Service the Servicemen

We had been in New Orleans almost two years, and our country was preparing for World War II. New Orleans became a base for overseas operation with more than 50,000 men passing through it. Several churches in the area tried to get a Christian Servicemen’s Center started—there seemed to be such a need for gospel outreach and spiritual help for the servicemen. These churches’ efforts failed, however, the cost being too great a sacrifice during those hard days.

Gladys and I began to visualize that such a work could be used, not only for the gospel, but also to reach Christians with truths of the New Testament Church. We envisioned servicemen coming to know Christ as Saviour and then being taught the Word to enable them to build up assemblies when they left the service. Planting local assemblies had always been our main goal, so we felt the Lord was giving us a vision for such a center for young Christians in the service.

When we began to survey the cost involved, it looked like an impossibility for a little family of three. Again, we were reminded of the scripture, “There is nothing too hard for Thee.” We thought of George Mueller, and as we had often said, “If God could do it for him, He can do it for us.”

We were still living in the trailer, and had no money at all. Yet, through these many months He supplied all our needs, and in such marvelous ways! We read in 2 Chronicles 14:11 of King Asa, when he faced an enemy with several times the strength of his small army. The opposing force also had three hundred chariots, while Asa had none. Facing those chariots was like fighting forty-ton tanks with foot-soldiers. It was a hopeless situation for Israel and yet Asa prayed, saying, “It is nothing with Thee to help, whether with many, or with them that have no power; help us, oh Lord our God, for we rest on Thee, and in Thy Name we go against this multitude.” Asa did fight, and the Lord won the battle. Couldn’t He win this battle for us—no matter how great the odds?

The Lord led a couple who had been meeting at our assembly to buy us a train ride back to St. Paul. This gave us time to meditate and seek the Lord’s will for the service center.

We asked the Lord to make His will clear to us. If He was leading, we should have no fear of tackling it. On our way back from St. Paul, we stopped in St. Louis at the home of Pat and Alice Magee. That night Gladys and I could not sleep. It was after one in the morning, and I was on my knees reading the Psalms, asking the Lord for something from His Word that would give us an assurance of His will. My eyes focused on these words in Psalms 39:7, “And now, Lord, what wait I for? My hope is in Thee.” That was our answer! Wasn’t our hope in the Lord? We shared our decision with our hosts the next morning. The Magee’s took the Scriptures seriously, and believed in the working of the Lord. They knew what we were talking about when we told them we had a word from the Lord and continued to be very close to us all the years of their lives. They visited us in the South, and Pat helped in teaching and preaching in our southern assemblies every winter for more than 30 years.

Now that we had this assurance, we felt we needed to put out a little to get further confidence that the Lord would provide. We asked Him to give us a token amount of money and by the end of the week we had enough to get started.

He guided us to a building in downtown New Orleans, 429 and 431 Carondelet St.—second, third, and fourth floors. We paid half a months rent. Next, we purchased over $4,000.00 worth of cots, linens, towels, furniture, etc., telling the suppliers to send everything C.O.D. We believed the Lord would provide the funds as needed to pay for them on delivery within a few days. He did, and in absolutely miraculous ways.

We also had to renovate the building almost completely. Some Christians in the service came to our aid with just the skills needed—plumbing, electrical, carpentry, etc.

Brother Dedman from Houston visited us and saw that we needed a hot water heater large enough to supply four showers, the men’s bathrooms, our apartment, and the main kitchen. He was not young or physically strong, yet he purchased a fine coil heater and installed it himself. He visited us often after that, always bringing great encouragement. He was very interested in the assemblies and made many trips to Spain, Cuba, and Mexico, helping the missionaries there.

Brother Dedman was very wealthy, but he was also extremely humble, as we learned from a practical lesson one day. He came to spend the night with us, explaining that he preferred Christian fellowship to a night in a hotel. (I’m sure he could have afforded the finest penthouse suite in New Orleans!) All our rooms were full so he insisted on sleeping on a couch in the prayer room. We were busy, and I forgot all about him. After midnight Gladys asked me if I had given him a pillow and a blanket. I hadn’t, so I hurried down, and there he was with his suit coat rolled up for a pillow, and his top coat covering him. He truly was a great man of God who knew the Word and lived it—making an imprint on my life.

Gladys, Vernon, Jr., myself, and some servicemen did all of the renovating and painting, with the Lord’s help. It was great to see the Christian Servicemen’s Center operating. There were 70 beds in the dorms, besides rooms that were available for couples. Our little three-room abode was adequate, though not as comfortable as the old trailer. Our apartment was tiny but it offered our family a measure of privacy, although most of our time was spent with the servicemen.

Little did we know that this work would bring the gospel to thousands of men. We saw many of them saved and some even developed into leaders in assemblies around the world. At this center on Carondelet Street, and later at the young men’s home on Magazine Street, we slept, fed, entertained, and preached to more than two hundred thousand men.

For several months Gladys cooked for the eight to ten workers, plus our family, on one small electric hot plate. One day, a close friend, brother T. B. Gilbert, visited us for lunch. That afternoon, he bought and had installed a lovely four-burner gas stove and oven.

We could not begin to tell all the marvelous answers to prayer we experienced. We didn’t send out letters nor did we make our needs known. We operated on a cash basis, having only a checking account to pay for our expenditures. We usually ended each month with a zero balance, or just a few dollars, but we never ended a month with a negative balance.

Our chapel was on the second floor of the center. We bought an old upright piano for ten dollars which was delivered to the sidewalk. All we had to do was bring it up to the second floor. The stairway was narrow and steep so about ten men volunteered to help get it up the stairs. They brought ropes and boards to hoist the heavy instrument up. It was quite early in the morning when we started tugging and heaving. By noon we still had it leaning on the second step, and I became concerned that someone was going to get hurt so I called a piano moving company to come move it.

The moving company sent two men. It seemed so ridiculous, I refused to let them even try. They assured me that they knew how to do it, and were covered with insurance. I held my breath as they each took an end of the piano and walked right up the stairs with it. It took about five minutes. As we all stood in wonderment, they casually remarked, “Its just in knowing how.” This was another lesson in humility.

All our married life, we had to economize to afford the various outreaches we were involved in. This taught us to do more with less through the years. At the center, there were the groceries to purchase, and a huge laundry bill. Our boys had clean sheets, blankets and pillows daily. Our 13,000 square foot floor had to be waxed and polished by hand! Eventually we hired a girl to help Gladys cook and clean.

The Lord always sent just the right ones along to help in the center. From the time Bill Walker first came as a serviceman, he was a tremendous help both in physical and spiritual matters. With some tutoring, he become an able Bible teacher and speaker. He also proved helpful in assisting me with administration. When he was discharged from the army, he and a number of servicemen moved in to help full-time. Bill and later his wife, Carolyn, proved to be true co-workers in building assemblies in the South.

In addition to sleeping quarters, we provided a clean-up room with a shoe-shine stand, snacks, and meals, as well as relaxation with ping-pong, checkers and chess. But our main goal was to reach men for Christ, and to help the Christians grow. Many who professed salvation had a craving for the Word of God. Often the Bible classes lasted all night.

Vernon Jr. became an expert checkers, chess, and ping-pong player. The men loved to challenge “that boy,” but very few could beat him. To play ping-pong, he had to stand on an eight-inch platform but he surely could hit that ball.

Vernon Jr.’s job was to show the servicemen to their beds, and get them settled. He was allowed to accept a tip, but he was never to ask for one. One evening I noticed his pocket full of money. He assured me that he hadn’t asked for any tips but I silently followed his next trip upstairs as a guide. I watched him politely show the sailor his bed, pointed out the washroom, and gave him a towel. Then, without a word, he put his hand in his pocket and jingled the coins. Sure enough, the man reached in his pocket for a tip. With that loop-hole in the rule cleared up, his tipping income was quite reduced.

At the age of nine, Junior came to me and said, “Dad, it doesn’t work.” I asked him, “What doesn’t work?” He replied, “You say if we give to the Lord, He will give you twice as much back. But last Sunday I put my whole fifty cents in the collection, and I have waited all week for Him to give me a dollar and I still don’t have it. “ We got the dollar item he was wanting and tried to explain the workings of the Lord in such matters. Many adults have the same confusion.

It’s hard to describe how busy we were from morning to night. Many times we were up all night counseling, or in Bible studies with them.

The center was not far from the Mississippi River, and large river rats would frequently find their way to our place. It was a constant battle to keep our place free from these foot-long creatures, which could grow to the size of a full grown cat.

Emma (“Peetsie”) was born into our family ten years after her brother. We had prayed for a girl with big blue eyes, and she was our dream—adored by the servicemen, some of whom had not yet seen their own newly born child.

Not long after Peetsie was born, I went upstairs for a quick nap. Just as I was ready to drift off to sleep, I opened my eyes in time to see a river rat poised at the top of the partition to jump into her crib. I cried to the Lord to protect her. The Lord heard my prayer, and we caught it but we had to constantly pray for safety from the four legged rats—as well as from the two-legged variety—that surrounded us at the center.

Our building was downtown, not the best place to be safety-wise. One man was held up just a few feet from our main entrance, and stripped of all his clothes. We took him in, found some clothes, and preached the gospel to him. Many were robbed, wounded, or assaulted on that street, often in front of our entrance.

One afternoon, I sent Gladys upstairs to get some rest. After a few minutes, I unlocked the door, expecting to see her on the bed. She wasn’t there. Suddenly, I heard her scream. A man had come in off the street and followed her in. He threatened her, backing her into the bathroom. I had come just in time to prevent him from raping her. This was another reminder of the Lord’s protecting hand over us. A verse in the Psalms has been a great comfort, “The watchman keepeth watch in vain unless the Lord watch.”

One day a man somehow got our checkbook, writing himself a generous check just after I had made a deposit. The Lord was watching, and the bank recognized the forged signature, and called me to verify it. The man got a fifteen-year sentence, because it was not his first offense.

We hadn’t been in New Orleans very long when we were introduced to Louisiana-style politics. A young merchant marine who had been saved at the center, was accused (falsely as it turned out) of stealing a purse, and was hauled off to jail. I was awakened at three in the morning and told about the incident. None of us believed the charge so I got on the phone immediately and offered to pay his bail. All I could coax out of the desk sergeant was, “His bail hadn’t been set yet.”

At ten the next morning, I was still working on the task of posting bail. Finally, I was told that only a judge could set his bail, so I called one and was told he was not able to answer the phone because he was on the bench. I called the jail, and asked for the sergeant in charge. When he got on the phone, in the most gruff and important-sounding voice I could muster, I said, “Sergeant, this is Schlief! I understand that you are holding one of my men and I want to get him out! I’ve been trying to get hold of judge so-and-so, but he is still on the bench. What can you do for me?”

The reply came back, “Oh, you know judge so-and-so? Just come down and get your man!” I went to the station and they released him without bail, or even a signature.

We purchased a half-hour of radio airtime each week, broadcasting live from the center. We would have some of the young people sing, then I would interview some servicemen, and finally I would deliver the gospel. Later, we decided to broadcast live from the studio. It was this program that brought us astounding response. At the end of each message, we would give a Bible question, offering a little gift for those who could call in with the correct answer. We had to have three people answering the phones after each program. The mail response and phoned replies were tremendous. Often, we would receive as many as a thousand replies in a week. We sent gospel literature to each one who answered correctly. We offered to come to people’s homes for Bible studies until there were so many requests, we could not possibly handle them all. Twenty years later, I tried a radio ministry again for four or five years, and received only scattered responses.

During our early days at the center, we continued to proclaim the gospel to as many as possible. We held open-air meetings during the day, and at night sometimes used a film projection screen placed on top of the car so that we could present gospel stories. We found a lot of interest in the black neighborhoods, sometimes having hundreds gather in the street. We will only know the results in eternity.

Another outreach was for children. I taught a flannelgraph lesson to about fifteen sisters every Monday, and they would teach the lesson throughout the week around the city. We were able to get into a number of institutions this way .

Gladys, Vernon Jr., and I decided to have some meetings along the bayou in Westwego, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Visiting that bayou community was like stepping into a foreign country. Many of the folks living there had never even been across the river to New Orleans, much less been to any other place. Fishing and hunting was all they knew. Some of the homes were nothing more than a few pieces of tin held together, or a log cabin. The children hardly knew what clothes were, and shoes were an absolute luxury. In the cold weather we would see some old burlap wrapped around their little feet as substitutes for shoes.

To get there, we would drive the car onto the Westwego ferry. When we docked at the other side, we would drive our car off the ferry, and continue on about another mile until we got to the very end of the street. Then we would walk along the bayou until we came to the settlements.

Once there, we would set up our public address system in the front door of a home, and preach the gospel. We had some great times in those small homes. The people were very poor, and they loved our meetings. They would fill up the small house, then crowd around the outside to listen through windows, and over the loudspeaker. Often, the doors and windows were simply openings in the walls—no glass. Sometimes we would show pictures on a slide projector. A number of folks trusted the Lord in those meetings.

Thirty-five years later, a man came into our bookstore, introduced himself to us, and told us that as a boy he was saved in one of those home meetings along the bayou. He went on to serve the Lord full-time as an evangelist throughout the South.