I was a freshman student of a few weeks at the University of South Carolina walking down the sidewalk between the reflection pond and the Thomas Cooper Library. I was on my way back to my dorm room, having just finished up a Sunday lunch at the Russell House student union cafeteria. I was briskly hustling to my dorm, trying to figure out how to use the remainder of my afternoon. And there they stood. Three guys in conversation and from the looks of it, easily recognizable as most probably one student standing with a couple of religious recruiter types. Two of the guys, apparently students, were persuading a third student to hear them out. I had seen similar fundamentalist style encounters on Main Street, while growing up in my hometown of Greenville, SC and it made me quite nervous. And although God had been dealing with me, a typical prodigal freshman student, I had no interest whatsoever in being a target of these religious do-gooders. I would avoid them at all costs.
However, God had other plans. Just as I veered off, well south of the sidewalk, the third student had had his fill of the discussion and left, leading the two recruiters to simultaneously turn and see me standing there just a few feet away. Foiled! Their first words, which I still remember clearly, were, “Excuse me but we are starting a Bible study on campus and wondered if you might be interested?” Of course, even though I had been attending church on Sunday mornings, was also sensing that I might fail out of my first semester in college, and it appeared that God was working me over pretty well, I had no interest whatsoever. The short story is that I tried everything I could do deflect their pressure (which really wasn’t that strong) but eventually, I was willing to take their information and depart with it in hand. The new Bible study would start the next night at 7:00 pm at the USC International House on the other side of campus from my dorm. I would not be there!
As I continued heading down the sidewalk, progressing toward the Longstreet Theater and Sumter Street, confident that I had dodged a bullet, it was as if I was walking with my back toward God – and I was. However, before I reached the steps to Green Street, I sensed that the Lord was speaking to me, not audibly, but simply and firmly to my heart. As odd as it may seem, I looked back and up, feeling as if I was indeed running from God. He certainly seemed “spatially” in the distance behind me. But I heard Him say to my heart, “What do I have to do in order to get your attention?” That was enough! I thought to myself, and considered my recent circumstances and on the spot, I made a commitment to the Lord, “I will be at that Bible study tomorrow night.” Honestly, I had made many similar religious promises and commitments to God in the past, but I knew that I must keep this one.
Monday evening came, classes were finished, dinner was done and I knew it was time to go – yes, to attend the Bible study. With a sense of both dread and resignation, I reached in my desk drawer and pulled out my childhood black, King James Version of the Bible, well-hidden in the back of the drawer so that no one else could know that I actually had taken a Bible with me to college. Hiding it under my arm as best as I could, and filled with embarrassment that I might be “found out” that evening, I took the long trek across campus to the International Student house. When I finally arrived, I met the few guys (maybe six) who had shown up for this inaugural Bible study, including some awkward moments of introduction and the Bible study began. Without including all of the details, I must say that God was not only working, He was working powerfully in me. For the first time in my life, after having been raised in the church from infancy and attending almost everything the church offered, I found myself interested in what God had to say. Of course, I had been interested a good deal in the past, but not enough to want to give Him my all or my life. Somehow, however, on that reflection pool sidewalk, or in my dorm room, or on the way to the Bible study or possibly during the Bible study, I had been converted, i.e. made new and alive (the scholars call it regenerated; the revivalists call it “born again”). I was now a true disciple of Jesus Christ; it was all so very new and there was no turning back for me!
The Bible study that I attended that night was the first ever meeting on the USC campus of a Christian organization known as “The Navigators”! Distinguished by their emphasis on discipleship, the Navigators were a ministry that, in addition to First Baptist Church of Columbia, guided me in finding and knowing Jesus Christ. In the coming years, I would discover that through the impact and influence of all types of ministries, individuals and other sources, I was ultimately being (and am still being) discipled by Jesus Christ, the risen, living Savior. He graciously and sovereignly called me to Himself that Sunday afternoon and that call was a simple one: “Follow Me!” Simple but profound, because I knew that if I was going to truly follow Jesus as His disciple, it would mean giving up myself and making Him first in everything. He would take me by the hand, so to speak, and guide me along the way. This is the manner of discipleship – Jesus walking alongside us, His followers, and working His will in our lives, guiding and teaching us through the power of the Holy Spirit who indwells believers. The Holy Spirit is in charge of the entire process because the Holy Spirit is truly the One who orchestrates the discipleship process.