“Billy Ray” was one of Marion Baldwin’s favorite nicknames for William Ray Baldwin, who went to heaven on June 22nd, 2012, just a couple hours ago as I write this. I’m always kind of jealous when someone goes to heaven, but I would be lying to you if I said that this one doesn’t hurt a bit. Bill was 77, young by Greek standards. He deserved another decade, in my humble opinion, but I’m betting were he offered another ten years, given where he is now, he would refuse them without a second thought.
God had called me to Greece within months of my conversion at the age of 30, in 1984. Through various sources I’d learned about the serious spiritual needs of Greece, and, having made myself available to the Lord for Him to do with me what He willed, believed He wanted me there. Three different churches later, I found one that expressed at least a minimum interest in supporting God’s calling on my life. That third church, West Chicago Bible, in my home town, had one of the deepest commitments to World Missions of any small church I’ve ever attended or visited.
I had absolutely no idea whom I might be able to talk to about the Greek work, or how to go about fulfilling that calling. Greece had, and still has, very few American workers. For many reasons, despite her nearly perfect climate, Greece is an implacably hostile place for any non- Eastern Orthodox Christian worker or organization to take root and flourish. In more than 23 years I’ve probably seen upwards of a hundred people come here with every good intention to stay, only to leave after a term or two. Or three.
Imagine my surprise when I found out that the West Chicago Bible Church was also the home church of one of the few American cross-cultural workers in Greece, Bill Baldwin. Bill and his wife, Marion, had been in Greece since 1966. In the spring of 1987, I found out that Bill and Marion were coming to West Chicago. They would be staying in a guest house owned by the church. I saw Bill speak at the Sunday service. The text was Romans 12:1.
Bill was a born preacher, and as he explained in this particular message, God was asking believers, via the Apostle Paul, to “please” (Greek “παρακαλω”) dedicate their lives to Him because it was only logical. “Can you imagine,” Bill said,” God Almighty saying to us, ‘please?’” Then with tears in his eyes, he said, “If I were Him, I wouldn’t say ‘please.’ I would say GO!” It was one of the best messages I’d heard in my relatively young Christian life. I got excited. I wanted to jump up and shout “YES! YES! THAT’S the way we need to look at God! Wake up, everybody! Dedicate your lives to Christ! Give Him EVERYTHING! Go to the North Pole if that’s where He wants you! No holding back! No holding back!”
After the service, I was worked up. There were several people in line ahead of me waiting to share a few words with Bill. I got tired waiting for my turn to talk to him. I jumped the line and interrupted someone who was, in my opinion, probably not saying much of anything important to him. Billy Ray turned and said to me sharply, “Wait a minute!” He was clearly irritated. It was one of the very few times I’ve seen him irritated. When it was finally my turn, I told him that God was calling me to Greece and I asked to meet with him. He agreed to see me the next afternoon.
And so the next day I got home from a hard day of laying cement blocks, took a shower, smoked a cigarette, popped a couple sticks of Wrigley’s Spearmint in my mouth, and walked down the hill from my rented room in a house on Fairview Avenue to the WCBC guest house where Bill and Marion were staying. I remember hoping that they would not smell the tobacco on my breath. (I was cutting down- I’d actually quit for the year I was a student at Moody Bible Institute because of their no smoking policy, but had backslid and was smoking 5 a day at the time. Within a month I would smoke my last fag.) Hey, I was still a young Christian. What was the Mark Twain quote? “Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.”
If I had known Bill better, I would have had nothing to fear. He was one of the least judgmental people I would ever meet. He sat there quietly as I told him my story: I was the grandson of a Greek immigrant. I was saved three years ago. I believed God was calling me to Greece. I was 33 years old. I’d done a year of training at the Moody Bible Institute. I’d dropped out one year before in order to pay a $10,000 debt I’d incurred before getting saved. Nearly a year later, I still owed 70% of that debt.
I knew that Bill had founded the Greek Bible Institute. That it was a Moody-Dallas Seminary type school theologically (that is, a Dispensationalist, 4-point Calvinist, inerrancy of the scriptures in the original autographs kind of place). I wasn’t asking him for any favors. I was picking his brains, trying to see what he might have to say to me. I ended up getting much more than I had bargained for. Bill Baldwin listened very attentively, and didn’t interrupt.
When I finished, he asked me if I spoke Greek. “No,” I said. He thought some more. Then he blew out some air. “Well,” he said, “The older you get, the harder it becomes to learn a foreign language. And Greek is no walk in the park. The only thing I can think of is for you to get your debt paid off and come to Greece. You can stay at the Bible school, study Greek for a year or so, and then pick up your Bible education where you left off. It’ll be pretty intense, but if you don’t blow a gasket you’ll do fine.”
Whether I blew a gasket or not is debatable, but I must say that Bill’s proposal, in my view, was nothing less than visionary. Here I’d been hoping to get out of debt in another year or two, finish up my last two years at Moody, raise support, and get to Greece, oh, somewhere just on the south side of 40 years of age. Bill explained that in his opinion this was not workable for one simple reason: language. My most important tool in Greece, he said, would be the language.
So to Billy Ray Baldwin, the answer was simple. What he didn’t tell me at the time was that he threw that idea out as sort of a lifeline, because with my level of debt, and my age, he thought it unlikely I’d ever make it to Greece. But what he suggested had a wonderful effect on me: it focused my energies and efforts to the degree that I had my debts paid off within a year and a half, and was ready to come by the winter of 1988.
Bill Baldwin was from St. Louis. God in his kind fashion as my spiritual Father has provided three exceptional mentors in my Christian life. Bill was the second of these three men. The first was Phil King, the man who discipled me for three years after my conversion. Phil was also from St. Louis. Funny that both Phil King and Bill Baldwin were from St. Louis. Phil and Bill. There’s a story in there somewhere. The third was Korky Davey. Korky’s from Bristol, England, which is a long way from St. Louis.
Bill remotely resembled Telly Savalas, but had not a drop of Greek blood. He had the slope-shouldered, powerful build of a wrestler or pole vaulter. He was both, in his youth. In high school he qualified for the state wrestling meet in Columbia, Missouri. He’d never been away from home by himself before, and he and some of his teamates spent most of the night outside their hotel, “goofing off,” as he told me. He lost his first match the next day because of lack of sleep.
His family moved to Houston a little later. Bill got saved, did a year at Moody, and got his seminary degree at Dallas. He used to ride home on weekends with Hal Lindsey, who also lived in Houston. During his time in Dallas, Bill met Bob Evans, founder of the Greater Europe Mission, whose goal was to found Bible Schools throughout Europe and train nationals to serve their own people.
Bill got a bug in his ear about going to Greece and starting a school. And that’s where, after a number of twists and turns, including a year as the youth pastor at West Chicago Bible Church, and a quick marriage to Marion, whom he met in Detroit for Greater Europe Mission’s training school, he ended up in 1966. After a long period (too long, Bill would say) of language study and building friendships in the tiny Greek Evangelical community, Bill opened his school in 1973 in downtown Athens.
By the time I showed up in January, 1989, the school had moved to the far northern suburb of Kastri, into a former Swiss orphanage. It had 25 live-in students and a half dozen full-time staff. I always thought that school was a remarkable testament to Bill’s single-mindedness.
John MacArthur said that his father told him that if you do just one thing, and do it well, you’re way ahead of most people. MacArthur used to go on the mission field and ask people whom his church supported what they did- ‘Oh, a little of this, a little of that, a little of the other,’ they would reply, and Macarthur would realize that in the final analysis they weren’t doing much of anything. Bill Baldwin wasn’t like that. He did one thing-theology- and he did it well. He harnessed his love of theology with an intense desire to teach it in a school he wanted to found in Greece, and that became the engine that drove his entire life. Why Greece? He didn’t exactly know. He’d befriended a young Greek student in seminary, and somehow felt himself drawn to that country.
Bill was first, last and always a theologian. The attributes of God, and how they manifest themselves in this universe He has created, were his greatest passion. He lamented the ascendancy of science over theology, and theology’s slippage in the esteem of modern man. He was one of those rare people who considered theology to still be the “queen of the sciences,” and he used that phrase often in conversation. Perhaps that was the attraction Greece had for him.
After all, it was the Greek language that God used to explain Himself to the world in the greatest theological work in history, the New Testament. Just days after I came to Greece, Bill and Marion were driving me to their home north of Athens. I picked up Bill’s worn Greek New Testament. “What translation is this?” I asked as I opened it up, flipped through the pages, and tried to make sense of the Greek alphabet. “That’s not a translation,” Bill said. “That’s it.”
It struck me that the words in the book I was holding were, once upon a time, directly copied by faithful scribes before Johann Gutenberg came along, from original autographs breathed into being by the Holy Spirit Himself, and written down by men who had, with one exception, been eyewitness of the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Bill thought it was the funniest thing in the world that there were, in Greece, King James Only church planters. The reason is obvious.
Bill did not read fiction. He read a lot, mind you. But I’d never seen him with other than theological and works of practical Christian living in his hands. He did keep up with the latest news in this turbulent land, news broadcasts full of obscure references to alphabet soup government ministries, and its constant, dreary parade of mostly corrupt, incompetent and forked-tongue politicians. Bill could not discuss literature or cinema with you, or the arts. He didn’t know who Frank Lloyd Wright was. Neither did he care. I suspect he was the last person on the face of the earth to never write an email. He couldn’t name the best-loved actors in Greek film comedy. He only knew that they were side-splittingly funny- “It’s like Greece has about 10 Jerry Lewises,” he used to say. Bill did not fish. He did not ski. He was no renaissance man. He did one thing, and he did it well.
Bill was a consummately logical person. If someone was depressed, he sincerely could not understand why that person could not just ‘snap out of it.’ He was emotional, himself- he felt things deeply, and he had rare passion and drive- but he was just blessed with a happy personality. He was a very unusual person in that, although he was highly intelligent, he was also a fairly simple human being. Most highly intelligent people are also rather complex, and sometimes hard to figure out. With Billy Ray Baldwin, the old saw applied: what you saw was what you got. He never kept you guessing.
He had a candor which was rare in this country, where personal information is closely guarded because knowledge is power, and you never know how a confidence you share with a friend can come back to haunt you when that friend ceases to be so close to you. The result of this is that ministry in Greece is often a case of knowing a lot of people superficially and no one deeply.
Bill shared with me, as I shared with him, more than a few personal confidences the first years I was in Greece. Bill and Marion shepherded me through one of the most difficult periods in my life as I tried to learn the language and struggled with the culture, which is vastly different from my own. For that I owe them a great deal. The last time I saw Bill, in February, 2009, it was to specifically thank him and Marion for all of their help. Bill knew what I was going through during my first years here, getting acclimated in the culture, and he felt deeply for me the ten years I spent in Greece as a single person. He was overjoyed the day I brought Zoe to his house to meet him and Marion, his face radiant, and his lips full of congratulations.
Bill’s narrow focus allowed him to accomplish something that perhaps no one else ever could: the founding of an institution that has become the hub of almost all Evangelical activity in this country. Everybody who is anybody in the Greek born-again community has had some dealings with the Greek Bible college, whether as a student, or an instructor, or someone doing research in its library, the largest of its kind in Greece, or as someone just passing through to see what is going on there. It really is hard to overstate this accomplishment. Bill was humble, and flexible. He could think on his feet, and it is a minor miracle that he was able to establish a school of this type under the cultural conditions which exist here.
Bill was an introvert by nature- he was gracious and polite to everyone, but, given his druthers, he’d be just as happy sitting in his easy chair reading a commentary by a contemporary theologian, books he heavily underlined in pencil and filled the margins with observations. “I like to interact with the books I read,” he said.
As befits a born athlete, he was a fitness freak. He jogged regularly, and loved to spend hours working in his yard. When I first met him he had a dark tan which I figured he’d gotten lounging around on a Greek beach somewhere. That’s the last thing he’d do. His tan came from hours out in the sun working in his yard. He would go to the sea to swim, and then he’d get out of the water, dry off, and leave as often as not. “What are you going to think about while you’re laying around on the beach looking at a bunch of near-naked women?” he told me once.
He loved his work. He hated furloughs- he felt he had so little do when he was in the US, and there was so much to do in Greece . He had the sunny disposition of a man who knew he was making a difference. Who knew he was right in the center of God’s will for his life. He never expressed any doubt in that area. More than once he said that the life of a missionary was the best possible life imaginable. Although, like everyone, I’m sure he had bad days, I’ve never seen him depressed, moody, or irrationally angry.
Billy Ray Baldwin suffered a massive stroke on May 17th, and spent the last month of his life on life support. It distressed me no end to read about him via Marion’s Face Book page, being in an induced coma, knowing that he never wanted that sort of thing for himself. But he had to obey Greek law, which rejects Living Wills (which he and Marion had both signed, for just such an eventuality) and their desire to not prolong a life through artificial support. He never woke up.
He spent the last month of his life in sort of a twilight world, not dead, certainly, but not really alive, either. I hated it that Marion, their kids, and their grandchildren had to watch him waste away, one day at a time, growing thinner each time they visited him in the hospital. In such cases it is helpful to do what psychology calls ‘reframing:’ You step back and look at the total picture. Bill Baldwin was alive for 936 months. For almost all of those months he enjoyed fairly good health. It was only the last month that was really bad. That, I suppose, is a pretty good deal overall.
Here’s my takeaway for Billy Ray Baldwin: he was one of the very few men whom I knew personally and whom I could comfortably characterize as ‘great.’ He was a model for world missions. He and Marion have given this country everything- including their children, all of whom have married Greeks. I loved being around him, and I missed him a great deal after I moved away from Athens in 1999 to Thessaloniki.
My life, had I never met him, would have been much poorer, and much more different. I thank God for his friendship, and can’t wait to see him in heaven. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve shed more than a few tears for this man during the last month. That’s only natural, because I loved him and respected him. God bless Bill Baldwin, and his Marion, and their children, their children’s spouses, and their grandchildren.
June 22, 2012
New in the sense that this is the first post of this blog. Old in the sense that it’s a compilation of the last five years of my prayer letters as a Christian worker in Greece. The difference being is that I added some comments in between the letters explaining the letters themselves. I’ve compiled the letters, and will spend the next period of time (this means anywhere from a few days up to a full month) editing, fixing typos, and inserting comments where appropriate. I actually have 23 years of prayer letters to draw from, but will start with those from the beginning of ’07 to the present and see how things work out…