death, Collingsworth is careful to remind people that several other families are still grieving.
Still, Stewart was the key figure in stirring intense public reaction. Some people are still visiting First Baptist because they watched his memorial service on television.
The impact is also felt at First Academy, located on the church’s large campus on the city’s west side. Stewart’s two children attend the school, which has 1,100 students in grades kindergarten through 12.
Before he died, Payne donated $500,000 for a new athletic complex that is partially completed; the school has raised $4 million of the overall $6 million cost.
Renamed in his honor, the facility includes baseball, softball and football fields. Still under construction are a track-and-field facility and soccer and practice fields.
But the significance of Stewart’s death goes beyond the new athletic development. Collingsworth listed such areas as:
— The school. Not every child or parent affiliated with First Academy is a Christian and many who weren’t sensitive to the Lord became tender because of the tragedy, he said.
“Oct. 25 will never go by that we don’t think about their lives,” Collingsworth said of the victims. “Like the Bible says, we plant, water and reap. Hearts either had seeds planted, watered or reaped.”
— The golfing community. Every time he sets foot on a course, someone wants to talk to him about Stewart. Collingsworth said he is constantly touched by the stories of how God spoke to people’s hearts.
Last spring on the tour, golfer Tom Lehman told him, “It amazes me the response you get, when you walk up and guys recognize you.”
— First Baptist. At the end of services, people still walk forward to tell the assistant pastor that they accepted Christ as Savior or recommitted their lives to him after Stewart’s death.
Among those affected by the memorial service is Glenn Graham. Although not a member, he has been attending First Baptist regularly since last year.
The Orlando chiropractor had been an admirer of Stewart since 1997, when he went to a professional tournament. He noticed the golfer seemed to be having a good time and appreciated the fanfare instead of resenting it like some pros.
Graham felt the same admiration as he watched the service on television. He still can’t fully explain those feelings.
“There was something drawing me and I can’t say if it was J.B.’s tie, Jim Henry’s shoes or Paul Azinger doing his thing,” Graham said. “It was like a higher power said, ‘Watch this and get something out of it.’ I feel like I was going through spiritual exploration in my life.”
A couple days later he called Collingsworth, who invited him to breakfast. Raised in a Methodist church, the 37-year-old businessman said it was the first time he met a pastor who was “approachable.”
After the meal, they walked outside and talked some more. The discussion concluded with Graham praying to receive Jesus as his Savior.
“I feel it’s made my life more simple,” he said. “It allowed me to take some of the stress and tension off my own shoulders. I can rely on Christ and know that he’s there for me, instead of me handling everything.”
He has since enrolled his daughter at First Academy and acknowledged that the Lord appears to be drawing his family into a closer relationship with the church.
Recently his wife expressed an interest in attending a couples Bible study class led by Collingsworth’s wife, Shugie. In addition, during one of pastor Jim Henry’s sermons, he sensed the Lord speaking to him, saying, “Keep on your path.”
Judging from what has happened at First Baptist in recent months, the same message has gone out to hundreds of other people.
(BP) photo posted in the BP photo library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: UNFORGETABLE FAITH.