By Chuck Kelley
In the fall of 1969 evangelist Bob Harrington, then known as the Chaplain of Bourbon Street, came to First Baptist Church in Beaumont, TX for an evangelistic crusade. It was my home church, and I was a senior in high school. I was already an active Christian and intentional witness. I was already called to the ministry. I did not realize at the time, but that week began a relationship that would last until 2am July 4, 2017. Because Bob Harrington was who he was, I became who I am.
The revival services exploded from the first day until the church could no longer hold the crowds. They had to move to a high school football stadium. Bob Harrington was invited to speak in all the local high schools except mine. I happened to be student body president, and I kept working at it until at last permission was given for an assembly at Forest Park. That was when I met Bob face to face. Later on my Mom and Dad invited him to have dinner with us before a crusade service. That was it for our relationship, until . . .
I was the first student ever allowed to speak during graduation for our high school. I was told not to speak about religion, but some of Bob’s holy boldness lingered, and I talked about the Lord anyway. It was a hit. After graduation I went to Baylor for college. On my first Sunday away from home, I saw Rhonda Harrington, Bob’s daughter, across a crowded church and was struck by lightning, or so it felt. We met in a curious way the next day, became friends, fell head over heels in love, and married on June 21, 1974 after our college graduation. God’s intervention sent us to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at the last moment. I began working with Bob on the streets of the French Quarter and across the nation. By now he was one of the best known Christians in the nation, and he had a phenomenal ministry unlike any other. No evangelism program could ever teach what I learned at his side. As an evangelist he was second only to Billy Graham.
Unfortunately, Bob Harrington then made some horrible choices. I had to confront him about those choices. Devastating does not begin to describe the experience of those days, especially when he looked me in the eye and chose rebellion and sin over repentance. He blew up our family. He lost his ministry. He became a completely different man. For a long time all Rhonda and I could do was hug each other and cry. No words can describe the ache of the soul. But God carried us through. I became an evangelist. I entered the NOBTS doctoral program and joined the NOBTS faculty after graduation as a professor of evangelism. Bob Harrington kept rebelling and breaking our hearts for eighteen years until . . .
One day Bob showed up on the doorstep of our faculty home on the seminary campus. Literally. We took him in for several months, and God gave us the privilege of being there for his repentance and restoration. No words for those days, but deep joy. Rhonda, who kept reaching out with relentless love through all those years, finally experienced seeing that love returned. Wow! Bob found an apartment, and began ministry again, but on a much smaller scale. As he realized this was his new reality, he embraced it and became “happy in the Lord,” a statement he would make over and over until he could no longer communicate more than twenty years later. He married again, to a fine Christian woman. Our family healed to the point that all of us, including Rhonda’s Mom, were able to share meals, Christmas, Easter, and other events together again. No words, but deep, deep joy.
Bob’s health began to decline significantly in the spring. Dementia was already there, but other issues began. At 2am on July 4th, hours after Rhonda and I returned from an overseas trip, it happened. Bob Harrington, born and then born again, finished his journey. He did not die. To use his words: he was “transferred from earth to heaven.” His funeral will be Saturday, July 8, at 11am in the church where he was born again: Sweet Water Baptist Church, Sweet Water, AL. What a day it will be!
From that week in Beaumont, TX in the fall of 1969 until July 4, 2017, Bob Harrington was a huge influence on me. Here are some of the things he taught me.
Go Get Them! We are most like Jesus when we go after the people who are not in our churches. As Jesus said so vividly in Luke 15, never be satisfied with having ninety-nine sheep when you know there is still one who is lost.
Boldness Is Just Another Name For Obedience! Being apprehensive or nervous is never an excuse for failing to do what God wants you to do. Obey anyway and go see that person, knock on that door, introduce Jesus into that conversation. Boldness is not the absence of fear. Boldness is what obedience looks like to others.
Have Fun Being Saved! The only real joy comes from Jesus, not our circumstances. Your happiness in the Lord is your greatest witnessing tool.
Stay Close to Jesus or You Will Get Close to The Devil! You can never be so spiritual that sin would never tempt you. Are you closer to the Lord than Adam and Eve in the garden? Than Moses after receiving the Ten Commandments? Than David after writing the 23rd Psalm? Follow Him or the path you are on will take you where you do not want to go.
God Still Loves Prodigals! Never believe Satan’s first lie: sin is not that big a deal. Your sin will affect significantly and negatively the life of everyone you love. Never believe Satan’s second lie: those who sin will never be welcomed again. Bob illustrated God always forgives and restores those who turn to Him in repentance.
Never Doubt The Impact One Life Can Make! To this day, wherever I am in this great nation, if my relationship with Bob Harrington becomes known, one or more people will come to me and tell me how God changed their lives through Bob Harrington. You can make a difference, a greater difference than you imagine.
Teach Your Children Well! As great as the influence of Bob Harrington was on me, the influence of his daughter on me was even greater. Even in ministry: more people have read publications by Rhonda Harrington Kelley than will ever read his books. Never forget your family is your first ministry. When you impact them, you touch the lives of others you will never know.
Thank you Bob Harrington. You shaped my life. You broke my heart and that of my wife into a thousand pieces. But you came home, and that made all the difference. Thank you God for being a Redeemer. I learned that redemption is complicated and chaotic, messy and challenging, tearful and joyful. Best of all, I learned and saw that redemption is real. For the rest of my days I will be grateful that I was included in this redemption story. It is fun being saved!