Marti and I met in New Orleans where I had come to attend seminary. Neither of us had grown up Baptist. I even told people I was the first Baptist in the history of my family.
Not long after we were married, I took Marti, a native of Michigan, to visit my folks in Mt. Judea (pop. 62 and pronounced "Judy" by locals), Arkansas.Everybody turned out to see her. My nine-year-old brother even presented her a black snake as a wedding gift.
When we were by ourselves, she gave me her impressions: "I used to think that Snuffy Smith and Li'l Abner were fiction."
Mama was a schoolteacher before I, the oldest of eight children, was born. Later, she opened a country store in "Judy." I knew she had attended high school in the village of Parthenon, some twenty miles west of Judy, then took courses at a business college in Springfield, Missouri. In education, she was far ahead of her five Foster brothers and sisters, who looked to her for help with special needs. Mama's daddy, my Grandpa Foster, was a moonshine drinker. Her two brothers were both alcoholics. One committed suicide. The other shot himself and came close to dying. Two of her sisters were married to hard drinkers. Her youngest sister's husband abandoned his wife and six small children. Mama's siblings sure did a lot of crying on her shoulder.
Many afternoons, after school, I helped Mama in the store while Daddy was off hunting. She spoke often and reverently of the Parthenon School where she had boarded with a local family, walking ten miles through the woods to come home on weekends. "That school," she said, "was one of the best things that ever happened to me."
Most kids in Big Creek Valley didn't make it past the eighth grade. Mama wanted her eight "young'uns" to get a good education. Thanks to her help, I finished high school at thirteen and went off to college at Arkansas Tech, sixty miles south of Judy.
At Tech everybody called me Fesser, for professor, because I was the youngest student in the college. There I met my first Baptists. One was a nice guy called Whitey who invited me to a social at the Baptist Student Union. I brushed him off. Another was a red-headed fellow who introduced me to "Blackjack."
I caught on real fast. I learned how to use liquor to win. Not that I drank myself. Mama had convinced me that booze was bad.
After supper, I'd sit in the boys' lounge with the student gamblers, shoving a bottle under noses, urging, "Have another sip." When the guys got woozy, I'd keep raising the ante. Most times, I'd clean up.
I spent the summer of my fourteenth year at home, fishing and running a little gambling business out of my parents' store.
I got into the business by ordering punch boards from a catalog mailed to the store. Starting with penny boards, I soon graduated to the dollar-a-punch variety. Next came a slot machine, the first one ever seen in the county.
The Newton County sheriff closed down my gambling business. I went back to Tech and asked my old buddies to deal me in. We played every night in the dorm lounge until Dean of Men John Tucker demanded that I "shape up or ship out."
I came home for a weekend in April 1947. Sunday evening, Mama came out to where I was pitching horseshoes. "A preacher named Ottis Denny is holding services in our living room tonight," she said. "Please come in and hear him."
Only Mama could have gotten me in that night to hear a preacher. I slipped up the stairs to where he couldn't see me. Preacher Denny really delivered the Gospel. To make a long story short, I got saved. Two weeks later the Lord called me to preach.
Denny started a Baptist mission in Judy at which I gave a "devotional" and he preached. He paid my way to the state summer Baptist Youth Assembly. He lined up churches where I could preach. He convinced me that I should transfer to Ouachita Baptist College in the fall.
Ottis Denny was a home missionary, commissioned by the Arkansas Baptist Convention and the SBC Home Mission Board. After starting a number of churches in Arkansas, he and wife Onata moved to Ohio and planted seven more churches there.
In the seminary I took a required course in Baptist history. I learned that in the 1920s the HMB was sponsoring forty-seven "mountain academies" in deprived areas from the Carolinas to Arkansas. One of these schools was at Parthenon. I also learned that the schools had been shut down because of heavy HMB debt, caused in part when the Board treasurer stole almost a million dollars.
At the historic 1997 Convention, Southern Baptist messengers completed the process of merging the Home Mission Board, the Brotherhood, and the Radio & TV Commission into the North American Mission Board. However, the 152-year legacy continues.
Only stones remain at the site of the old Parthenon Academy which my mother attended. Oh, what a difference the godly teachers there made in her life, and in the lives of her children. All eight of us are now Christians; seven are Baptists, as were Mama and Daddy when they passed on to their reward.
All of us finished high school. Four went to college. Two hold graduate degrees. One is a teacher, another a minister. One sister was GA director for Louisiana. And there isn't space enough to tell about the grandchildren.
I am grateful to the Home Mission Board for sponsoring that mountain academy which my mother attended.
As for the home missionary, Ottis Denny, ten churches can call him "founder." I am deeply indebted to the Home Mission Board for joining with the Arkansas Baptist Convention in sending the man who led me to Jesus, and whose example I followed as a young church planter in New Orleans many years ago.
Thank you, Home Mission Board, for giving to the Lord. I am a life that was changed.