PLANO, Texas (BP)–The significance of the number 40 in the Bible is not lost on Jack Graham and O.S. Hawkins as the lifelong friends reach the four-decade mark in ministry.
“Forty has been a time of testing in the Bible, right before God used someone greatly,” Hawkins said, noting Moses and Joshua and Jesus Christ Himself. “Jack and I feel we’ve been preparing these 40 years for our greatest ministry ahead … our greatest days are just ahead of us.”
But in order to look to the future, you must first consider the past these two men have shared since meeting as teenagers in east Fort Worth — a past that shaped them into the Christian leaders they’ve become. Graham is pastor of the 28,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano and a former Southern Baptist Convention president. Hawkins is former pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, itinerant preacher and president of GuideStone Financial Resources — a diversified financial services provider for the Southern Baptist Convention and other evangelical Christian churches, ministries and other institutions.
“Neither one of us could have ever envisioned what God would do with us,” Graham said. “He has done ‘exceedingly, abundantly’ more than we could have imagined.”
Apart from the sovereignty of God, the two credit their “father in ministry,” Fred Swank. For 43 years, Swank pastored Sagamore Hill Baptist Church in east Fort Worth. A big, lively man, Swank was known for his love for young people and his effectiveness in “calling out the called.” His famous Camp Sagamore, in Latham Springs, Texas, on the Brazos River near Waco, proved to be a catalyst for drawing youth to Christ. Over the years, Graham said there must have been more than 100 young men and women from Sagamore Hill who went into ministry.
And Swank saw something in Graham and Hawkins.
“He was the magnet that brought us together,” Graham said. “He’d often throw us together in different ministry opportunities, like mission trips to Brownsville, Texas, near the Mexican border.”
Not long after Hawkins heard the call to ministry, Graham did as well, while at Camp Sagamore. Swank loved baseball, so they played a lot of it at camp. One day, after a powerful service, Graham says he called to Swank near right field.
“Brother Swank,” he said, “I think God’s called me to preach.”
“Well, that’s great, son,” Swank replied. “Now, look, if God’s called you to preach, He’ll still be calling you after this ball game. Let’s go play ball.”
Taken aback by it at first, Graham said he quickly realized his pastor was right, and headed out to play.
Graham and Hawkins said Swank always made time to talk to them.
“Jack and I would double-date, and after we dropped our dates off, we’d go knock on his door at 11 o’clock,” Hawkins recalled. “He’d let us in and then he’d get in the car and drive around with us and talk about ministry.”
One of Swank’s favorite verses was 1 Corinthians 15:58: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
The verse remains a favorite for Graham and Hawkins who say Swank taught them to be true to God and be their best for God, to love the Word, to love God’s people and to love the lost. He taught them about character and integrity and authenticity. And, mostly, he led by example.
“He was an incredible role model who loved us and prepared us,” Hawkins said. “He taught us to never use our people to build our ministry, but to use the ministry received from the Lord to build our people.”
Swank also got them their first jobs, both serving at Sagamore Hill while the two were at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Then he helped get Hawkins placed at First Baptist Church Hobart, in Hobart, Okla. When Hawkins left for Ada, Okla., Graham said Swank received a call from the search committee at Hobart, asking: “We liked Hawkins, do you have another preacher boy?”
“Well, I’ve got Jack Graham here,” Swank replied.
“So Swank produced both of us to the same church,” Graham said, laughing.
After that, Hawkins and Graham pretty much followed one another, first to South Florida, where Hawkins became pastor of First Baptist Church Fort Lauderdale, and Graham later became pastor of First Baptist Church West Palm Beach. They returned to Texas when Graham was called to Prestonwood and later Hawkins was called to First Baptist Dallas.
“God seems to have woven our lives together along the way,” Hawkins said. “We were ordained on the same night, married in the same summer. We have spent most of our lives in ministry within a 30-minute drive of each other in three different states; we’ve traveled all over the world together; vacationed together with our families; we’ve preached revivals together where he’d preach one night and I’d sing, and I’d preach the next night and he’d sing.”
Looking back, Graham says it would have been impossible to go through ministry the last 40 years without his best friend.
“The Bible says there’s a friend who sticks closer than a brother,” he said. “That’s how it’s been for us. We’ve always been side by side, sharing ideas, sharing burdens as well as blessings. And there’s enough competitiveness in both of us to challenge each other, to spur each other on to always do our best.”
Says Hawkins: “Everybody needs a friend like I’ve had in Jack Graham. He’s been there for me in the best of times and the worst of times.”
Just in the past year, the bad times have come as they were diagnosed with prostate cancer within months of each other. Just another test, a test they shared, that left both with a hunger for what’s ahead.
“Having walked through cancer, you remember that not every year is a gift, not every day is a gift, but every breath is a gift,” Hawkins said, “and so, you’re thankful and enthusiastic about what God has you to do next.”
Graham said they joke that they’ve been so close through the years that “we’re catching each other’s diseases.” More seriously, he said, they’ve encouraged each other as they’ve walked through this journey.
“We’re grateful to be cancer-free and looking forward to the future,” he said.
And that includes doing for others what Swank did for them.
“O.S. and I see each other carrying the light through the next years of our journey and then passing the light to others,” Graham said. “He does that through GuideStone and preaching and speaking in seminaries and his primer books for pastors. I’m doing it through our young men at Prestonwood and through PowerPoint Ministries, investing in the lives of other ministers.”
He said they’ll do as Swank taught them: focus on the Lord and His Church and love His people.
“One thing he instilled in us,” Hawkins said, “was what Asaph said in Psalm 78:72: ‘And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.’ Integrity and excellence are what the Swank brand has been on us.”
Berta Delgado-Young is Communications Ministry Editor at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas.