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FIRST-PERSON: Neil Armstrong & Cliff Estes

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–I met Neil Armstrong.

Just once.

The man who first walked on the moon 40 years ago today was scheduled to be at an ecumenical prayer breakfast in a nearby town in southwest Ohio. I was a reporter hoping to spend a few minutes with Armstrong to ask about his faith.

When I approached Armstrong after the program, he graciously paused for a few moments to hear my question. His answer was brief, and not too much different than reading “In God We Trust” on a U.S. coin.

I also met John Glenn a few years earlier.

Just once.

The famed astronaut was running for a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio in 1974 and I was running for state representative in a two-county district in the northwest part of the state. Glenn came to a county fair to campaign and a local Democrat organizer posed the astronaut-turned-politician and me together for a picture.

Later, we asked Glenn’s staff for permission to use the photo in our campaign literature.

Permission denied.

(As to my brief foray into politics, perhaps it can be comical fodder for an after-dinner speech if anyone wants to hear it. Suffice it to say, I learned I had no business in politics and, a few years later, began to find my political identity as an independent.)

I also met Gordon Cooper, who, like Glenn, was one of the seven original astronauts.

I had just been wheeled back to my room in Akron Children’s Hospital after orthopedic surgery as a teenager. “Wake up,” my mother nudged when Cooper entered the room during a visit to the hospital that day. “Gordon Cooper is here.”

I was so groggy. “Hi, Gordon,” I remember saying before falling back to sleep.

Obviously, my personal encounters with astronauts have been largely inconsequential.

About a year after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, I had a personal encounter that, to this day, transcends any encounter with an astronaut or even with Billy Graham, who I had the chance to interview in the mid-1970s, or others I’ve interviewed as a journalist such as Francis Schaeffer, Carl F.H. Henry, J.I. Packer and Bill Bright.

I met Cliff Estes.

On the front porch of an aunt’s house in Newton, Miss.

On the morning after I accompanied my grandmother, for the novelty of it, to a revival service at a country church which, it turned out, had wooden benches and windows that opened to the cool night air and the sounds of crickets and frogs in the surrounding woods.

I hadn’t expected to hear anything substantive but perked up when I heard the preacher (Cliff) proclaim that only Jesus changes men’s hearts. I instinctively knew my heart needed changing.

The next morning, I was surprised when Cliff dropped by my aunt’s house but inwardly glad for the chance to visit for a few moments. I was all the more surprised when Cliff asked me if I was a Christian. No, I told him; I had never been told of any compelling reason to take Christianity seriously. I asked some of the core questions of faith that had vexed me since childhood, and Cliff kindly offered answers.

Then Cliff asked if I wanted to become a Christian.

I sure did. (For the essence of embracing faith, click here for a column I once wrote titled “New Birth.”)

Certainly, I will never forget my momentary encounters with an astronaut who walked on the moon and other pioneers in man’s early ventures into space, but these pale in comparison to an encounter with someone who can point you to Jesus.
Art Toalston is editor of Baptist Press. Cliff Estes now is pastor of Waller Baptist Church in Bossier City, La.