Anaconda, Montana? It was only a half-remembered name from a high school geography book.
"We've heard about your work in Brookhaven."
"I don't know anything about starting a mission. Who would train me?"
"There will be no training," Mr. Cooper said tersely. "You've already had it at East Lincoln."
While I sat open-mouthed, the Reverend Mr. Parker, who knew Montana as well as he knew his Bible, explained that the Southern Baptist Convention had unsuccessfully tried for several years to carry its evangelical message into Anaconda. Two churches had been started and both failed, victims of indifference.
I wasn't sure what to say or how to react. My life was committed to serving God, but the offer, so surprising and unlikely, filled me with a foretaste of failure. How could I succeed where others with far more experience had been compelled to give up? I would be an alien in a strange land. Someone in the room mentioned that Anaconda was 2,300 miles from Mississippi, and I had never been out of the South.
I asked for time to think it over.
As I prepared to leave, Mr. Cooper said, "Before you decide, there's one more thing you should know."
Owen Cooper's voice was razor sharp. "I've been told Anaconda is a town too tough to crack!"
I left with mixed emotions and tried to sort my thoughts out by discussing the offer with everyone close to me.
Dad and Mom said no. ("People outside the South are different. Most of them are good people, but different nevertheless.")
My professors said no. ("Keep studying." "Why lose a year of school?" "Education comes first.")
Preachers I knew said no. ("Impossible!" "Anaconda, where's that?" "You won't convert enough people to fill a station wagon.")
The more "no's" I heard, the more I leaned toward going. I kept remembering Mr. Cooper's final words. But did he whip out that sentence as a warning to be cautious or a challenge to be courageous?
Only my friend Bill Mosley offered encouragement. "If you feel the Lord leading you to Anaconda, then go."
Two incidents clinched it for me. Walking by the post office in Jackson one day, I saw the famous World War I recruiting poster that had been revived Uncle Sam pointing a stern finger and saying, "I want you." I gazed at the poster, transfixed. I found a card with a prayer that someone had written on it in my wallet. I had never before taken the time to read the words. "O God, glorify Thyself today at my expense. Send me the bill anything, Lord. I set no price. I will not dicker or bargain. Glorify Thyself. I'll take the consequences."
The signs were all pointing in one direction Anaconda.
When I told Dad that I had decided to go, he didn't try to change my mind. Instead he gave me the advice that is still my standard, the simple, meaningful principles by which I live. No son ever received a more precious gift of wisdom:
"Always let God fill your heart with love."
"Look at every person as though he were a member of your own family."
"Think of every man as your father, except that he may be lost and needs Jesus."
"Think of every woman as your mother, except that she could need Christ to change her life.
"Look at every boy and girl as your brother and sister and consider them all candidates for the Lord's mercy and blessings.
"Never insult a man or a woman by look, word or gesture."
"Love everybody. The good have already earned your love. The bad may give you love when you least expect it."
"Don't look up at anyone and don't look down at anyone."
"Consider every woman a lady, every man a gentleman."
"If you do this, you'll never mistreat anyone or pass them by without telling about God's power to save."
That is my code. To me any women has always been a lady, a stumbling, incoherent drunk a gentleman. No matter what the provocation I've never answered a curse with a curse. I've attempted to treat everyone with the love and respect I would want for my own family.
In practice, Dad's advice has been priceless. It has soothed my anger, given me patience and understanding, forged friendships, and helped me win souls for Christ.
The semester is at an end, I left on June 10, 1962, at 11 P.M. on a boiling hot and humid Mississippi evening. The transition in climate a week later would be stark. I was to learn that it snowed in Montana in June.
My blue '55 Ford limped along, radiator smoking, eating gas and oil copiously. The water pump broke in Raton, New Mexico. It cost twenty-two dollars to fix, which put a massive dent in my budget. I'd left Mississippi with one hundred dollars.
The snow fell as I rolled through Montana's 10,000 and 12,000-foot peaks. I'd never driven on snow before, and the more the car slid and skidded around the scythe-shaped curves above the yawning valleys below, the more I gave thanks that I was saved.
After seven days Anaconda loomed ahead. It is not the most beautiful city on earth. The first sight to hit you is an enormous, depressing mountain of slag, the unprocessable residue of ore. The ore is extracted from the mines at Butte, twenty-five miles away, and shipped to Anaconda, which has the world's largest smelter.
The city was tossed together in 1883 as a working duchy of the Anaconda cooper and zinc mines in Butte.
The mine owners imported both rugged men from the potato-famine counties of Ireland and persecuted peasants from the mountains of the Balkans in southeastern Europe to work in the shadow of the peaks ringing Anaconda.
The men brought their religions Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Serbian Orthodoxy'”with them when they settled in the deep, fiercely cold Anaconda canyon.
Driving along Main Street I wondered if there was room in Anaconda for the sound of yet another drummer. "Too tough to crack?"
I'd find out soon enough.
I had three immediate needs: a place to stay, a church building, and a congregation.
I pulled up at the Marcus Daly Hotel, named for the principal founder of the Anaconda Company, and told the desk clerk, "I'm a preacher. I'm here to start a new church and I want the cheapest place to stay." He rented me four walls for only one dollar a day.
The bed was comfortable and I fell asleep a few moments after entering the room. I woke at about 10 P.M., still tired and very, very lonely.
I began praying aloud for guidance. During the night God came and told me that I wasn't alone, and that I need not fear. If I knocked on enough doors, witnessed to enough people, and preached the Word, many lives would be changed.
I prayed nonstop till morning when I was totally confident of victory.
When I went down for breakfast the desk clerk, a charming, blue-eyed lady, signaled to me. She moved in close and confided in a low, almost conspiratorial voice, "A very wicked woman in plain language, a prostitute who's lived in the hotel a long time came down an hour ago with her bags packed and said, 'I'm checking out.' When I asked why, she told me, 'I don't know where I'm going, but I've got to get out of here. I must be rooming next to a preacher. When I came in last night I heard him praying. I pulled a chair close to the wall and listened to him all night, crying and praying for people like me. I can't stand it.'"
I was sorry I never got a chance to witness to that lady, but at least she was under conviction.
A Baptist pastor in Butte had arranged for me to use the Seventh-Day Adventist Church building for one Sunday. I placed an ad in the paper, optimistically announcing the formation of the First Southern Baptist Church of Anaconda. I expected the ad to draw something of a crowd, believers, nonbelievers, and those who might be curious to meet Anaconda's newest minister.
When the moment for the service came that Sunday I raced to the pulpit and preached and on-fire sermon titled, "The Challenge Before Us." Never had I preached so fervently. I lost track of time and when I finally concluded I was out of breath and perspiring.
Then I issued the invitation to step forward and be saved and to join the First Southern Baptist Church of Anaconda. My eyes were riveted on a pleasant, dark-haired, neatly dressed middle-aged man in the front row.