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 believed that the two of us were part of a plot to have him ousted as teacher of the class. Bob and I knew we were totally innocent of any such deception. The Judge couldn’t have been any 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. That 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 the decor and especially the thick red curtains on the stage. 50 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 which was probably spilled soda that lightly stuck to the sole of one’s shoes and with walking caused a squeaking sound. When standing at the speaker’s stand, the lighting was so dim one couldn’t see the audience very well. That 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 to move the class to 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 that 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 I was just happy we were no longer meeting in the dreadful 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 that 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; and this incident caused the men of the class to begin thinking a courtroom might not be the 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 10 or 12 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 60 years the Men’s Bible Class was truly a part of the church and was submissive to the church leadership.
Following the move, Bob Merkle a retired businessman and long time resident of El Dorado agreed to teach along with the other 3 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 conference call number. We had the availability of 75 spaces for the same price. A very critical member of our conference call class was my Uncle Harry Gosling from St. Louis, Missouri. I had led him to the Lord while he was on vacation in El Dorado and offered him this option for a Sunday school class, and he jumped at it. 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 6 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 class because a local FM station offered to broadcast the class at a charge that was lower than what 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 that He opened that door.