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Payne Stewart’s life, memorial stir outpouring of calls, letters, e-mail

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–A Southern Baptist pastor who befriended Payne Stewart three years ago is astonished at the worldwide outpouring of interest in his church’s memorial service for the professional golfer who died in a plane crash Oct. 25.
“Literally thousands of people have come to Christ,” said J.B. Collingsworth, assistant pastor of First Baptist Church, Orlando, Fla. “Videos [of the service] will be going all over the world, judging by the calls we’ve had.”
The first 500 copies of the video went on sale last Sunday, Nov. 14, at First Baptist and were quickly snapped up. Phone calls, letters and e-mail messages about the service have come to the church from such places as Saudi Arabia, Tokyo, Sri Lanka, England and Mexico.
Broadcast internationally over several networks, the service will be aired again over the Golf Channel on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
While arrangements haven’t been finalized, the church hopes to arrange retail distribution of the video. Copies presently can be ordered by sending $15 to Tape Ministries, Stewart Memorial, First Baptist Church, 3000 South John Young Pkwy., Orlando, FL 32805-6691.
However, Collingsworth’s emphasis isn’t on video sales, but conversions resulting from Stewart’s faith. As greatly as he is missed, Stewart may have made a bigger impact through his death at age 42 than had he lived twice as long, Collingsworth said.
“I wish we had him back,” he said. “But God seems to have worked through the hearts of men in a way I’ve never seen. He’s touched hearts through Payne’s life in a way that’s unbelievable. Payne could have lived to 80 and not had the impact he’s had dying in a plane crash.”
Collingsworth was with Stewart’s wife, Tracey, when word of her husband’s fatal plane crash came from the National Transportation Safety Board. He handled arrangements for the memorial service.
Collingsworth met Stewart about three years ago after the couple enrolled their children at the church’s First Academy. His friendship with Stewart began at a school outing to a state park, talking under the stars about everyday events in their lives, Collingsworth said.
Stewart began a journey of faith after his children challenged his beliefs and urged him to attend church, Collingsworth recounted.
Chelsea, 14, accepted Jesus as her Savior at a Christian summer camp several years ago.
After 10-year-old Aaron’s salvation, he brought home a W.W.J.D. (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelet and asked his father to wear it in a tournament, which he did, according to a story about Stewart’s unfolding faith published in The Orlando Sentinel.
“Over the course of time he professed Christ openly and publicly,” Collingsworth said. “He saw God do things in his life that only God can do. A lot of people began to notice changes in his attitude and actions.”
However, Stewart wasn’t always that way. In the past, some had used adjectives like “rude,” “cocky” and “self-assured” to refer to Stewart, Collingsworth said.
Although the Stewarts didn’t formally join First Baptist, they regularly attended services and Bible studies at church and a home group, Collingsworth said.
Men seem to have particularly been touched by Stewart’s example, Collingsworth said, noting that leading people to Christ as Savior and Lord has been a regular experience since the golfer’s funeral.
On Sunday, Nov. 14, Collingsworth led a caller from Cincinnati to salvation, and he’s regularly handling telephone appointments with persons seeking information about spiritual matters spoken of during Stewart’s memorial service. He also has led many to salvation who came to the church after watching the service on TV.
Friends have called or sent e-mails, telling of golfers accepting Jesus on the golf course or in other venues because of Stewart’s influence. The largest single response he mentioned was more than 30 men who responded at a church service.
Among the e-mails Collingsworth received was one from a former Florida resident whose son recommitted his life to Christ while watching the memorial tribute.
“When [you] said Payne came to [you] and said that he didn’t want to be a Bible-thumper, but just wanted to live right, that is where the Holy Spirit spoke to [my son],” the man wrote.
Another viewer from California wrote to tell Collingsworth how deeply he had been touched. The man told of having searched for a personal relationship with Christ for several years, but it hadn’t taken place yet.
“I’m certain that there is someone here who can provide that sense of engagement that I felt from you,” the viewer wrote. “I just need to find that person. I’m not really sure what I’m asking of you, if anything, just that I’m looking for something and that maybe you can help me find it.”
A woman whose husband is a golf pro at a course in Missouri and had played with Stewart on several occasions related that many men who rarely attended church went after the golfer’s death.
She recounted that one man who walked forward to accept Christ had received a W.W.J.D. bracelet from a friend who attended the memorial service.
As excited as he is to see what God is doing, Collingsworth fought back tears as he described how much he and many others miss Stewart.
“Everyone just misses him terribly,” Collingsworth said. “He was a lot of fun to be around and the life of every party. He was such a softhearted person; he had a heart full of love.
“He would always reach out to people,” Collingsworth added. “Whenever I called him to ask him to do something — sign a putter or have breakfast with a struggling young golfer — he would do it. He was always available and would always return a phone call.”
He was also just “one of the guys” at First Academy, involved with parental activities at the Christian school and very approachable, Collingsworth said.
Faith-wise, Stewart hadn’t had much time to hone his grasp of the gospel, Collingsworth said. And, unlike many Southern Baptists, the golfer couldn’t pinpoint the time of his conversion, although Collingsworth noted, “The main thing was it happened.”
“He was still working on some things,” Collingsworth told The Orlando Sentinel. “He had just begun his new walk with Christ.”
For example, Stewart’s scriptural understanding was limited. The Sentinel quoted friends as saying the golfer called 1 Thessalonians “First Theologians.” After reading John, he told one it was “not really boring, pretty good.”
Those comments reflected the lack of pretentiousness Collingsworth observed in Stewart. Although he made plenty of money, he drove a vehicle that was several years old and openly kidded about losing a major tournament on the next-to-last hole.
But there was no doubt where he placed his trust. At a party to celebrate his stunning triumph in this year’s U.S. Open, Stewart twice cried as he watched a video of the tournament. Although others tried to downplay the show of emotion, Collingsworth said he put his arm around the champion and told him, “It’s OK. I really appreciate you.”
“I just want everyone to know, J.B.,” Stewart replied. “It’s Jesus. It’s Jesus that changed my life. I want everyone to know it’s Jesus.”
While unable to discuss specifics yet, Collingsworth said Stewart’s death has also had a major impact on the Professional Golf Association tour. Pros Tom Lehman and Paul Azinger have been helping him follow up on those inquiries, he said.
“One of my friends said that God spoke to the world at the beginning of the millennium through a star, and that he has chosen to speak at the close of this millennium through a superstar,” he said. “We believe God is using events like this to speak to hearts.”

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  • Ken Walker