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Gideon, LifeWay trustee chair values linking people, Scripture

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–As director of work outside the United States for Gideons International, Ken Speakman has traveled in more than 70 countries.

Speakman, who also serves as chairman of trustees for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, has presented Bibles to heads of state, including Mobutu Sese Seko, former head of the African nation of Zaire, and to the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

But while he is grateful for these and many other experiences, one of the most meaningful occurred last Sept. 30 during a visit to Latvia. It was the culmination of a story that began in 1996 when Speakman received a letter from a young woman, Ginta Pukis.

While hospitalized in Riga and contemplating suicide three years earlier, Pukis had received a New Testament from a Gideon visiting the hospital. After reading the Bible, she became a Christian and, 18 months later, led her husband, a member of the Mafia, to Christ.

As an expression of her gratitude to the Gideons, she wrote her testimony and sent it to international headquarters in suburban Nashville, Tenn. Speakman had been deeply moved by her testimony and had regretted that his January 1999 trip to Latvia would not take him to Liepaja where she lived.

In an October 1999 trip, Speakman was assigned to a car driven by a man identified only as Andris, and he soon learned his driver was from Liepaja. Speakman told Andris he had always wanted to go to Liepaja to meet a young woman who had written a letter to his organization.

“I asked Andris how he came to Christ and he told me his wife led him to Jesus. He then told me that his wife was saved in a hospital in Riga in 1993 by reading a New Testament given to her by the Gideons.

“I replied by telling him that the lady who wrote to us was saved in Riga Hospital #6. He said his wife also was saved in Riga Hospital #6.

“I asked him for his wife’s name. He replied, ‘Ginta.’

“I knew then that it was really the hand of God who had assigned me to Andris,” Speakman said.

Before Speakman left Riga, Andris Pukis brought his wife and two children to the city where Speakman got to meet her and hear her story firsthand. Today, Ginta and Andris work full time for the Christian ministry, Youth with a Mission.

“While I did not ask her for it, Ginta gave me the Testament she had received in the hospital in Riga on Jan. 23, 1993, when she accepted the Lord,” Speakman said. “It is well worn and put to good use.”

When Speakman reports that members of Gideons International distributed 52 million Scriptures in 1999, he’s not talking about crates of Bibles shipped to distant locations to be opened by unknown persons.

Every Scripture distributed by the 142,000 Gideons in 173 countries is passed from the hands of a Gideon to an individual in a school, hospital, prison or other location.

“We don’t mail or drop off Scriptures,” he said. “We can’t save anybody. The Word of God can and does. Our job is to get the Word of God to people who otherwise would never have a copy.”

Founded in 1899, the organization of business and professional men was named after Gideon of the Old Testament, “a man who was the least of his tribe but took 300 men and conquered the Midianites,” he said.

Speakman, a Southern Baptist layman and member of Hermitage Hills Baptist Church, became a Gideon in 1967 while working as a state manager for an insurance company in Nashville. He soon realized the ministry of the organization was becoming an increasing priority in his life.

“Going to churches and giving Gideons messages were the times that I was the happiest,” he recalled. With the support of Reba, his wife of 40 years, he reduced his salary by two-thirds in December 1968 to join the staff of Gideons International.

He recalled the anxiety he felt on behalf of his family with the major reduction in income, fearing he would lack the resources to send his three daughters to college. He considers the fact that all three have earned graduate degrees a testimony to God’s faithfulness.

“Here I was worried about leaving my job, and look at all the ways God has blessed me,” he said.

For the past 20 years, Speakman has been responsible for the growth and management of Gideons outside the United States. More than one-third or 58,000 of Gideons live and work in other countries. In January 2000, he will become director of support services, a position that will involve continued international travel, fund-raising and consulting with Gideons throughout the world.

Speakman became a trustee of LifeWay Christian Resources in 1993 when the name was still the Sunday School Board. He will complete a two-year term as chairman in June 2000.

He said he did not seek to make an immediate or visible impact as a trustee, listening for the first three semi-annual meetings without making comments in plenary sessions.

After being appointed to serve on the trustee nominating committee, “I began to see many parallels between trustees at Gideons and those at LifeWay. The president of our Gideons has the same role I do at LifeWay. That makes it easier for me to understand the role of trustee. The trustees do not run LifeWay. We make policy and approve certain things.”

Gideons employees must be dedicated Christians. Every workday begins with a 30-minute chapel service. “We read the Scripture and have prayer requests. Unbelievable prayer requests come in here.”

Similarly, he said, “At LifeWay, I’m impressed by the quality and commitment of our employees.”

Speakman’s reputation for running trustee meetings by a stopwatch comes from being part of a time-conscious organization. Time spent working as a LifeWay trustee means his Gideons work is still waiting to be done when he returns to the office. During his tenure as chairman, trustee meetings have been shortened to two days.

Speakman is proud of the role played by LifeWay in providing Christian resources for churches and individuals.

“We are discipling and training our people. We are building up the faith of people in our churches,” he said.

“I think our future is bright,” Speakman said. “Business is going to change and I think LifeWay is willing to make changes in the right way, keeping the focus on the spiritual.

“At Gideons, we do not change our means to get to the end. LifeWay also has to keep its focus to provide the best Christian literature and change lives.”

    About the Author

  • Linda Lawson