Gary Willingham-McLain

I was a missionary kid, and attended Sunday School and church all my life. My mother taught a lot of my best Sunday School classes. I learned about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and a lot about the Bible. My childhood in Burundi, Africa, was fairly happy: playing soccer, hunting fruit birds in the orchards, and reading books (no TV).

As an adolescent in junior high school I became increasingly moody. Maybe it was related to my parents’ deteriorating marriage. When I was in 9th grade, I was made acutely aware that they were not happy in their marriage, and that they would likely have to divorce eventually. I did not do well with learning that.

I can’t remember exactly when I met Jesus for real, experiencing a personal relationship with him. I know there were several altar calls in our missionary worship services, and I probably responded to them.

I was often very emotionally convicted of my sin (though I can’t remember now what my “sins” actually were back then).

I think, though, that it was when I was attending boarding school in Kenya, many hundreds of miles away from my home mission station, that I really began to meet Jesus very personally. I started reading the gospel of Romans on my own and taking lots of notes. And I wrote about what I was thinking, and my questions, in letters to a missionary lady named Jeanne Seagar back to my home country of Burundi. She wrote me back very challenging answers, pushing me into deeper prayer, commitment, and relationship with Jesus through the scriptures in Romans.

That was really my conversion experience, in the time between grades 9 and 10. After that I became engaged in reading the Bible by myself and in praying more. I began to want deeply to live for God. I could feel Jesus’s forgiveness, and that Jesus was with me. There was a small revival in my Christian high school in Kijabe, Kenya, and I remember being very active in scripture and prayer. I even felt the call as a teenager to preach. I gave an evangelistic sermon on a high school mission trip to a remote, unreached part of Kenya. I also remember leading a man to pray the prayer of receiving Christ, using the four spiritual laws booklet, in a park in Nairobi, Kenya. A central part of my story became walking with Jesus, and going deeper in Jesus.

Trusting Jesus has made a difference in my life, though it has been slow going for Jesus to really get through to me at a deeper level.

I have struggled with depression and have on occasion succumbed to addictive sin practices. When I feel distant from God, I tend to go into hiding, isolation, even escapist tendencies. Much later, after earning my PhD in English, I joined a recovery group. That time was one of the closest I have ever had with Jesus. This Christian recovery group allowed me to feel totally vulnerable and trusting with the others, in the presence of Jesus. The Holy Spirit has guided me in confession, repentance, and in trusting that God’s great kindness is the only answer for my life.

In graduate school, while on a year’s study visit to France with Laurel, my wife, we both felt the call to living in neighborhoods with the poor, and across racial boundaries. Later, back in the States, when I got my position as a young English professor at a university in Pittsburgh, we followed that call of God. We moved into a multi-racial at-risk neighborhood and focused our work for Jesus through a neighborhood church there. And then, a few years later, I felt God’s call to enter into full time ministry as a pastor.

My life with Jesus is one in which I know that he is the deepest and only answer to everything for me, and for others around me. I love preparing for sermons, I love discovering and rediscovering the majestic wonder and mercy of God behind the familiarity of texts I’ve read and heard all my life. A gift God has given me, partly through my literary education, is to see by his Spirit, the Great Joy and Newness of God. Behind the texts and surface appearances of life we are all so familiar with, God is real!

The adventure I feel God calling me to is the call to the heart of it all—again, but with much greater depth: the heart of living in Christ, trusting Christ, growing in prayer and intimacy with Christ, and sharing Jesus with others. I’m able to share the love of Jesus through preaching, in visits, in allowing God to lead our church more deeply into mission, in talking with people at the local coffee shop, and to reach out deeply to younger people. I personally want to become more vulnerable and open to the transforming power of Jesus’s Spirit in my life, and in our lives as Christ-centered people.

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