My German professor is one of the most interesting and well-traveled people I’ve ever met. He has instructed me for the last four semesters, and I will miss his classes immensely after I graduate. His life has intersected with history time and time again, so I thought it would be a travesty if I didn’t take advantage of his insights while I had the chance. So last week I sat down with him and listened to a few of his stories. I’ve written them down in the short essay below, and I hope you find them both interesting and inspiring. Enjoy!
I hated being drafted in 1961. I’m the oldest of five children and that was the first time in our family that there was a major “break.” It was hard on the family and hard on me. I dreaded it and was not excited.
When I was in high school, I had a music teacher named Hering who was a displaced Jew from Vienna who escaped before WW II. He was a child prodigy and concert pianist who taught me piano. He was so wonderful. He himself was taught by a line of teachers who studied under Beethoven himself. There were no German classes in my high school, but this music teacher began to teach me German. It sounded so interesting to me, even though I couldn’t really understand it yet. Little did I know then that I would one day be sent to Germany.
But once I was sent to Germany with the military, I realized God was opening a big door for me. I was a Conscientious Objector, so I was trained in basic medical care instead of combat. The military gave me the opportunity to travel and see historical places, so I took advantage of it. I became passionate about learning German, unlike my fellow soldiers– I was odd in that respect! I was working at a military hospital in Landstuhl; the whole country was on alert against Russia, who was building the Berlin wall that year (1961). Sometimes we would go out on mock field missions where we had to simulate a battle scene with Russia! I used to not wince at all when I had to draw blood, but today the thought alone makes me cringe. In 1962 there was a big 7.1 earthquake in Iran. There were over 12,000 deaths and hundreds of people who were injured . We were put on alert and thought that we might be sent to Iran to help, but at the last moment it was cancelled. I was relieved because it would have been my first time confronting death so head-on, and I knew it would be difficult.
That was the only real emergency while I was in Germany. We were never sent to Berlin, but it was always a possibility since it was a “flash point” city. The Russians were flexing their military muscles and the atmosphere was tense. I knew several people who had left East Germany and come to West Germany.
One real blessing was that I got involved in the church in Kaiserslautern. A black family took me to church every Sunday and Bible study during the week, rain or shine, sleet or snow. The preacher there, Hans Nowak, mentored me. He was immensely talented, and inspired me to become a preacher in Germany years later.
I was in the army for two years total, and then I came back to the US. I had an expectation that I would go back to Germany one day. I didn’t know when or how, but I just knew I would. I went to college at David Lipscomb University and did my masters at Vanderbilt University. When I applied to Vanderbilt, I wrote in my application that I aspired to be involved in Christian ministry in Germany one day. One of the professors degraded me and put me down for that, but I never let it get to me! I applied for an exchange year at Humboldt University in Berlin and was accepted. I got involved in the church there, where I soon began preaching. Heinz Müller, the preacher in Berlin, was also an inspiration to me, and I’ll never forget when he said, “Du predigst nächsten Sonntag.” I was so nervous! I was an exception because I wasn’t formally trained in theology or hermeneutics, but I taught myself through experience. I became interested in Greek and Hebrew too. I worked in the Müllers’ bookstore while I studied in Berlin to support myself. It was in Berlin where I met Udo Herbst, who was a Berliner and had become a Christian years earlier. He helped teach me Hebrew.
Then after I finished studying in Berlin, I committed to do full time mission work in Munich from 1971 to 1975. There were four churches in the US who sponsored me out of the generosity of their hearts. Munich is where I met my wife, Pat, who had a job with the US government.
I still hadn’t written my dissertation, and I had a deadline to finish my Ph.D. So eventually I went back to the US to finish up at Vanderbilt University. I knew I needed to have a Ph.D. to support a family one day. Then I got my first teaching job at Abilene Christian University, where I stayed for eight years. It was hard to readjust to life in the US. Life in West Texas was somewhat boring compared to Germany.
Then in 1983 Pepperdine University offered me a job. I accepted eventually and we moved in 1984. I haven’t regretted coming to Pepperdine. I would do it again. I’ve had wonderful opportunities and met talented students. It is a ministry to me because I’ve had contact with and influence on so many diverse students. For instance, I am going to baptize a former student on Saturday, and I’ve officiated at the weddings of several students over the years. Not all the non-Christian students I’ve taught have become Christians, but I feel like I’ve influenced them positively in one way or another. I enjoy working with the very multicultural student body at Pepperdine.
If I have any advice for young people, it would be to keep your aspirations high and in alignment with God’s purposes for your life. Never let anything discourage you. Once you become convinced you have a calling in life, never let anything or anyone stop you.
Fascinating, right? I particularly related to the part where he said, “I had an expectation that I would go back to Germany one day. I didn’t know when or how, but I just knew I would.” I too have an expectation that I will return to Germany one day, though I don’t know all the details yet! I’m so glad I took the time to record these memories in perpetuity. I would encourage you to interview someone in your life who intrigues you! Human stories are incredible.
P.s. A few photos from Berlin in the 1960’s
The Berlin Wall, 1962