The year was apparently a pivotal one for me. As I wrote in an earlier posting, I was 13 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. That same year, I published my first article, a free verse I had written for school titled "My Favorite Place." It was also the time in my life that I read two books whose impact on me has lasted to this day: Sheldon's In His Steps and Wilkerson's The Cross and the Switchblade. And it was the year I met Mark Buntain.
Buntain was that other foreign saint in Calcutta (Kolkata), and a close friend of the more famous one, Mother Theresa. A native Canadian, he was itinerating as an evangelist at a church in Kelso, Washington, when he heard my missionary grandfather preach and went forward to dedicate his life to missions, or so the family story goes. He followed his call to India in 1954, where he lived out his life in devoted service to God, the lost and the poor.
He came to our church in South Jersey for a Sunday evening service when I was in the seventh grade. Our youth group, such as it was at the time, met for the hour before and he was our honored guest. There were just a handful of us - three teens (all seventh graders) as I recall, my dad (the pastor) and our guest missionary.
It could have been a crowd of thousands or an interview with royalty as far as Buntain was concerned, for he readily engaged us, answering our questions, telling us stories, and sweeping us up with his infectious spirit. I have no idea what he preached in the main service that night - all that lingers in my memory was our private conversation with him.
There was in Buntain a deep and abiding passion. While I know little of his life story, I do know that he cared for people, especially the kinds of people that few others cared about - those who had never heard the Gospel, those who were oppressed, and those who were misfits because they didn't fit on anyone's most desired list.
I am convinced that Buntain's passion for people flowed out of his devotion to Jesus. He was obviously in love with this Jesus he could not stop talking about and to -- he frequently interrupted his sermons to talk directly with his Lord.
Two decades later I heard him preach at a minister's convention in Missouri. He shared the pulpit that week with a well-known orator. I walked away thinking that when I heard that other man preach, I was impressed with the speaker, and when I heard Buntain speak, I was impressed with Jesus. Buntain may have lacked polish, but he knew Jesus and that shone through more than anything else.
Two of those three teens from that Sunday night long ago eventually served overseas, Linda in Korea and me in China. I know it wasn't Buntain's influence alone. But I do believe that Buntain's willingness to spend an hour with a handful of seventh graders on a Sunday evening made a lasting impression on each of us.
Later in college, a group of us organized a ping pong marathon to raise money for missions and we chose Buntain's hospital in Calcutta as the recipient of what we raised. What he had started as an evangelistic outreach and turned into a church came to include a complete educational system, a feeding program, a hospital and all sorts of other avenues for meeting the needs of the poor. Mark and his wife, Hulda, saw people and their needs as whole people in need of a full gospel.
And he understood how intertwined is the two-fold mission of declaring and demonstrating the Good News. In my adult life, I've come to formulate and articulate that dual mission as a theme in my own life. Somehow, some way, Buntain planted a seed that quiet Sunday night forty plus years ago.