Month: May 2003

The Founder’s View: Lessons learned in the creation of a global ministry.

ECHO’s Co-Founder talks about how ECHO began its global ministry and lessons learned in the process. Dr. Martin Price, shares his personal account (sometimes called his professional testimony) of the process he went through from believing God was leading him to find a way to use science to help the very poor and to be involved with the great commission.  Written for those navigating the confusing struggle to understand how God guides and wondering if he really ever calls someone to do one specific thing. If He does, how does someone discover what that is?  

How Did ECHO Begin Its Global Ministry?

© 2003 by Dr. Martin Price

“How can you use science to help the poor?”  I had been invited to the campus of Wheaton College to speak to a group of students on that topic in 1979.  It was a question that had caused me to make some drastic career moves, and was going to lead to an even bolder career move.

There are moments when I think, “If this were a movie there would be dramatic music at this point so we’d all know how important this will be later.”  There was of course no music, but looking back, that talk at Wheaton was clearly one of those moments.  It was during this visit that my host, Dr. Wayne Bragg, told me that I really must meet Dick Dugger.

Dick was a successful businessman in Elkhart, Indiana and an active member of the United Methodist church.  In the early 1970’s he had taken several teenagers on a workteam to an orphanage in Haiti to expose them to what life can be like in that impoverished country.  It turned out that he was to be the one whose life would never be the same.  It was not many months after that trip, in 1973, that he formed a not-for-profit organization called the Educational Concerns for Haiti Organization (ECHO).

For the next several years ECHO hired one or two recent college graduates every year or two and sent them to Haiti to help out the local church in various ways.  The major effort centered on a unique and somewhat experimental method for growing hydroponic vegetables using a combination of fresh and seawater.  By 1979, however, Dick had concluded that the mission was not accomplishing what he had hoped and was looking for new directions.  He asked me to meet with him and a few other volunteer consultants with the following charge: “What can we do that no one else is doing that will make a significant difference in the world.”  One possible resource was a five-acre farm in North Fort Myers, Florida that ECHO was renting from the United Methodist District for $1 per year.  The district expected to eventually build a church on the property. ECHO had a three-story A-frame on the farm, but it was not currently being used.

The committee met two more times over the next two years.  As you will soon read, about the time that Dick first went to Haiti, I was in the midst of an intense personal search centered around the subject of my talk at Wheaton College.  How could I combine two strong interests? One of those interests was global Christian missions.  The other was to use my science background to help the poor.  A few years earlier I had gone so far as to do three years of post-doctoral research in agriculture at Purdue University to “retool” myself professionally (my doctorate is in biochemistry) to work on agricultural problems that affect small farmers in developing countries.

Gradually the thought began to gel in my mind that there was no central clearing house to give technical backup to missionaries and the national church as they worked with small farmers and urban gardeners.  I saw a need for a group that would respond to questions these people encountered in their work, provide perspective and information, and send trial packets of seed for “underutilized” tropical plants.  In many ways I became more interested in helping this small organization in Florida than I was in my job as a research manager at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio.  But as is the case with any busy professional, I had little energy left to do much of significance for ECHO after a busy day at work.

In the spring of 1981 I called Dick a bit sheepishly.  “I have come to realize that the only way we are going to make any of the things we have been dreaming about happen,” I said, “is if one of us gives his full time to make them happen.  I would be interested in doing that.”  A few weeks before that I had told my employer that I would be leaving within a couple months to find a way to become involved in agriculture in developing countries.  I had little idea what that would be.  I will always remember Dick’s reply.  “I have been thinking the same thing.  But I knew that ECHO could never match an industrial salary, so I had never even brought up the subject.”

ECHO was able to come up with a grant of $50,000 for each of the first three years.  At the end of that time we had to demonstrate that there really were people out there working in developing countries who felt the need for the services we envisioned. Without ever having seen ECHO, my wife Bonnie and I drove to North Fort Myers, Florida to begin work in June 1981.  Except for the Miami airport, neither of us had even been in Florida.

ECHO immediately closed its work in Haiti (the last intern in Haiti was about to finish his assignment) and began developing a global ministry.  I had to learn how to raise money, operate and manage a non-profit organization, set up an office, implement the services we envisioned, locate seed for very hard-to-find plants with promising traits for difficult growing situations, and begin developing a network of people with a felt need for what ECHO was now offering. The greatest question in my mind was whether or not these services would really be needed.  And if they were, how would I get in touch with this widely scattered group working in scores of countries for scores of organizations and churches?

Well, questions did start arriving.  I quickly learned that no amount of education would prepare me for the kinds of questions that missionaries asked! How can I keep baboons out of the garden?  What kind of cactus might be used for camel fodder?  Why do our mango trees bloom but not set fruit?  How can we control insects when people cannot afford insecticides?  There was a lot of on-the-job learning.

One of the earliest ECHO volunteers recently told me, “I thought ECHO was more likely to fail than to succeed in those days.”  Bonnie and I ourselves wondered at times.  But the work was something for which I had been preparing for over a decade—not even knowing just what it was that I thought God was leading me to do.  At every previous position I had a sense that it was temporary.  From the hour we arrived at ECHO until now I have had a firm conviction that I am at the place that God wants me to be.


The narrative so far only superficially answers the question of how ECHO began its global ministry.  The real story is in large part a spiritual story.  Everyone at ECHO has his or her own story that involves a spiritual dimension, but here I will share my own story.   I share it because if I had not believed the things I believe and, as a consequence, made the decisions I made, ECHO, as we know it, would not be here.

There is a second reason that I write this. I had been on an intense professional and spiritual odyssey for over a decade, believing that God was leading to something that I could only dimly see.  It led to some pretty wild career changes and times of serious doubt as to whether He was leading at all.  I often wondered if I had made shipwreck of my scientific career.  Along this path I learned a lot about the process of seeking to know God and follow His leading.  I know that many who read this are on a similar quest.  For that reason, I will later share in some detail how I approached the subject of guidance or “calling,” and some reflections on the subject more than two decades later. It is my prayer that you may find some insights that will be helpful if you are considering taking bold steps in your personal odyssey.

How I Came to Be a Christian

I became a Christian my sophomore year at Ohio University.  I should modify that.  I had always been a “cultural Christian.” My parents faithfully took me to the small rural Presbyterian church in SE Ohio that my great, great, great grandfather helped to establish.  He had moved his family to the area and began clearing the forest to begin farming in 1818.  My parents and the church had given me a thorough exposure to the stories of the Bible and a faith in God.  The reason I say I was a “cultural Christian” is that though it was an important part of my culture, I had not even thought of making my own personal commitment to follow Christ.

As an undergraduate I was religious, led a moderate lifestyle and attended church.  But I had no concept of personal sin, of being a disciple of Christ, of ministering to others, or that anything was lacking in my spiritual life. I found my identity in academic success.  The main thing I lived for was to get A’s in my classes and, if possible, to get a higher score on tests than my friends.

I believe that in my second semester as a sophomore, God arranged some circumstances so that I would meet a certain group of students.  A week after the semester started I changed my schedule to take introductory physics.  On the last day that schedule changes could be made, an attractive coed also changed into that class and was seated directly in front of me—and got my attention.

In due course I asked her out one evening.  On our first date conversation turned to the Bible.  She told me that she was meeting with a group of students to study the Bible one evening a week and began telling me the story of Jonah and the whale.  I was a bit put off at first because I of course had heard that story.  But as she continued I realized I had no idea what the significance of the story was, especially for people living today.  She also said this group met regularly to share each other’s concerns and to pray.  I had never known people of my own age who did such things and I began to sense for the first time that there was a dimension to the spiritual life about which I knew little.

Not many weeks later I began meeting with that group. (No, the romance did not develop.)  The group had an unusual name, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. All the students were excited about an upcoming conference to consider what the Bible had to say about our lives on campus.  I asked if I could go and of course was welcomed.

No one “evangelized” me.  They modeled in different ways what it meant to be a Christian.  They assumed that the Bible was really true and that it had all kinds of implications for our lives. I hadn’t exactly doubted the Bible, I just hadn’t thought of it as being so relevant to my life and decisions.  It was an overwhelming experience to be with over a hundred people from many campuses and universities around Ohio who had this same spiritual spark that I had first noticed in the young lady.  I wanted to be like them, but wasn’t.  What was I missing?

The speaker, Jim Reapsom, gave us an assignment for Saturday afternoon.  “Go to a place where you are alone in the surrounding woods and think on this question.  “What does Easter mean to me?”  That seemed like an easy question.  I knew the story, but there was nothing of real significance I could say about it meaning much to me personally.  I think I wrote something like, “It is very important to churches because it is the day Jesus was resurrected.”  I thought I ought to be able to say more, but what?

Saturday evening I was even more moved as my peers sang hymns, many of them new to me, with such meaning and such feeling.  Their faith was so “real” to them.  The talk that night was based on the teaching in I Corinthians 2 on the theme of “the mind of Christ.”  (“For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.”) I don’t recall any of what was said except the prayer at the end of the talk.  Rev. Reapsom prayed, “If there is anyone here who has never committed their life to following you, enable them to do that this weekend.”

I was finally beginning to “get it.”  The whole point of the Bible is that I am to stop living just for myself and instead to live for Christ minute by minute.  It struck me as peculiar that he prayed that God would “enable me to do that.”  I had not realized there was something I was unable to do.  At the same time I sensed that I was now going to be able to.  I am not one to make quick decisions on anything so important,  so I prayed that if this is real I would still be able to respond the next day in some quiet place not influenced by the excitement of an event.

So on a Sunday afternoon in March 1963 I had a brief conversation with God. I told Him that I was sorry for my sins because that had been stressed.  However, I was unaware of any particular sin except for the one huge one that I had been living for myself instead of for Him.  I said I was going to try to live not for myself but for Him and added, “It is going to take an incredible work on your part if I’m ever going to be able to do that.”  I had no idea at the time how much had to change and how humanly impossible that commitment was.  That is why we often see the bumper stickers that say something like, “Please be patient with me, God isn’t finished with me yet.”

Now those who have been Christians for some time may be taken aback by this conversion experience.  Isn’t one supposed to become a Christian first by acknowledging specific sins, and understanding the significance of the cross?  It doesn’t start with a commitment to follow Him does it?  It did in my case.  I have no doubt that my conversion began at that time, though my understanding of what happened was to come later.

It took just a few weeks before those details began to be filled in.  Is this new to you? What I share is not specific to one denomination but is the basic message that has been believed for centuries by people in all kinds of churches.  (Beware though—it can change your life.)  Now I need to get on with the story of what all this has to do with ECHO.

My First Encounter With the Thought That God Might Have Specific Plans For Me.

(First, a note to those wrestling with how/if God still calls individuals to do particular things.  I used to call what I am about to share “my professional testimony.”  I now prefer to call it a case study in guidance.  Case studies are used to show what decisions and actions were taken and what the results were, regardless of whether those decisions and actions were wise or unwise.  Then lessons are drawn whether positive or negative.  What follows is an account of questions, thoughts, opportunities and consequences as I experienced them at the time.  It was my best effort to understand how God might be leading. Though Scripture is utterly reliable and inspired by God, my understanding of Scripture and its application to my life cannot make such authoritative claims. That is why this is a case study.  I welcome you to come to your own conclusions.  Now, on with the story….)

Every child is asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up.”  College students are asked what they want to do after graduation.  I was very focused in college because I knew exactly where I wanted my career to go.  As a sophomore in high school I decided to become a biochemistry professor.  (Eight years after graduating from high school I did indeed become an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.)

Now that I had decided to make a serious effort to follow Christ, it soon became apparent that becoming a Christian had greatly complicated my life!  As I began to study the Bible I realized that decisions were no longer just a matter of what I wanted to be and do.  For example, II Corinthians 5:15 says that Christ “died for all that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for Him.”  “What does that mean?” I wondered.

It was a new concept to me that God’s relationship with me might be so personal that He had even planned certain things for my life.  Take for example Ephesians 2:8-10 which says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  What are these good works?  How do I discover them?  How might I miss them? Or does this verse mean nothing more than that we were created to find good works and get involved in them?

My first big “crisis” in guidance came my senior year at Ohio University.  The previous passage caused me to think it possible or even likely that God had prepared specific good works for me to walk in them.  If so, did that alter the decision in high school to become a biochemistry professor? I had not been seeking to follow Christ at that time, so the decision was based on nothing more than what I wanted to do.  I decided to rethink my career from the standpoint of one that is trying to be Christ’s disciple.

Because my new life in Christ had been so transformational and I had already become a Christian leader as president of the local Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship chapter, a natural thought was, “Should I go to seminary instead?”

I told God in prayer that I would do whichever He wished as soon as He made it clear to me which direction that might be. [Keep in mind that this is a case study.  Ask yourself questions as you read.  For example, do you think that was a wise thing to pray?]

I decided to make two lists.  Over a period of some weeks I would write down whatever reason occurred to me, pro or con, for going to graduate school in biochemistry or for going to seminary.  I corresponded with three graduate schools and one seminary.  My intent was to subjectively add up the pros and cons for each option and see which was God’s plan.  The problem that arose, however, was that both lists were about equally convincing.  For help I turned to some of the good books on guidance that were available.  Most basically said something like the following.

A story was told of a ship captain centuries ago who was taking the ship parallel to the coast looking for the one place where there was a channel deep enough to take the ship safely to shore. A passenger asked how he could tell where to turn.  The captain replied, “See those white posts going up from the shore.  When all of those line up, I know I am at the spot where I must turn the ship.”

There are several posts that, when they line up, can give us some sense of where God is leading—or that something is not right with a direction we may be considering.

The first post—Is it consistent with Scripture?  If it is not, I need look no farther.  For example, I do not need to wonder whether God might be calling me to lie to our donors or to my wife.  Neither to discern whether I should have an extramarital affair, engage in some “harmless” shoplifting or fail to honor my parents.  However anything that is consistent with Scripture is at least a permitted option.

The second post—Is it wise?  Certainly there are instances in Scripture where God asked people to do things that would seem to go against wisdom (e.g. Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac , the prophet Hosea being told to marry a prostitute.)   But given the countless calls to get and use wisdom in Scripture it would seem to be folly to relegate wisdom to a minor role and rely instead on more supernatural ways to seek God’s leading. Jesus was noted for His wisdom (Mark 6:2 and Luke 2:52.) James urges us to ask for wisdom (James 5:1 .)  Note that wisdom is the ability to make wise decisions, not the supernatural answer to a specific question.

The third post—What is the counsel of people whom I respect?  Individuals may give bad advice, but if most of these trusted people seem to be either urging or discouraging me, then I need to be extra cautious before going ahead counter to their counsel.

The fourth post—Is there a good match with my abilities? Elizabeth O’Conner wrote, “Much of God’s will is already written into the fabric of your being.”  This is not an absolute sign. God does use us in our weakness.  However, I believe that the norm is for Him to use us in the things we enjoy and do really well. The “burden of proof” should be heavy before we would go in a direction that is contrary to our abilities.  I have very little skill in art, so it would be a mistake to pursue a career move toward art unless God in some way overwhelmingly directed me!

The fifth post—Do circumstances allow it?  To be sure, God can change circumstances.  There is no certainty whether a closed door means to stop or to show faith and persist in trying to open it.  Neither is there a guarantee that a great opportunity that is open is a circumstance God intended for guidance.

The sixth post—An inward sense of leading.  Some call this a sense of the inner pressure of the Holy Spirit.  People might describe it as a sense that God simply does or does not want them to go in a certain direction.  Sometimes they describe that sense as being quite strong.  Even though it may be of God, anything so subjective as this should both be heeded and make us wary.  Our wishes, hopes, fears, goals, and a host of emotions have the potential to mislead us.  I think of Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt.  Who can understand it?”

After some weeks it was time to subjectively add up the list of pros and cons for graduate school or seminary.  But both lists seemed to be equally weighted.  This did not seem to be the way God was going to answer that prayer, “God, as soon as you make clear to me which way to go I’m prepared to take that step.”

I wrote a letter explaining my dilemma to a more experienced Christian.  She replied, “Martin, do you really believe that God is going to guide?  God doesn’t promise to always make clear which way to go.  He promises to guide. A great illustration of this principle from Scripture is Proverbs 16:9, “A man’s mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.”  Make your lists, but don’t get hung up with them if there is no clear direction.  Set a date, pray that God will guide you and then make a decision.”

I set a certain date at 10:00 p.m. when I would make a decision and prayed that God would guide.  When that time came, I decided to go to graduate school.  I never had a second thought as to whether this was the right decision after that, taking on faith that God indeed had answered by prayer and had guided my decision.  That same evening I wrote and signed a document expressing my intent before God that I was going to graduate school for the same reason that I would have gone to seminary—to serve Him.  I asked for His strength to avoid the temptation to grasp for my own benefit the opportunities that the Ph.D would offer but rather to use my career to serve Him in whatever form that might take.

Today I have an answer for what it often feels like to be guided as one makes a perplexing decision.  It feels like a confused man planning his way.  What is happening?  God is directing his steps.

Looking back on that decision 38 years ago, I now believe that wisdom played a major role, perceiving now that those two columns were not as equal as cold logic caused me to believe.  Lacking strong signposts pointing to seminary, wisdom would suggest that I should go with my proven abilities, years of preparation and the offer of a complete scholarship for the doctorate.  The willingness to not be limited to just the “wisest” course was important though, and later I was to do that very thing.

Additional thoughts on the subject of calling

I began my “Mid-life Crisis” in my mid-twenties.  It started when five other men from my church invited me to join them on a visit to southern Mexico and then on into jungle settings to see first-hand the work of missionaries.  This was my first personal encounter with the degree of poverty common in so many places.  In the weeks after my return to my doctoral research at Indiana University I kept pondering whether there was not a way to use my skill in science to meet areas of significant need and at the same time involve my growing interest in cross-cultural Christian missions.

At that time I was studying the mechanism for addition of cyanide ion to N-dodecyl-nicotinamide bromide.  We hoped that a better understanding of simple reactions like this could lead us to a model that might explain how enzymes in living organisms were able to make one specific transformation  (e.g. converting fat to energy and carbon dioxide) take place at blinding speed, whereas without those particular enzymes such a transformation would be very unlikely to occur at all.  Such research, aimed at understanding of principles rather than trying to solve applied problems, is called “basic research.”  Basic research is incredibly important, can be interesting and challenging and sometimes leads to important practical applications.  But for me it was becoming less of a compelling cause to which to dedicate my life.

I received my Ph.D in biochemistry in 1969 and joined the faculty of Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA.

I had decided that perhaps God was leading me to teach in a university overseas and mentor students there much as Christian faculty had mentored me. It seemed wise to learn to teach in my own language and culture first, so I had welcomed this opportunity.  I would also need to come up with research ideas that would be relevant to needs of the poor should I end up in a developing country overseas.

Geneva College required chemistry majors to do a senior research project.  Naturally the research problems I suggested to students were a continuation of my graduate research subjects.  I knew that applied research that was directed toward specific problems could be as challenging and instructive as basic research.  I also thought that the students at this Christian college would find that research oriented toward problems of poverty and hunger would be especially rewarding.  But one does not just decide to “do research that would help the poor in developing countries.”  First it was necessary to gain enough understanding that I could identify specific problems that needed solutions.

I spent my first summer between academic years in the Dominican Republic.  A sociology professor at Eastern College, Tony Campolo, was trying to start a Christian university there.  As a preliminary step he had invited me to be one of the first “visiting” professors but to be loaned to the national University.  For political reasons the university did not offer courses that summer.  I ended up teaching clinical chemistry to the staff of two Christian clinics in poor parts of Santo Domingo.  I briefly considered whether clinical chemistry might be what I was looking for, but decided against it.  (I recently heard of a woman who is developing techniques for doing clinical chemistry in remote locations without electricity—an admirable way to help the poor!)

Biochemistry is a great background for the medical sciences and I was pulled in that direction.  But I decided that the same reasons that make it a good background for medical subjects it would make biochemistry a good background for agricultural research.  In fact there might be more opportunities for me to make a difference in agriculture since few Ph.D biochemists in those days tended to select agriculture as their specialty.  (In recent years genetic engineering has created considerable demand for biochemists to develop new crop varieties.)

I sought a way to learn enough about agriculture, and specifically agricultural problems of small farmers in developing countries, that I could switch my research efforts at Geneva College in that direction.  I knew of the reputation Cornell University has in international agriculture, so I wrote offering to work for nothing during the next summer if I could interview a few professors and select the project that seemed most helpful.  I ended up spending two delightful summers at Cornell.  It was there that I decided I would specialize in some aspect of the plant sciences.

It became my custom at Geneva College to take long walks around the campus in the evening and to use part of that time for prayer.  Often during those times of prayer the thought would come to me, “What might I be praying for if I were head of a household that lived in some of the impoverished situations like I had seen and others I had only read about?”

I could envision myself with a wife and some children on a one-acre farm on a mountain, living in a hut with dirt floor and thatched roof.  My wife and I might be praying that God would help us find enough firewood to cook our meals next week. (I’ve since heard that some families in Haiti spend perhaps 40% of their income just on charcoal for cooking.  In Africa it is not unusual for one family member, usually a girl, to search all day for pieces of wood for the family to use to prepare its meals.)  We might be praying that we could grow enough to sell at least a little to pay $10 to send our oldest child to school or to buy that $5 vial of medicine at the subsidized clinic that my wife needed to heal an infection.

Christians of all denominations pray the Lord’s prayer, “Give us our daily bread.”  I had often prayed that part but really took it for granted.  If God had heard my prayers how much more he must listen to the pleading of the desperately poor.  One way he sometimes answers those prayers is to put it on the heart of someone to decide to do something about it.  Could He be doing that in my life?  What does my field of science look like if it is designed to help the exceptionally poor?

I began to pray what you will probably think a crazy prayer.  I prayed that God would push me out of Geneva College when the time came to move on.  I had come from a rural community where families had very modest incomes, attended a four-room grade school and now had a Ph.D and was on the faculty of a quality college, making a good salary.  I could not imagine having the courage to leave, even though I sensed God was going to call me to leave.  I even cut out of a World Vision magazine a photograph of a nurse holding a malnourished baby and fastened it to the wall of my office.  My thought was that when I looked up from my desk I would see the photo and be reminded that this comfortable setting was not my ultimate calling.  A few years ago my wife framed that photo and it sits in my office at ECHO, this time to remind me of how He led.

Near the end of the fourth year of teaching, Geneva College had to make some difficult decisions.  I and several others had been hired when the college was planning to increase enrollment from 1200 to 1500—but enrollment was not going that direction.  They had to let go quite a number of staff throughout the college, including professors.  I was the last hired in our department and the first to go.

I decided not to immediately start searching for job openings at other colleges.  After all, had I not prayed that when the time came for the change that God would push me out?  Circumstances presented another obvious direction and led me to believe going overseas was not yet in God’s plan.

I had seen the need for a Christian bookstore there in the town of Beaver Falls.  I had gotten together with a few friends, issued stock and formed a corporation to begin a Logos Bookstore.  Logos was a franchise of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the group through which I had made my initial decision to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  It is a unique concept.  Logos bookstores are located near college or university campuses and feature both secular and Christian books.  The combination is used as a bridge to the secular community. The larger customer base also often makes it easier to succeed financially.

I had received a few days of intensive training in how to operate a bookstore and had intended to run the store during the summer, then hire a manager when the fall term started at Geneva College.  In the absence of leading in any other direction, I decided to manage the store myself for an indefinite period of time.

Starting in high school days I had been inclined to do self-study beyond the curriculum.  I still had that urge but was unsure what I should study.  If my calling was to run the bookstore for years, I should probably study subjects like business and literature that would help me be a better bookstore manager.  If my calling was to use science to work on problems faced by small farmers in developing countries, I should be studying agriculture.  Now I had purchased several textbooks when I was at Cornell on such subjects as plant biochemistry, plant physiology, and soil science.  I had never had courses in agriculture or plant sciences, which would become my specialty if God indeed should lead in the direction of agriculture.

I recall one evening praying almost desperately that God would give me some indication of what direction to work toward.  Though I heard no voice, a strong sense came that my evening study time should be spent studying those textbooks.  So many days I would work in the bookstore then return home, take out my notebook and yellow highlighter and study botany, soil science etc.  I spent several years preparing for what I hoped was a calling, but had only the vaguest sense of where that calling would lead.

I held to another decision that I had made soon after I had sensed that God might be calling me to serve Him overseas.  I called it my “just a few dates rule.”  If God was calling me to serve as a missionary or something akin to that, then I must not get involved romantically with a woman who had no interest in such a life and gave me no reason to expect she would encourage me in such a call.  I very much wanted to be married and thought that if I once got involved I would never have the willpower to back out of the relationship.  So as a general rule I did not have more than a few dates with a woman unless I sensed that she was the kind of person that, should the dating lead to something more serious, would follow me in my calling if indeed God led in that direction.  I have since met a number of men and women who are going through life thinking they were called to serve as missionaries but their spouse wants nothing to do with it.

This limited the field considerably! I found it agonizing at times.  I remember one Sunday afternoon praying, “God I don’t mind being a fool for Christ’s sake.  But what if He thinks I am a fool.”  How far should I go preparing for a vision that was so vague?  Who was I to think God even had something specific in mind?  Was I deceiving myself that God at least at times has a specific calling in mind for an individual?

At one level, the decision to study agriculture while running a bookstore and to not get involved romantically if it might hinder my serving God overseas may seem to be an example of going contrary to wisdom (see previous discussion on the “sign posts” for guidance).  If wisdom is only directed toward my own enrichment and pleasure then these might seem to be foolish decisions.  I am reminded of a quote by Lisa Beamer concerning her husband Todd who helped stop the flight on 9-11 that was headed toward Washington D.C. “Todd worked very hard to make sure that the everyday decisions in life were consistent with his very big goals in life.”  If one’s biggest goal is to be a disciple of Christ, then wisdom is that which is most consistent with that goal.

I remember reading Scripture in the days right after my conversion and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be incredible if all these things and promises are really true and God still calls men and women like Moses, Joshua, Naomi or Ruth to remarkable acts of faith.  (E.g. Hebrews 11:7-11 ).  I wondered whether such instances were just for the rare hero of the faith but not for mere sinful mortals like myself?

I thoroughly enjoyed managing the store and especially those occasions when I could point a customer to just the right book.  We soon had a great staff and I enjoyed training and working with them to achieve our goals. I did not feel “called” to leave the store right away, nor to remain forever.  So I trained one man in particular as assistant manager with the intent that he would eventually replace me.

The third year the bookstore finally turned a profit.  Realizing that there was not enough profit to pay both of us a good salary, I turned the store over to my assistant and went home, Ph.D in hand, to live with Dad in Mom in the farmhouse in southeastern Ohio.  Now I really wondered whether I had made shipwreck of my career.

Two weeks after moving in with Dad and Mom I received a letter from Dr. Larry Butler in the biochemistry department at Purdue University.  He offered me a post-doctoral research position funded by the US Agency for International Development to study some nutritional problems of grain sorghum, one of the staple foods in parts of Africa.  I had totally forgotten that many months before I had written a blind letter to the International Programs Director at Purdue University telling him of my interests.  Unknown to me, he had forwarded my letter to Dr. Butler.  This led to the three most fulfilling years of my life as a research biochemist and several scientific publications in research journals.

Most real-life problems can’t be solved within one academic discipline, and my goal was to solve problems affecting the poorest of farmers.  Fortunately the AID grant that supported my research was a multi-department grant, allowing me to work wherever the solution took me, in collaboration with scientists from other disciplines (agronomy, plant breeding, animal science and the US Fish and Wildlife Center in Denver).

“Perhaps God is calling me to a career in applied inter-disciplinary research,” I thought.  So I began auditing courses far afield from biochemistry, e.g. soil science, tropical agriculture, and plant pathology.  I was becoming a specialist in being a generalist biochemist.  Then I ran into an unexpected reality of research.  When positions became available at universities, none were for general, good-natured biochemists wanting to do collaborative research with agriculturists of many disciplines! I’m glad now that I had not realized this, because the multi-discipline preparation I received at Purdue is just what I would need when the opportunity came to work with ECHO.

During the time at Purdue University a romance that had begun at Geneva College unexpectedly blossomed and God greatly blessed me with an ideal companion and partner.  Bonnie was a biology teacher in Indianapolis who was recruited by Geneva College to be head-resident of one of the women’s dormitories.  The college was looking for young women for each dorm who could disciple, mentor and counsel the students.  Even before I met her I was impressed that she would take this “step down” in the world’s eyes to take advantage of a unique ministry opportunity.  That is the kind of perspective I was looking for in my life partner.  We were married the last day of December in 1977.

I did not find an opportunity to work on problems of the poor, but I did find a job that was a good fit for my training.  Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio was looking for a biochemist to work on a project funded by the Department of Energy. The objective was to evaluate the feasibility of making gasohol from sweet sorghum (the source of “sorghum molasses).”  They wanted someone who could supervise work in the laboratory or in the field, who could go to Washington and meet with officials and who could write.  Bonnie and I moved to Columbus in 1979.

Battelle is a contract research organization.  It is perhaps best known for developing photocopying.  They sold the process to an almost unknown company in New York that changed its name to Xerox.  You know the rest of that story.  A reality of working with a contract research company is that you need to do whatever the funding agencies are contracting to have done.  In addition to the sorghum work, soon I was writing reports on risk assessment of chemicals for the Environmental Protection agency.  That work led to my promotion to the lowest level of management and a modest amount of training in management.  There is hardly a week goes by but what I use at ECHO things I learned about management during my two years at Battelle.

The nature of the work at Battelle eventually led me into a deep spiritual crisis.  The latest funding for research required that I tool up to become an occupational health and safety expert.  I had a good paying job, we had a nice house in the suburbs, and many friends at a great church (Bethel Presbyterian Church, which has supported us at now for over two decades).  But what did my work have to do with what had been my driving vision of using science to help the poor?  Perhaps I was foolish to suppose that God had been calling me to do something “special.”  Maybe He had not been guiding at all.  Maybe my theology had gotten me into trouble.  I concluded that if I stayed at Battelle I would be affirming that what I experienced had not been guidance at all.  I told my boss that I was going to leave within three months and would be seeking an opportunity to get into international agriculture.

You know the rest of the story from the abbreviated account at the beginning of this account.  I called Dick Dugger, the founder of that mission in Haiti, Educational Concerns for Haiti Organization, that had a five-acre farm, an A-frame, a garage/shed and some hydroponic beds in Fort Myers, FL.  I had no idea how that tiny organization could hire anyone, but it was a group looking for a new vision and I had a burning vision looking for a group.

I waited until after dinner that evening then suggested to Bonnie that we take a walk.  I told her of my conversation with Dick and his offer to move to Florida to work with ECHO.  Bonnie had by now gotten involved in some neat things.  She was part-time youth directed at our church, she was a volunteer docent (tour guide) at the Columbus Zoo, and was about to be offered a full-time teaching position.  How would she react?

Without hesitating a minute she said, “If that is where God is leading, let’s go.”  What a blessing to have a wife who shares my faith in Christ and also wants to be His disciple.  There were no arguments, no counting the cost.  We left for Florida two months later.

In every position I had been in until ECHO I felt that I was being prepared for something else.  From the day I arrived at ECHO that sense disappeared.  Even when it was not clear in the earliest days whether ECHO would succeed, I felt that we were where God wanted us and continue with that sense of peace today.

People often ask, “Did you ever envision that ECHO would become what it has?”  We certainly did not.  We came to help the work of the church and the poorest farmers around the word in a unique and innovative way.  We were content to work quietly with the help of one intern.  We can’t think about what has happened at ECHO without thinking of that verse, “God is able to do far more abundantly that you ask or think.”  May all of us at ECHO and those generations to follow us remember what God said to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 8:17,18 concerning the day that they would come into the Promised Land. “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth….”

Concluding Comments—The Door of Vision

Have you ever had a “vision” of an initiative that God might want you to pursue?  (I use “vision” not in the supernatural sense of an apparition but of a strong impression that a certain course of action should be taken.) If you believe God is calling you to take a bold step, you might envision it as a door through which you walk to pursue this vision.  As you walk up to that doorway, however, all you see is the door, the past and the present and perhaps a dim glimpse of the future through a dark window. You see the fears, the costs, perhaps serious potential damage to your career, financial hardship, dislocation for your family (if you ever have your own family) and risk of failure.

When Bonnie and I moved from Ohio to begin developing ECHO in southern Florida in 1981, we could see these frightening things all too clearly.  We saw none of what would exist in 22 years: A ministry that gives helps thousands of the rural and urban poor by providing technical assistance in agriculture and gardening to missionaries and the national church in over 160 countries.  A staff of 29 to carry out this ministry, along with a crew of volunteers who put in a total of 50,000 hours this past year.  An annual conference for Christian agricultural workers that typically attracts over 200 people representing work in perhaps 30 countries, and other conferences modeled after it being spun off in other countries.  A demonstration farm that is so interesting that ECHO has become a tourist attraction with 9,000 visitors each year and is listed in Fodor’s and Triple A travel guides.  A seedbank of underutilized food, feed and agroforestry crops with over 400 kinds of seed. A front page article in the Wall St. Journal, a lead article in Southern Living, a feature on Nick News and Inside Edition and the PBS series The Visionaries.

Bold steps would be easy to take if we could see beyond the starting line at the door of beginning ministry. If we discard the vision, there are no ruins around to trouble us because we can only vaguely glimpse what might have been.  Bonnie and I could have decided the risks were too great to come to ECHO—and we would be totally unaware of what did not happen as a result.  I call these aborted visions.  I rejoice that we walked through this door.  I wonder about the doors I have not walked through.  I wonder if on the judgment day I might be shown what would have happened if I had pursued additional visions.  I wonder if in God’s eyes He sees clearly the outcomes that could have happened through each of His children through history had they not aborted visions large and small—visions that they had for a while considered but never took the initiative to open the door.  The realm of “what might have been” is no doubt cluttered with aborted visions.


II Corinthians 3:18 But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.

Mark 6:2 When the Sabbath came, He began to teach in the synagogue; and the many listeners were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to Him, and such miracles as these performed by His hands?

Hosea 1:2 (New Living Translation) When the Lord first began speaking to Israel through Hosea, he said to him, “Go and marry a prostitute, so some of her children will be born to you from other men. This will illustrate the way my people have been untrue to me, openly committing adultery against the Lord by worshiping other gods.”

Luke 2:52 And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.

Genesis 22:1-2 Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”  He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.

 James 5:1 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”)

Hebrews 11:7-11 By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised.


First, it would be a big mistake for me to concentrate on a “big picture” call for me in particular and ignore His general calling for me—and for all other believers. My wife, Bonnie, and I keep reminding ourselves that God is primarily concerned with what we become, not what we accomplish.  Ultimately our calling is to be transformed step by step into the image of Christ.  II Corinthians 3:18

Second, most instances of His “specific calling,” i.e. His calling to an individual to do a specific thing, involves initiatives in smaller matters, in bite-sized pieces day by day. I suspect a very significant day was when I agreed to lead a Bible study as a very new Christian.  I was very timid and had never given a talk except in speech class.  I was anxious for days.  The study went well and I was asked to take on other leadership responsibilities.  Two years later I was president of the local Inter-Varsity chapter.  I have often wondered, “What would have happened if out of fear I had declined to lead that Bible study and other opportunities?  Would the negative of Mt. 25:23 have been my lot?  “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.  You were faithful in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things.'”

Third, God’s specific calling will involve people in your community or elsewhere.  There is a joke about the man who said, “I love mankind but can’t stand people.”  No one can read the New Testament and not understand that involvement with individual people is a very important part of God’s will for our lives. Before coming to Christ my main preoccupation was trying to get top grades and to prepare for a career as a scientist. Once I began following Christ I began to care about people and to seek ways to minister to them. I very soon became a leader.  If I were to write my autobiography I think I might title it Surprised by Leadership.


The following is as good summary of what the Bible teaches about how one becomes a Christian that I have come across. I didn’t have this all put together when I first determined to follow Christ. Fortunately salvation comes by faith in Him, not by the depth of our theology.  Each topic is followed by a reference to one or a few verses of the Bible where the concept is illustrated.  References taken from the New American Standard Bible, 1995 version.


God’s nature

Exodus 34:6-7 Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”

God in fellowship with man

Genesis 2:16-17 The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”


Man rebelled

Genesis 3:14-19 The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, Cursed are you more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly you will go, And dust you will eat All the days of your life; And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.” To the woman He said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, In pain you will bring forth children; Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you.” Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’; Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it All the days of your life. “Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you will eat the plants of the field; By the sweat of your face You will eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return.”

Ephesians 2:1-6 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,

Sin separates us from God

Isaiah 59:1–2 Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short That it cannot save; Nor is His ear so dull That it cannot hear.


Man is in rebellion against God

Mark 7:20-23 And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”

Man is a sinner & condemned

Romans 3:23  …for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

Hebrews 9:27 And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.


Man is self-centered

Isaiah 53:6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.

Salvation not by works

Ephesians 2:8; 9 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.


Salvation is by grace

Titus 3:4,5. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,

John 3:16 Christ died for repentant sinners. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Romans 5:8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.


We Must receive & believe in Christ

John 1:12 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

John 5:24 Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.

Relationship is restored

2nd Corinthians 5:17 …and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.

God adopts repentant sinners

Galatians 3:26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.