CHAPTER I — Facing the Unknown
“You can if you want to enough,” John had said.
I seemed to hear those words again as I had for the first time two years earlier, when they started the train of events that found me now, a callow youth just out of my teens, facing the Unknown.
The Unknown to me was the church I was to serve in my first charge as a minister. It loomed before me, an ancient structure that had survived—though barely I thought—two floods; red brick, steeply pitched roof, a belfry, Gothic windows that merited stained glass, double entrance doors twelve feet tall and arched like the windows. The time was summer in 1918, the place Galveston, Texas.
“If you want to enough!” How much was enough? The words made my heart skip a beat. “You can” became “You must!”
The dignitary who had brought me from the depot broke my reverie with the offer, “Let me show you through the building.” “Thanks, but I think I’d like to go it alone if you could pick me up in half an hour or so.”
Reluctantly he agreed and proffered me the key. Such a key I’d never seen. It folded back on itself, hinged in the middle, opened to a length of perhaps six inches. I inserted it in the lock, and turned to thank my host as he entered his car.
I entered to face a wide foyer. Across it half-opened doors gave a glimpse of an assembly hall, with rows of folding chairs facing a stage at the far end. John had told me of the floods. I could see the water line, about three feet above the floor, where the plaster was crudely patched.
To either side of the entry where I stood were gracefully curved stairways leading to an upper landing. I closed the outer doors, ascended the right stairway and faced more open doors to the sanctuary. Rows of pews faced a chancel. There was a pulpit to the left, a lectern to the right. Two high-backed chairs occupied the center space of the rear wall. There was a simple reed organ near the wall back of the lectern.
I walked down the center aisle, up the two steps into the chancel and seated myself at the organ bench, pumped the foot pedals and played a hymn I knew from memory, “Sun of My Soul.”
I crossed to the pulpit and opened the Bible to the 100th Psalm: “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise; be thankful unto him, and bless his name.”
Like Merton of the Movies who knelt by his storeroom cot and asked God to make him a movie star, I knelt by the pulpit and prayed, “O God, make me a good minister.”
I rose and stood looking out over the sanctuary. It looked very large. I felt very small.
I had a listening feeling. Had God anything to say to me?
As if in answer, I heard a deep voice say: “Are you ready?”
It was of course my host.
“Yes, I am ready,” I said. It was an affirmation.
Nothing within me offered any inkling that in little more than a decade I would be an executive in a religious publishing house, speaking daily on radio, and in ensuing years addressing a congregation of thousands in person, on radio and television, counselling movie personalities, experiencing a score of years with two charismatic associates to whom and with whom nothing ordinary ever happened; touring the world, writing hundreds of magazine articles and seventeen books; being witness to, and on occasion the subject of, miracle healings, phenomenal manifestations of guidance and supply.
It’s a picture of triumphs and failures, brave laughter and foolish fears; mostly it’s about a Quest, and people I’ve known, wonderful all.
How It Started
What brought me to that time, that place, that hour was an incident that had occurred some four years earlier, shortly after I had graduated from high school.
My mother, the man I was taught to call my (step) father and I were listening to some meditative music on the Victrola, when she went into what appeared to be a comatose state, and began talking in a sort of Indian gibberish. It frightened me. She was subject to heart attacks and I started to go for some smelling salts when my dad dissuaded me, saying quietly, “Just be still, son; it’s all right. It’s a psychic trance. I’ll tell you about it later.”
I recalled how, as a boy of eight years or so, how, with my name and destination written on a slip of paper attached to my blouse, I had been permitted to go by train by myself from Minneapolis to nearby Anoka, Minnesota on visits to my grandparent’s home, play in the garden, help my grandfather dig up horseradish roots to be ground up as a condiment, explore the attic with its store of outgrown garments, books, bags full of cloth remnants that might but never would become parts of scrapwork quilts, and other treasures too good to be destroyed, or to examine the curios displayed in cabinets in the parlor.
I became curiously aware of hinged slates that reposed, unexplained, in a table drawer. Once I ventured, unobserved, to pull out the drawer, open the slates, and gaze with puzzled eyes, at a tiny whittled length of slate pencil lying there, and the feathery writing that stretched diagonally in a sentence or two across one face of the double slate. I was familiar with slates and slate pencils, though even in my boyhood they had been superseded in grade school by pencils and blue-lined paper. Whatever those quavery words communicated to the gentle old couple who reverently placed them there I could not know, because having gained sight of them illicitly, I never dared to ask.
Something of their significance became known to me when, years later, I learned that my mother’s parents believed such slate writing to be of spiritualistic origin. My grandfather was said to be clairvoyant. The time came when Mother was to tell me how a friend of his developed a sore throat and persistent huskiness (which no amount of White Pine and Tar cough syrup or even a visit to the village doctor served to overcome); he asked my grandfather to see if he could find the cause. My grandfather was said to be able to look through the man’s flesh and see what the doctor had not found—a fishbone caught obscurely in his throat.
The Family Secret
So it seemed natural I suppose that my Mother should either have or believe that she had a related gift. This was a secret seldom if ever mentioned in the family. It was thought, somehow, to be not quite respectable; that it was easier—more expedient—to look upon it as an unfortunate aberration, or pretend that it had never happened, than to try to explain it. I was not content with this laissez-faire attitude. I wanted answers to the questions that arose in my mind.
We turned to the telephone directory and looked up the address of a spiritualist church. Maybe we would find an answer there. My parents went with me to a service. The minister, a Dr. Ireland, was a fluent speaker and approached the subject of survival and communication from a mental rather than an emotional standpoint. We attended several services. His premise appealed to me on principle, as did the corollary concept of communication between worlds, but I was skeptical about the mediums, so-called, who claimed to be channels for such communication. Many of their “readings’’ seemed crude and aroused more doubt in me than faith as to their supernatural origin. Some, too, made pretty good sense on the mundane level and were general enough to apply to almost anyone: “I see a long, dark tunnel, but there is light ahead. You have many problems but you will over-come them. Do not be discouraged. There are forces that are helping you. Be receptive. Have faith. Things will get better.”
Such advice, hopefully, could apply to me. I had relinquished for the time my hopes of continuing my academic education in favor of earning some money to augment the meager family income. I got a job as an apprentice commercial artist with The Twin City Engraving Company. I enjoyed the work and looked forward to advancement in it. But reducing our living expenses still seemed imperative. We moved from the urban area to the suburb of Robbinsdale where rents were lower. I resigned myself to the long interurban car ride to and from work. We stopped attending church services, partly because of the distance, and partly because other needs were more pressing.
© 1984, by Ronald and Beverly Potter
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.