COOPERATIVE PROGRAM: A lifelong journey
BOSTON (BP) -- It was in my senior year at the University of Hawaii at Hilo that I first felt the burden God laid on my heart. His call to fulltime ministry came at a time when I was seeking God's will as to what I should do after graduation. After a few months of prayer and confirmation, I surrendered to God's will to enter the Gospel ministry and committed to trusting my life into His hands.
The problem was, while I knew that I ought to study further and attend seminary, I had no idea which seminary I should attend. I researched 33 seminaries across the country but soon realized that there was no way I could afford the tuition. I recall back in those days (the early '70s) that seminary tuition averaged around $2,500 annually. Even with the GI Bill assistance I was qualified to receive, it still wasn't enough to get me to the mainland.
As I faced this dead end, I walked into the Baptist Student Union (BSU) one afternoon where I spent time playing ping-pong with friends. I was looking for Josephine Harris, the Hilo campus BSU director, who was also a veteran Foreign Mission Board (FMB) missionary. I still remember it as if it were yesterday.
As soon as I opened my mouth to share with Ms. Harris about my desire to attend seminary, she jumped up from her chair and ran into her library, returning with a row of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary postcards she wanted to show me. She could hardly contain her excitement as she introduced me for the very first time to SWBTS. She even assured me, "My brother, Dr. James Harris, is the pastor of University Baptist Church in Fort Worth. I will call him to make sure he welcomes you when you arrive there!"
So in the fall of 1973, I set out from my little town of Hilo, Hawaii, and began a lifelong journey of following God's leading into the Gospel ministry. I arrived at SWBTS, the largest seminary in America at the time, and officially enrolled as a graduate student. Back then, I remember that the student matriculation fee was only $100 per semester. Even with my GI Bill benefit, there would have been no way for me to attend seminary without the CP scholarship for Southern Baptist seminaries. Looking back, I thank God for Ms. Harris who introduced me to her beloved alma mater that blessed day I walked into the BSU. God used her to change the course of my life. I realized my indebtedness to her and took the opportunity to visit with her when she retired to New Mexico after many years of serving as a missionary in Hawaii. I also visited her in Virginia before she passed on to glory.
I graduated from SWBTS in 1976 as a member of an illustrious class that included Frank Page, current president of the SBC Executive Committee, and many other leaders and pastors who have faithfully journeyed together these past 40-plus years. During my second year at SWBTS, I began to attend First Baptist Church in Dallas where I met Dr. W.A. Criswell, who became a lifelong mentor to me. Upon my graduation, I was ordained at First Baptist -- a memorable day when Dr. Paige Patterson preached at the ordination service. Although I had planned to return to Hilo to plant house churches, God had other plans.
In Los Angeles, while serving at a Korean Baptist church there, I met my wife Rebekah who currently serves as a Southern Baptist chaplain at Harvard University. Together, we followed God's call to the University of California, Berkeley campus and on March 1, 1981, we started Berkland Baptist Church, a local church-based campus ministry to raise up leaders in the 21st century.
In the early days of our church, my young family of five was financially supported by the Cooperative Program, for which we were so grateful. The CP encouraged our small congregation of college students and supported our college outreach efforts. But after a year and a half, I chose to give up the CP funding so that other church planters who had a greater need for financial support could receive more.
Within the first 10 years, by God's help, our small congregation of Asian-American students, young adults and families grew to over 500. Berkland Baptist Church (BBC) was one of the fastest growing churches in the California Southern Baptist Convention and received several awards and distinctions. As a second-generation English-speaking Asian-American church, we went on to plant more than 40 churches over the next 36 years during my pastoral tenure, driven by the commitment to missions both at home and abroad.
In 1991, Rebekah and I chose to entrust the Berkeley church to one of our home-grown disciples and follow God's call to Boston, where we planted our first East Coast church and launched similar church-based campus ministries on many universities in the Boston area. As the founding pastor of BBC and of Antioch Baptist Church, I have taught and trained all the younger pastors who have followed in my footsteps to give to Southern Baptists' Cooperative Program which allows for more effective mission work around the world in obedience to the Great Commission until Christ's return.