Benny Delmar, dead at 88, leaves church planting legacy
CASPER, Wyo. (BP)--For more than 60 years, O.R. (Benny) Delmar started Southern Baptist churches, more than 140 of them in the Northern Plains plus more in Oklahoma, Arizona and Canada.
Delmar, who died Jan. 25 at age 88, “had a passion for starting churches because he had a passion for lost people,” said longtime friend Carl Rice, who pastors in New Mexico. “I can remember driving with him one time across Wyoming. He said, ‘Turn off here.’ I did and in a few minutes we were looking down onto a town in the valley below.
“‘Look down on all those houses,’ Benny said, and I can still hear the pathos in his voice and see the tears in his eyes,” Rice said. “‘All those people are going to spend eternity someplace,’ he said. Just the thought of any person going to hell without even having the chance to hear the Gospel -– that would always move Benny to tears.”
Delmar started Southern Baptist work in Wyoming in 1951, Montana in 1953 and North Dakota, also in 1953. That’s the way he had been reared. He was an “oil patch kid,” and at every new place his family moved to, his mother would start a Sunday School.
“He’d start a [new] church in every church he was in, even in college,” said Delmar’s daughter, Deanna Delmar. “He just felt churches should be a part of missions and reaching out. Every church he pastored started missions.”
A graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Delmar with his wife Jo –- who like him had surrendered as a teenager to missions -– moved in 1948 to the White Mountains of Arizona where they started churches in St. Johns, Springerville and several other towns.
That’s what he was doing when his high school Training Union director, a transplanted Oklahoma oil field worker, called him from Casper, Wyo., to ask for help in starting a church.
“He said he’d come for three weeks,” Rice said. Delmar never left.
“Delmar’s strategy of church starting followed the great example of [the Apostle] Paul,” wrote co-worker John Herrington in a tribute distributed at Delmar’s Feb. 5 funeral in Casper, Wyo. “Works sprang up under his instigation and encouragement in the major population centers of the state. Those first fruits of missions then became centers for further new missions.”
In 1953 Delmar started the First Southern Baptist Church in Billings, Mont. He convinced a preacher he knew from seminary, Glen Braswell, to move to Montana to pastor the fledgling work. Braswell, who 10 years later became the executive director of the Colorado Baptist General Convention, was an example of the caliber of men Delmar recruited for the churches he started.
“He got the best men to pastor these churches,” said John Thomason, retired executive director of the Wyoming Southern Baptist Convention. “He spent as much as $500 in phone calls to get one pastor.”
After seeing the effectiveness of his work, the Southern Baptist Convention’s then-Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) hired Delmar -– at $200 a month -– to start work in Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas. He traveled as much as 70,000 miles a year, preaching in as many as five locations on Sundays. He often credited his wife’s contribution to his ministry. In addition to caring for three children, Jo Delmar’s income from her work in a doctor’s office helped pay for more phone calls and gasoline to drive more miles in an era when the HMB compensated expenses with a set stipend rather than mileage reimbursement.
“He would drive night and day to get where he needed to go,” Thomason said. “I remember his telling me about a town where he went to start a church. A pastor there of another denomination was violently opposed to a Southern Baptist church starting, and told Benny so.... Benny told him, ‘When the Holy Spirit tells me to stop starting churches, that’s when I’ll stop.’”
Not all the works survived that Delmar started.
“He talked about the times things didn’t go anywhere,” said Lynn Nikkel, current executive director of the Wyoming Southern Baptist Convention. “His attitude was that it wasn’t his to determine. He was to find the people and get things started. He supported those folks and gave them encouragement and helped them in every way he could. He did not feel bad [when the work fizzled] because he knew he had done what he could to make things work.”
One of the works Delmar started was in Bill, Wyo. -– population: 3. But 27 people attended a Bible study he started there. It didn’t become a church but the people in the Bible study all became grassroots missionaries, going out as couples -– the biblical two by two -– to share what they had learned.
“Benny regularly punctuated his statements with a scriptural reference like that,” said Bill Phillips, a director of missions in Oregon who at the time was a pastor in Casper.
In an era before audio recordings of the Bible were common, Delmar studied his Bible while he was driving. Once, en route to Cody, Wyo., he missed a turn while flipping pages, and ran off the road, recalled coworker Dorothy Hughes, who with her husband W.J. (Dub) Hughes also served in the Northern Plains. Delmar hitchhiked into town, preached, and after the service had someone drive him back to his car.
“Benny seemed to have an uncanny ability to turn up when people needed him,” Dorothy Hughes said. “When we were in Hanna (Wyo.), Dub hurt his back Saturday helping a man move his freezer. Our son Sam preached Sunday morning, and Sunday afternoon Benny and Jo showed up at our door. They had never before driven their station wagon down there, but they did that day. It was just what we needed for Dub to be able lie down in the back [of the vehicle] and get to the doctor in Casper.”
Others told similar stories.
“I was in Kemmerer (Wyo.) and had gone through a terrible day,” Rice recalled. “My wife and I had gone to bed and prayed together. She went to sleep and I just lay there; couldn’t sleep. Things were just eating me up. About 1 a.m. the phone rang, and pastors don’t like calls at that time of night because they’re usually always bad news. But this time it was Benny. He never did have a sense of time. ‘This is O.R. Delmar,’ he said, the way he always did. ‘I was praying for you and felt you needed a phone call.’”
Phillips nodded his head in agreement.
“He was a real encouragement to those of us in the ministry,” Phillips said. “Pastors would go to him, discouraged maybe because of financial issues, and he’d say, ‘You’ve got to keep your eyes on the Lord. Look at the birds of the air; He took care of them and He’ll take care of you.’ Benny often used things from the Sermon on the Mount.”
Delmar didn’t stop with platitudes. He connected many a Northern Plains church with a Southern church for prayer and financial support and with mission teams that would construct a building while doing a Vacation Bible School.
“There are a lot of people out here who are missionaries because of him,” Phillips said. “He loved us and showed us how Jesus would do it.”