In December 1972 I entered a smoke-filled, beer and whiskey smelling bar in Oakland called the “Wooden Keg,” a college enclave set in the middle of the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. My once promising athletic career had come to a screeching halt. I was an aimless young man with a dim future. In the cluster of the crowd, a familiar voice called out to me. While the voice was familiar, the bearded face was not. David introduced himself, and fifteen years of history came rushing in. We had gone to elementary school together, were in the same Boy Scout troop, and shared similar interests in just having fun. High school took us down different paths. I hadn’t spoken to him in at least eight years.
He was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, working on his Master’s degree in Social Work at the University of Michigan. I was a senior at Western Michigan University and a member of the track team. I would be attending a major indoor meet in Ann Arbor in February. We agreed to get together again. As God’s providence would have it, I also had another friend in Ann Arbor who was working as an engineer for the Ford Motor Company. Since the meet was not until the early evening, David picked me up at the indoor track, and he set about showing me the much talked about college town. On our way back to the stadium, while we were approaching a red light, I saw a car I recognized with Pennsylvania plates. It was my other friend Bill stopped at the traffic signal. I quickly said my good-byes to David and proceeded to the car of the only other friend I knew in Ann Arbor. Since that day in 1973, I have never seen David again.
I did my thing at the meet, and then it was off to a local “watering hole” for “refreshments.” It was here that I heard the gospel for the first time in my life, carefully set forth by my friend Bill. Raised Roman Catholic and a product of Catholic elementary school education, I knew almost nothing about the Bible. Because of our into-the-night conversation, I missed the bus back to Kalamazoo. Bill drove me to my dorm that evening, and like David, I never saw him again. In my room at 715 Village Street, I prayed for God to redeem me. The house was sanctuary to at least two drug dealers, a couple living in the attic, an enigmatic character who looked and acted a lot like Charles Manson, other assorted roommates, a dog with worms, two cats, and a disassembled Opal automobile engine with its parts strewn about the kitchen table.
I survived and even thrived in this environment. God was preparing me for something, although I had no idea what it could be. Having graduated and returned to my hometown of Pittsburgh, job prospects were nil. Once again in God’s rapidly moving providence, an opportunity arose for me to make an all-expense paid trip to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. My mother’s boss had retired and needed someone to drive his car to his new home. I sold my car in one day, packed a trunk, and began my trek south where I didn’t know a soul. I began working in a grocery store. My means of transportation was a bicycle. To be sure, a less than auspicious beginning to my new life in Christ.
Ft. Lauderdale is a big city. It just so happened that I found an apartment two blocks from Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, a church I didn’t even know existed. It just so happened that after a prayer asking God to show me where I should go to church, I heard someone sharing the gospel with my landlady. When the conversation ended, I came outside and introduced myself. Toni Fern was her name, and she came back to visit my landlady, and, once again, had shared the gospel with her. She had rented the apartment before me. Toni was a member of Coral Ridge and invited me to attend. The rest, as they say, is history.
After a few months working at the grocery store, I quit and took a job as a custodian at Coral Ridge. I was desperate to be close to the action. It was at Coral Ridge that I got involved in the Evangelism Explosion (EE) program developed by Dr. Kennedy. I listened to tapes of his sermons, and, of course, sat under his preaching each Sunday. The church library became a frequent stop during my lunch hour. Because I had the run of the place, one of my favorite places to clean was Dr. Kennedy’s well-stocked library. Learning became my passion.
Saturdays afforded me the opportunity to sit in on Dr. Kennedy’s introductory class on Greek. I couldn’t take the class because of my custodial duties, but I would make my way through the fellowship hall and linger a bit. I’ll never forget the first Greek word I learned: blepw (blepo). It means “I see.” Dr. Kennedy was explaining to the class how to remember the meaning of blepw. He said, “Visualize a blimp with a big eye on it. Blimp sounds like blepo. The eye will remind you of ‘seeing.’” It was at this point that he told the class about a book he had found helpful in memory mechanics: The Famous Roth Memory Course developed by David Roth (1875–1972). This book changed my life.
After nearly a year at Coral Ridge, I was encouraged to attend seminary. Not much of a student in high school and college, I was a bit intimidated by the rigors of a seminary education, especially since I needed a year of Greek before I could even begin classes! It was the memory techniques that helped me through Greek, Hebrew, and everything else. On one occasion, I was able to learn every event in the life of Christ in chronological order in 30 minutes because of the Roth method. Toni had found a copy in a used bookstore and presented it to me as a gift during my first semester at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. There’s a full-page inscription by Toni that includes this: “Also I think on the divine Providence that you & I lived at the same apartment at different times.”
Through Dr. Kennedy’s recommendation, the church helped with some of the costs of seminary. His keen intellect, careful scholarship, and love of learning were an inspiration to me and others who went on to ministry work from Coral Ridge. First and foremost, however, Dr. Kennedy was a man who loved Jesus Christ and never missed an opportunity to share the gospel. The last time we had lunch together, I watched him easily engage the server in a conversation about Jesus. It was a sight to behold. Who knows how many people are in heaven today because of his efforts and those who went through and used the EE program. My first seminary internship was with Dr. G. Aiken Taylor in Asheville, North Carolina, because I knew the EE program. It was under his tutelage that I understood what it meant to be a pastor.
My wife had been a member of Coral Ridge, and it was during a second internship at Orangewood Presbyterian Church in Orlando that we met and married. Once again, it was the training in the EE program that opened the door to this church for me to spend a very fruitful summer. Like me, my wife is from Pennsylvania. Like me, she moved to Ft. Lauderdale looking for work. Carol’s mother had made her promise that she would visit Coral Ridge at least once. She did, and it was while hearing Associate Pastor Archie Parrish pray that she committed her life to Christ.
I also saw in Dr. Kennedy an understanding of how the gospel message was comprehensive. His messages ranged from “The Mythology of Science” to “Barabbas,” a dramatic presentation of the events leading up to the crucifixion. If you have not heard “Barabbas,” then you are missing one of the greatest presentations of the gospel ever heard.
There was no neutrality in the mind of Dr. Kennedy. God’s Word was applicable to every area of life in what he described as the “Cultural Mandate.” He started Westminster Academy with world and life view Christianity in mind.
He was a great defender of the faith. His messages from the pulpit would sound forth the reliability of the Bible as he carefully and skillfully dismantled the underlying assumptions of competing worldviews. It was while sitting under his preaching that I began to realize a specific call on my life in the area of apologetics.
Then there was his love for our nation and its history. I was privileged to write America’s Christian Heritage for Coral Ridge Ministries. The influence of Dr. Kennedy on my life had come full circle as he included a gracious Epilogue to a book that has had a lasting impact on so many Christians.
As you can see, what I am today is in large part due to the ministry of Jim Kennedy. I suspect that I would not be who I am today if it had not been for his example and faithfulness. American Vision probably would not exist in its present form or at all. The many people who write us each day, encouraging us in our work, owe as much to Dr. Kennedy as I do. I will miss him, as will so many, but his faithful work planted in so many new lives will carry on his legacy this side of heaven.