The Men’s Theater Bible Class: Part 2

Men's Theater Bible Class - Officers 1981

Men’s Theater Bible Class – Officers

The Wednesday lunch meeting with Judge Harris was a little tense at first, because Bob Watson and I didn’t know what to expect from the man who might have thought the two of us were part of a plot to have him ousted as teacher. Bob and I knew we were totally innocent of any deception. The Judge couldn’t have been more gracious and forgiving, and assured us he understood there were “a few men who wanted some younger blood as teachers for the class.” During the meeting he said he would appreciate some help with the teaching, and offered to share the responsibility with each of us taking one Sunday each month. This was perfectly acceptable with us, and we shook hands on the new arrangement.

The Rialto Theater at the time was a dreadful place to have a Sunday school class, or any kind of meeting for that matter. The lighting was poor and it made the atmosphere dark and eerie with its’ decor and especially the thick red curtains on the stage. Fifty years earlier the theater was a picture of elegance, but time and deterioration had taken a huge toll. When one walked down the aisle there was a film of sticky substance, probably spilled soda which lightly stuck to the sole of your shoes and caused a squeaking sound when walking. When standing at the speaker’s stand the lighting was so dim one couldn’t see the audience very well. This was an advantage for some of the men who used the comfortable theater chairs and the dim lights to encourage a little nap during the lesson!

It wasn’t long before a group of us began a campaign to move the class to a location which was more conducive to fellowship in the light and less of dark nightclub atmosphere. The preference of a few of us was to move the class to the church since most of the members of the class were also members of the church. In its’ long history the class had never met at the church, and the general attitude was one of independence from the authority of the pastor and church staff.

Judge Harris was the key to making such a radical change in location, and when he became convinced of the need for a move a unanimous decision was reached. The new location for the class was to be the main court room in the Union County Court-House. The class name was also changed to The Men’s Bible Class. I would have preferred having the name indicate the class was a part of First Baptist Church, but that was too much change for some of the long-time members.

It was indeed strange to have a Bible class in a courtroom, but for me the Word was being faithfully taught and the location was secondary. I was happy we were no longer meeting in the dreadfully dark atmosphere of the Rialto Theater. The photograph above was taken of the officers of the class in 1981. I am seated on the front row with Dr. Don Harbuck, the pastor of First Baptist on my right, and Judge Oren Harris on my left. I don’t remember why Bob Watson was not in the picture, but he must have had other responsibilities for this day. Bob was the Principal of El Dorado High School at the time. It was a big step forward in class thinking to allow Dr. Harbuck to be in the photo since independence from the church had always been a hallmark of the class.

An interesting and potentially hazardous thing happened one Sunday morning while I was at the hospital and not present. This incident caused the men of the class to begin thinking a courtroom might not be an ideal place for a Sunday school class. The county jail was on the top floor of the building and through some strange circumstances there was a breakout of several prisoners from the jail. During the fellowship time prior to the class opening one of the escapees came into the room and for a short time held the class hostage while brandishing a knife or some type of weapon. He apparently realized a hostage situation with old men was futile, and he quickly fled with no harm done to anyone. Within a few hours the escapees were caught and arrested. It made for an interesting morning of Bible study, and I was sorry I missed the action. I believe this planted the seed for yet another move for the class.

Within this time frame the church had completed and moved into a beautiful Family Life Center, and the fellowship hall was a perfect location for our class. Dr. Harbuck was totally in favor of the move but didn’t want to appear he was requiring such an action, so he took a low profile in the discussions. The majority of men in the class were in favor, but there were some who just weren’t going to move into the church building regardless of the vote. There were perhaps ten or twelve who voted to stay in the court-house and said they would obtain their own teacher since the Judge, Bob and I voted to move. It was an excellent decision, and now for the first time in sixty years the Men’s Bible Class was truly a part of the church and was submissive to church leadership.

Following the move Bob Merkle a retired businessman and long time resident of El Dorado agreed to teach along with the other three teachers, so each one of us was responsible for one Sunday per month. A significant innovation was begun which revolutionized the outreach of the class. We started a conference call ministry by which the telephone company patched into our audio system and people could join the class each Sunday on an 800 number conference call. We had the availability of seventy-five spaces for one price.

A significant member of our conference call class was my Uncle Harry Gosling from St. Louis, Missouri. I had led him to faith in the Lord Jesus while he was on vacation in El Dorado and offered him this option for a Sunday school class. I was glad to keep him supplied with Sunday school material, so he could follow along with the teaching. He continued calling in each Sunday for the next six months before his final sickness and death from Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Within the next year the class switched from a conference call class to a radio Bible class. A local FM station offered to broadcast the class at a charge which was lower than we were paying the phone company. The availability and quality of the transmission was so much better. To this day this unique class is still broadcast throughout Union County each Sunday for an hour. The total outreach and effect of the ministry of this class is not known, but I am confident the Lord is blessing their efforts to reach others with the gospel. I have nothing but great memories and respect for the men I was privileged to know and serve alongside in that Men’s Bible Class and am grateful to the Lord He opened this door of ministry.

Dr. John


The Men’s Theater Bible Class: Part 1

Men's Theater Bible Class - Officers 1981

Men’s Theater Bible Class – Officers

The most unique Sunday School class I have ever been a member was the Men’s Theater Bible Class at First Baptist Church in El Dorado. The path God took me from being a religious agnostic to becoming a co-teacher of this prestigious men’s Bible class was unusual to say the least and at best not without major struggles.

Cathy and I moved to El Dorado in 1971 to begin raising our family and for me to begin my surgical practice. The decision to return to my home was difficult for me, because I had once made the statement I would “never live in such a small town.” It was difficult for Cathy, because she was from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the idea of living in a small Southern town was a huge cultural shift. Having family there and having a ready surgical referral source in my brother (Bubba), overcame most but not all of our objections.

Shortly after our move we joined the First Baptist Church without ever visiting any other church. Mom and Bubba and his family were long time members, and it only made sense to have our membership where our family belonged. At this point in our lives Cathy and I were not even faithful church attenders. We seldom attended church during the four years we lived in New Orleans, and for the two years we were in the U.S. Air Force in Valdosta, Georgia our only attendance was in a Methodist church. We quickly made new friends at First Baptist, and because we wanted our children to have good spiritual training we became  regular in attendance. We were members of a young adult couple’s class which was taught very well by our friend Robert Wike, who was in charge of the Physical Therapy Department at Union Medical Center (now Medical Center of South Arkansas).

In 1975 Robert told the church nominating committee he would only continue teaching the couple’s class “if John Moore will agree to co-teach the class with me.” I reluctantly agreed to accept the appointment, because I had no prior experience in teaching, and the class was quite large with some individuals who had more Bible knowledge than  I. There was a long learning curve for me, but I remained faithful in study and preparation, and my teaching skills slowly improved according to Cathy who was my greatest encourager.

As a result of a number of factors especially the faithful witness of Bubba and others, Cathy and I attended the Bill Gothard seminar in Dallas in August, 1977 and had a major spiritual change in our lives. We finally understood  being born again meant having a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ through repentance and by faith receiving His salvation by grace.

We received the free gift from Him on August 6, 1977 and everything about us changed. Among other things the scriptures had a more personal significance, and I had a fresh and greater desire to learn His Word and become a more effective teacher. We continued in the couple’s class until 1980 when I accepted a new appointment and the challenge to co-teach the Men’s Theater Bible Class.

This class had a long and significant history in the life of First Baptist Church. Started in the 1920’s when El Dorado had a meteoric increase in population due to the discovery of oil, the class reached out to men of all denominations. They met in the Rialto Theater which had the largest seating capacity of any downtown building apart from the church itself. At its’ peak the weekly attendance of the class exceeding three hundred men and was taught by Judge John Ragsdale, who was an active member and deacon at First Baptist. By the late 1970’s Judge Ragsdale had departed and the class was being taught by Judge Oren Harris. He was a long-time member of the U. S. Congress from the Fourth Congressional District of Arkansas and was then serving as a Federal Judge on the bench at El Dorado. The class  had dwindled to a small handful of men perhaps twenty-five to thirty.

A group of men from the class approached me in 1980, and asked if I would consider assuming the teaching position of the class. I assumed Judge Harris had decided to relinquish his responsibilities as the sole teacher, and he and the class were all in agreement with the change. After consideration and prayer I told the committee I would accept the position if my friend Bob Watson would agree to co-teach with me. In my surgical practice I was responsible for weekend ER call once each month and wanted to make certain the teaching was covered in case I got called to the emergency room.

On the Sunday morning we agreed to be presented to the class and receive a vote of affirmation both Bob and I were present and prior to the class opening shook hands with all the members including Judge Harris. When Judge Harris spoke to us he said, “I understand you two men have been asked to take my place and teach this class next year,” to which we responded, “if the class is in agreement.” I thought his question was unusual since I thought he knew about the committee approaching us. We discovered when the class began Judge Harris was not interested in stepping down as class teacher and was not in agreement with the actions of the apparent self-appointed committee. After the opening prayer the Judge stood and said, “I would like a vote of confidence from this class for me to continue as your teacher next year and have all those in favor to stand.” Every man present stood while the men who had approached us remained in the back of the class out of sight of the rest. It was an extremely embarrassing moment for Bob and me and when the class was over, we spoke to Judge Harris and explained our dilemma, and why we were even there. He said he understood our situation and made an appointment for us to have lunch the following week to determine if we could reach a mutually agreeable plan. The lunch meeting was set for Wednesday noon.    To be continued–

Dr. John

A Life Changing Letter

Oren Harris Letter

Oren Harris Letter

I have received a number of official letters in my professional life but few have altered the direction of my life similar to the one I received from my congressional representative in 1964. The letter I received came in response to the only letter I have ever written to a congressman.

In 1964 I graduated from the University of Arkansas Medical School and moved to Atlanta, Georgia to begin a one year rotating internship at Grady Memorial Hospital. A rotating internship meant I was not specializing during that year, but was to spend 3 months in training as a new physician in each of the four medical fields; internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics & gynecology and surgery. During that eventful year, I met and began a courtship with Cathy Young of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who was the most beautiful woman I had ever met. After dating for several months we were both convinced that we were meant to spend a lifetime together in marriage and began making plans for our future. I was certain I wanted to pursue a career in general surgery, which required four additional years of surgical training.  The salaries for a surgical resident in those days was very low and not enough to support a husband and wife, but Cathy was an elementary school teacher and with our combined salaries we were certain we could make it. The major obstacle we faced was the war that was raging in Vietnam. Every able-bodied physician completing his internship was immediately commissioned into active duty in one of the branches of the armed forces. I had already enlisted in the U. S. Air Force as a medical student and was certain to enter active duty as a Captain following my internship.

There was an option which allowed physicians enough time to complete their training, and it was a federal deferment called The Berry Plan. One had to apply through a federal agency in Washington, D.C. and then wait on their decision whether or not you were selected. No one knew the criteria used for that selection, and there were no contact numbers to call in Washington to determine one’s status in the process. Cathy and I didn’t want to marry one month and have me ship out to Vietnam the next, so our anxieties were high. In addition a residency program would not accept me unless I had already secured the proper deferment for the full length of their training.

I called Pop and Mom one day to let them know how Cathy and I were doing, and I had not “heard anything from Washington.” Pop casually asked, “Why don’t you write my friend, Congressman Oren Harris to see if he can help you? He’s a pretty powerful man in Washington.” I didn’t know much about Congressman Harris except he was  from El Dorado and had been our representative from the 4th Congressional District of Arkansas for many years. What I didn’t know was he was chairman of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce and was one of the best known and respected men on Capitol Hill. I immediately sat down and crafted a lengthy, hand-written letter to Congressman Harris explaining my situation and asking for his help. Within a week I received the letter above from the Congressman, and I knew I would be hearing very soon from the proper authorities. Within just a few days, I received a telegram from the agency handling deferments stating I had been selected to receive a four year deferment allowing me to continue my surgical training!

Cathy and I were ecstatic! Now I could apply for the LSU Surgical Program at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, and we could make definite plans for our marriage in the fall of 1965. Within another month of receiving the deferment, I was accepted into the LSU Program which was to begin on July 1, 1965. Cathy and I set the wedding date for August 7, 1965 in her home town of Fort Lauderdale. When all those plans were finalized, I wrote Congressman Harris a thank you letter telling him how grateful I was for his help and all about our future plans. Again I received a wonderful personal letter from him which I have also saved.

As an interesting footnote, I never had a personal meeting with Congressman Harris until 1971 when Cathy and I moved back to El Dorado and joined the First Baptist Church where Judge and Mrs. Harris were members. He had been appointed Federal Judge by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 and took his seat on the federal bench in El Dorado on August 11, 1965 four days after our marriage.

In the early 1980’s I accepted a teaching position at First Baptist Church to co-teach the Men’s Theater Bible Class along with Bob Watson, Bob Merkle and Judge Harris. It was a wonderful class with a long, illustrious history dating back to the oil boom days of the 1920’s, and the class had been meeting for many of those years in the Rialto Theater. I had the joy and privilege of getting to personally know Judge Harris and learning from his storehouse of wisdom. On more than one occasion, I was able to recount what a major influence he had been to Cathy and me and had shown him the letter he wrote so long before that had changed the direction of our lives. We both agreed that God is so good in leading us in the right paths even though at the time we may not have been fully trusting in Him.

Dr. John

The Limo Trip To Smackover

1930's limo

Ike Wilson was one of Pop’s best friends, and the two of them could spin some of the funniest tales I ever heard. When he came to our home, which was usually in the evening,  the two of them would begin telling stories of growing up in South Arkansas, I would sit and quietly listen for hours at a time. I never knew whether any of their tales were true, but since I heard them so often I assumed they were. Regardless of the number of times I heard them they were always funny to me because of the gestures they made while mimicking the voices of their subjects. I’m confident they loved telling them because I was a good listener and laughed along with them. One of Ike’s tales I especially loved occurred years before and involved him owning and driving a limousine.

In the middle 1930’s Ike was a young man in his late twenties in age and was quite an entrepreneur. Despite the fact the Great Depression had devastated the nation’s economy El Dorado was still enjoying some of the prosperity brought about by the oil boom of the 1920’s. The phenomenal rise of the automotive industry increased the demand for oil and gasoline products, and the refineries in El Dorado were producing them as rapidly as possible. Huge fortunes were being made in South Arkansas by fortunate landowners and wildcat speculators and good jobs were available. At one period in time Ike owned and drove a limousine which was appealing to some of the executives and speculators who were constantly travelling in and out of the area. He would lease the limo by the ride or for a specified period of time, and he worked as the chauffeur.

On this particular day by mid-morning Ike had not been hired and was in his usual parking spot next to B.W. Reeves Department Store which was on the northwest corner of the square. It was located two blocks from the First Baptist Church which was a good location for attracting passersby who might require transportation. The pastor of First Baptist Dr. John Buchanan was walking towards the square and saw the limo with Ike sitting alone. Since Ike was a member of the church and well-known to him, he stopped to ask how he was doing and how his business was faring. During the conversation Ike asked Dr. Buchanan if he had ever ridden in a limo, to which he responded he had never been given the opportunity. Ike said, “Then hop in and I’ll drive you up to Smackover and back.”

Smackover is a small town twelve miles to the northwest of El Dorado and was founded as a result of the oil boom. The area surrounding Smackover was known among oilmen as the North Field and was rich in the oil and gas produced from the Smackover Formation. The road to Smackover, although well-traveled was narrow and marked by many curves. It was quite different from the four lane highway we have today. Ike told me he made the trip to Smackover and back to the square in approximately twenty-five minutes. Under normal conditions the trip usually took thirty to thirty-five minutes. Upon their return Ike asked, “How did you like the limo ride, Dr. Buchanan?” He replied, “Ike, I have never been more scared nor prayed more in my life than I have in these last twenty-five minutes. Just so you will know how I felt and how scared I was, I am going to call on you to pray the next time you come to church!”

Ike said he knew Dr. Buchanan was serious because of how pale and frightened he looked when he made the statement. Dr. Buchanan frequently called on men of the church to pray publicly, but these men were deacons who were accustomed to it. Ike had never prayed in front of such a large group. Because of his anxiety Ike didn’t attend church for several months. He continued attending the Men’s Bible Class to which he belonged, but went home promptly after Sunday school. He didn’t want to face the embarrassment which might follow if he stuttered and stammered while praying.

His mother Cousin Annie couldn’t understand why Ike was missing so many church services for such a long time. He said he was not about to tell her because she was likely to say something to Dr. Buchanan which would make him even more aware of the promise he had made. Finally after another month or two Ike decided to risk attending church thinking surely Dr. Buchanan had forgotten about the ride and his promise. He waited to be seated until after the offering was taken, because it was always prior to the offering Dr. Buchanan would call on a deacon to pray. Ike said all during the sermon he never heard a word the pastor said, because he was worrying Dr. Buchanan would spot him and remember his promise. At one point he was certain their eyes met. Ike said, “I was really beginning to sweat, because I knew what was about to happen.” About five minutes before the sermon ended Ike stood up and slipped out the back door of the church. No one but Ike and Dr. Buchanan ever knew why Ike left church early that morning. Ike didn’t say whether he and Dr. Buchanan ever had another conversation about the incident, but I am certain the pastor never requested another limousine ride with Ike!

Dr. John