Early Years and Ministry (1941 - 1949)

by Irene Gurganus

Young Married Life

Having purchased a two-door Dodge coupe, George and I drove to see our first home in a small village near the airport called Amboy. The comfortable apartment was upstairs over a grocery store with three rooms. Our landlords, with whom we got along well, ran the store.

George dressed for success at American Airlines

My father had given us a trunk to hold our wedding gifts. I had been honored with three bridal showers - linen, personal lingerie, and miscellaneous, so we were well equipped. After everything was unpacked and we were settled, some of the airline agents came with their families to welcome us. George still worked the split shift so he could have Sunday mornings off to attend church. During the week, I picked him up at the airport and we often took drives through the countryside, exploring the Five Finger Lakes and often stopping for a picnic lunch. We treasured those trips because George especially loved the outdoors. On the days he came home for lunch, I did my best to make it special for my new husband. I used my fancy linens, set the table beautifully, with a vase of flowers in the center and prepared tiny decorated sandwiches. After several weeks he said, "Irene, honey, I really appreciate all this beauty with which you have surrounded us, but I would like to have some plain meat and potatoes with gravy, okra and cornbread. Just some plain cooking with the table set normally. You don't need to decorate for me." Because I had worked so hard on making everything special, trying to be a good bride, I began to shed a few tears. He said I didn't need to cry because he really loved me and appreciated what I'd done, but he just wanted some good solid food. After thinking about it for a while, I understood and prepared the meals he loved. George had a special way of resolving the little differences over which I cried. He told me how cute I looked as I cried and we would both end up laughing.

Our social life was centered on the families with whom he worked. The first party we attended, there was a lot of beer and some spiked punch and nothing for us to drink. At that time drinking alcohol was considered a sin for Christians, so I asked the hostess if she would mind if we brought some Cokes to the next party. She said that would be fine. We brought a carton of Cokes to the next party and several people said they really didn't care much about drinking alcohol either and asked for the Cokes, which disappeared quickly. The same thing happened at the next party as well. I later made some punch that wasn't spiked which many drank. Soon, there was just a little pitcher of spiked punch and a few cans of beer at the parties with the majority drinking unspiked punch and Cokes. This resulted in less drunkenness, better job performance the next day, and reduced the times George had to work someone's shift.

My father drove out to visit that summer and brought two of my girlfriends, Alice Rabe and Irene Blaylock. Also, one of George's nieces came and stayed several weeks. We soon discovered, this was to be our way of life for many years to come.

When it was time for my sister to graduate from nursing school, I flew back to Chicago. Because it was free, I flew to Chicago several times, usually being the only woman on board. The stewardess was often amazed that, although the men got airsick on the rough trips, I never did. The pilot, instead of telling us over the loudspeaker what we were going to see, would send back a piece of paper with the speed, altitude, wind velocity, etc. On one of the flights, the pilot drew little cartoons on the back of his notes and I kept one that was particularly interesting. Sadly, the very next day, on the same flight, the plane crashed and he was killed. It was the very first plane crash for American Airlines. I thanked God I had flown the day before and I'm sure my Lord was involved.

Early Ministry in Syracuse

The little group of Christians with whom we met decided, after they listened to George explain the doctrinal differences, to change and become a New Testament church. They decided to do only what the Bible said and to stop anything we could show them wasn't Scriptural. We pooled our money and bought an old house for $9,000.00. It consisted of three stories and a basement with a big backyard and sun porches on the front and back. We knocked out the wall between the living and dining rooms to make an auditorium, and the bedrooms were used for classrooms. George and I lived on the second floor, using the downstairs kitchen until one was built on the second floor.

An all day meeting - Syracuse, N.Y.

Anyone who wished to be a charter member of this new congregation made a commitment to be a true disciple, 100% committed to following God's word, giving up anything that was doctrinally unsound. Their Sunday custom was to take the Lord's Supper first, followed by the preaching and then Bible classes. This was a new order for us, but we saw nothing wrong with it. During the communion, the elders presided at the table. The emblems were passed to each person then the elder would say, "Jesus said, 'Take and eat, all of you.'" We ate at the same time. We drank from the cup as they said, "Drink from it, all of you". This was also new to us, but very meaningful, especially with such a small group. Once in a while, someone visiting from another congregation would complain regarding this custom. To them, it was unscriptural because it didn't follow the traditional way.

We were married in March 1941 and on December 7th the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. There were many soldiers stationed around Syracuse at the time and there weren't many churches of Christ in New York State. There was a small one in Hubbardsville, which celebrated their 100th anniversary, one in Niagra Falls, in West White Plains, New York City, and Rochester. The Christian soldiers drove down to worship with us and every Sunday, we thoroughly enjoyed having about 18 or 20 people for a buffet dinner in our backyard. We often housed family members of the soldiers temporarily, for which they were extremely grateful.

We didn't have a preacher at first. George Pope had never wished to be a preacher unless it was as a missionary. His goal was to become a successful businessman, as Brother Rowland and Harding McCaleb, and contribute time and money to spread the gospel. We drove down to Harding University in Arkansas, seeking someone to preach for us. Professor Leslie Burke was the first to come. Using the three rooms upstairs, we made a small apartment for them. He preached for us for some time, but the church wasn't growing. George Pope asked Leslie to evangelize, but Leslie's philosophy was that when we did have visitors, he wanted to inspire them with his message, therefore, he needed to study hard and be available for counseling. He was a Greek scholar and loved studying. George Pope didn't agree with his theology and after a year they decided to move back to Arkansas. He taught many years at Harding before his death.

Logan Fox and his wife, Madeline, came next. Madeline grew up in Pennsylvania and Logan, who was a year behind me at Lipscomb, came from Nashville. His brother, Harry Robert, was in my class and they were raised in Japan by their missionary parents. He evangelized some, but they also left after about a year and returned to Tennessee. Next C.W. Bradley, who was single, came from Harding. He was courting Letitia, from Arkansas, and would have to endure our teasing as they spoke on the phone right outside our bedroom. Today both are happily married, but not to each other.

The second year we were there, George Pope decided to have a campaign to get the church moving. He visited Harding and Lipscomb to recruit students to come up for the summer. About 25 students came, mostly from Lipscomb. Before the campaign began, we sent out a pamphlet to our neighbors every week for 13 weeks telling all about the church and its doctrine. We all worked on it together. When the campaign started, we met in a rented tent every night for a month and studied the Bible with the people who came.

We doubled the members reached during that campaign. Charles R. Brewer and Barney Morehead came. Bob Neil led the singing. I cooked for the 25 people that came to help. The kitchen was big and we had a large enclosed back porch where they were served. I wasn't a very good cook then, but I managed. I served them breakfast and lunch and they went out for dinner.

One of the members who moved in was a man named O.O. Williams. He worked for General Electric in Texas and was transferred in. His wife's maiden name was Ina Igo so she was I.I. Their first son was named Don Dwayne who became "Double D". Later they had two more sons, Keith Kim (Double K) and Quin Quay (DoubleQ). They became very close friends. Lewis Case and his wife, Georgia also became our very close friends. He was in the Navy and they rented an apartment next door. They were very dedicated and worked hard with us.

One Sunday, the Williams' and Cases drove to church in Hubbardsville, 50 miles south of us. Lewis preached for the church and as they were returning along a country road, a drunk driver ran a stop sign, hit their car and killed Lewis' wife, Georgia, instantly. Lewis suffered a brain concussion and both of the Williamses and their son, Don, were badly bruised. They were rushed to a nearby hospital, from where they called us. I took Don home with me because O.O. and Ina and of course Lewis had to stay in the hospital. It was a devastating experience. Lewis wanted to take Georgia's body back to her hometown in Texas for the funeral and burial. George arranged to have her body board a train, on which he accompanied Lewis to Texas. Lewis still was in poor physical condition and after they returned, he was so lonely, he moved in with us and we took him under our wing. After a while, his parents came up from Texas to visit and they also lived with us for a while before renting their own apartment in Syracuse. We called his father "Somebody". Later he was very special to my girls. Lewis' daughter, Dorothy, also stayed with us for a while, then returned to Texas.

An Addition to the Family

A couple of young women, who were converted, Jean and Peggy Roderick, were fresh out of college. George Pope hired Peggy to do secretarial work for the church. About that time we discovered I was pregnant. We had been trying for two years so were elated. The baby was due in May, but by January I still didn't look pregnant. I weighed less than 100 pounds when we were married and I hadn't gained very much so it was hard to tell I was pregnant until the last couple of months; then I looked very pregnant. The doctors discovered that my blood pressure was very high. At that time, they didn't have a lot of medicine to treat high blood pressure and the doctor was afraid I would go into convulsions if it got too high, so they put me on a very strict diet and had me rest quite a bit.

When I was close to delivery, my sister, Kay, who was also pregnant (about five months behind me), came to take care of me. Her husband was in the Navy. He had come home for Christmas, at which time she became pregnant. She came to make sure I behaved myself and followed the doctor's orders. She would stand at the top of the stairs and like a sergeant-at-arms, tell visitors I had to rest. We always had a lot of guests; many, like the Lewis' family needed to be there for some reason. George strongly believed and practiced following Jesus' command to love others as He loved each of us. We were always blessed regardless of the sacrifices.

Irene's sister Kay and husband Clyde

Meanwhile, George's secretary, Peggy, started to date Lewis Case and it was obvious they were falling in love. Peggy was quite a bit younger than Lewis, but they were madly in love. On Sunday morning April 30th, I started having labor pains. Before I went to the hospital, they knocked on my door, came into my room, and announced their engagement. While they were telling me, I had a terrific pain so I didn't get too excited about their news. We went to the hospital about noon. My labor was very painful and my blood pressure went way up, but finally Janetkay was born, May 1, 1944.

Husbands were not permitted in the labor room at that time, so George Pope went home and returned just as she was born. They had put some ointment in her eyes and her skin was jaundiced and her head was misshapen because she had to be pulled out. He said, "I thought we would have a beautiful baby, but she sure isn't." That was quite a joke, because she turned out to be a beautiful baby.

I had to stay in the hospital for two weeks because my blood pressure was so high. When people visited me, I saw tiny silver Scotty dogs floating in the air instead of their faces. I don't know who came to see me those first couple of days because of my misery.

My sister stayed with me, and the nurses thought I was fortunate to have a private nurse. Kay explained that she was my sister, but she wore her uniform and really was my private nurse, taking excellent care of me. When I came home from the hospital, she stayed for another month. She would turn Janetkay's head periodically and put a diaper beside it to shape her head properly.

When Janetkay was born on May Day, George Pope wanted to name her Janetmay. But, because my sister was such a big help, I wanted to name her Janetkay... he acquiesced because I was so sick. After I regained my strength, we continued our busy schedule. I pushed Janetkay in the baby buggy up and down the hills of Syracuse to visit Christians and to share my faith. Regularly, I visited a deaf lady for whom I wrote Bible lessons, and as well as visiting a blind man. Babysitters were not common until years later. C.W. Bradley was still preaching for us and we went for walks in Onendaga Park in all kinds of weather. When Janetkay was about six months old, he would carry her, sit down, and hold her on his lap. He whispered to her pretending she was his girlfriend, while George and I walked around holding hands. He remained a very close friend. Years later, when Janetkay was married, she asked C.W. to perform the ceremony. This is the same C.W. Bradley who later preached the funeral service in Memphis for Elvis Presley. We received a long letter from him after George Pope passed away. He was full of news of his family and shared how much he loved George Pope.

A New Calling to Preach

At this time, George decided to pursue a degree in speech at Syracuse University. C.W., Leslie Burke, and Logan Fox had returned to Tennessee, and the church asked George to preach full time. He had never wanted to be a full-time preacher, and being tall, with low blood pressure he even felt faint when he got up to preach. Especially, in a warm room, he felt like the blood wasn't going all the way to his head, so would sit down with his head between his knees for a few minutes. He usually felt it coming, but one time while he was speaking, he passed out and we had to revive him. He felt this would be a hindrance if he were a full-time preacher. He also believed he should have a degree in the Bible to be a good preacher. We prayed fervently about this decision. The members kept insisting that he take the job. He was already performing many of the responsibilities, including most of the preaching and other work of the ministry. Finally, we decided it was Godís will and agreed. When he told his boss at American Airlines that he was quitting, he was told he had lost his mind. Even his brother Howard, who was an elder in Chicago, thought it was a big mistake. We had paid off all of his school loans our first year of marriage, but we were barely making it on his salary. Now we would have to live on much less, as the minister's salary was about a third of what he was making at American Airlines. Even so, the church members could not support us, so they asked a church in Tennessee where we had many friends to help out. George Pope always trusted the Lord to take care of us as we lived according to God's will. Sure enough we managed, even with so many people living with us.

We conducted campaigns the next summer in Erie, Pennsylvania and Schenectady, New York, planting churches there. Additionally, we conducted a campaign in Rochester, New York. George began a publication named the Empire State Christian, which he edited, providing news of the New York churches. After the first of the year, we held another campaign, and then unexpectedly, the church in Tennessee informed us they didn't have enough money to continue our support. We didn't have anywhere else to turn at the time, so George Pope began to look for another job. He applied at Colgate University, hoping to be an assistant professor although he had not completed his Masters degree in speech at Syracuse University. Colgate hired him as a speech teacher and debate coach and all of a sudden he was on the faculty of a university. I'm sure our Lord was involved in this surprising turn of events.

We decided to build a church building in Syracuse, but didn't have much money since Pope was finishing his Master's thesis at Syracuse University. He and his nephews would drive up to the site for the day and make cinder blocks out of dirt, clay and water. When there were enough blocks, they built the Nedrow Church of Christ building. The Syracuse church members joined Nedrow, and Lewis Case, who had left the Navy, began preaching for them.

In the summer of 1946, we went to Dovertown, Alabama to conduct a Vacation Bible School at the church where Pope grew up, and his nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles still lived. They all wanted to hear him preach. His older brother Howard drove down from Chicago to lead the singing. Howard's son Eddie, who was in high school and living with us, also came along. We enjoyed spending time with all of his cousins, L.T., (Lemon Toss), Bloomer Newton, and Ben Dover. We had a great time, and I became pregnant with Lynette, our second daughter.

The Colgate Years

In the fall, we moved to Hubbardsville. The church met in a two-story building and was founded by J.J. Dart one hundred years earlier. Occasionally, we had sent Christians down from Syracuse to work with the 30 or 40 members there. It was to this congregation, where Lewis was going to preach when his wife, Georgia was killed. George Pope preached for them without pay and we lived on the second floor of the church building. Eddie and another nephew, Wayne (Wiley's son), from Chicago, lived with us. Charles, Wayne's brother, came to live with us when Eddie went home. I joined the PTA because our nephews were in high school. It was a unique experience since I was only twelve years older than Eddie.

Living in the country was quite a change for us. I became involved in an "extension" club for women, where we learned to garden, how to clean a sewing machine, and to make an aluminum tray, which I still have. Because he loved to sing so much, George joined the Civic Club. He put on a minstrel show and organized a couple of plays. We were well accepted in the community and God used us to convert both young and old. There were only two little stores, one two doors away in which was the post office, and one at the foot of the hill. There was a school and the firehouse, and that was it.

Colgate University was an all-male school at the time and quite expensive. George took his debate team to Harvard, Yale and other big schools and often won. He had quite an expense account, traveling to Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. On his days off, he preached for the little churches in the area and even took the team to Harding and Lipscomb for unscheduled debates.

Pioneering Teen Camps

George had seen a Bible camp in Canada, which had classes like a school. He thought something like that would be great for children from New York City, who were not able to experience the country. Many churches in the area were trying to impact young people and George thought this would be a good way to enable them to study the Bible. There were many critics, who warned that a group of young people would cause trouble in such a setting. Therefore, we received no financial support the first year, but were able to raise the money ourselves.

George Pope found some property in the mountains two miles from our house. It was an old farm with a big house and a deserted barn. He tore down a nearby house and carried all the lumber back. He and his nephews built a dining hall and a couple of cabins and put up tents for the boys. I papered the rooms in the big farmhouse for the faculty and for offices. We put mortar between the bricks in the barn, which was falling apart, and used it for a hobby shop. Since George was teaching at Colgate and his salary was year round, he could work on the camp in the summer. Lewis and Peggy helped a lot with the camp, as well as Pope's nephews, who understandably, didn't like creosoting (distilling wood tar), but it had to be done.

Around the end of March 1947, my blood pressure spiked, and the doctor asked me to move to Syracuse until the birth of the baby. I stayed with Lewis and Peggy, who had been married by George and Peggy was also pregnant and due three weeks before me. My diet consisted of four unsalted crackers and one quart of milk a day and I had to lie down most of the time. The doctor expected the baby to be born early, but she delayed for a whole month. Every Sunday, Peggy and I would go downstairs to the church service and friends would say, "Haven't you two gone to the hospital yet?"

I missed my family. Janetkay was with me, but George and his nephews were at home, probably eating lots of hamburgers. I kept telling the doctor I was having labor pains. My doctor had gone on vacation and had given me to another physician who didn't know my case and did not give me the proper attention. When my doctor returned, he realized I had been in labor all that week, but had not progressed.

He put me in the hospital and brought on hard labor right away. I had a placenta previa delivery, which is very dangerous for the baby, and many don't survive. He was a very good doctor and God was with us, so Lynette was healthy and normal. The doctor said it was a miracle that everything turned out as it did. Again, I had to stay in the hospital for an extended period, this time ten days. Lynette was born on a Thursday and on Saturday, Peggy, whose baby was overdue, took castor oil at midnight and had her baby the next day. We joyfully spent the next week in the hospital together. When we brought Lynette home from the hospital, Janetkay kept counting fingers and toes to make sure she was complete.

My sister, Kay had a baby boy in September after Janetkay was born. Unlike me, she just barely made it to the hospital. I went there to take care of her with my four-month-old baby. They had a small apartment and her husband came home on leave. I had to wash diapers in the bathtub and hang them up in the bathroom. At Christmas, her husband came home again so the next September, she had another baby. I went to take care of her again and this time we had three babies. Then her husband came home the next Christmas and sure enough she had her third child the next September. Our second daughter, Lynette, was born on April 24, 1947, a week before Janetkay turned three. Between my first and second child, my sister had given birth to three children, one each year, all in September. My mother welcomed five grandchildren in three years and traveled often between Syracuse and Chicago.

During the summer, Kay was our camp nurse and I was the cook. I left the house at six o'clock in the morning to cook breakfast for 75 campers. I put three-month old Lynette in the buggy and gave her one bottle while I cooked, and another while I washed the dishes. We had put a little fence around an apple tree outside the kitchen, where Janetkay, Billy, and Jerry (Kay's kids) played. Kay said she only needed Pepto Bismol (when campers ate green apples from the apple trees) and kerosene (when the New York City campers came infected with lice). The New York City kids marveled constantly at seeing the moon, trees, and animals.

My father came and took 8mm movies of the camp, so Pope could show various churches in the area the great work of the camp. This helped raise money and also attracted campers and workers. George drove down to Harding and Lipscomb to bring some students back to be counselors. We converted many young people during their few weeks at camp, because they were away from their often-negative family environments. Every morning we had Bible classes and every afternoon sports activities. On alternate nights we built a campfire and had skits or preaching. The counselors lived with the campers. There were blackberry bushes behind the farmland, from which the campers picked, so I could make a huge cobbler. We spent two months of our summer at camp and loved it.

In later years, we met campers who were active in the Schenectady and Rochester churches and all over the area. There were only a few churches in the New York State area at that time. Because of the influence of the camp, there are mainline churches in every nook and cranny of New York State now. The camp is still operating to this day, as Camp Hunt and influencing many people.

Our nephew, Wayne had a difficult time getting up, especially in winter. George would often drive him to school in deep snow because he would miss the bus. One morning George said to Ed, "You take his head and I'll take his feet", and they pitched him out into a snow bank right in front of the school bus. Wayne immediately awoke when he hit that cold snow and was never late again. That's one of our favorite stories.

I led a Bible class for women with a good attendance. One day, some women came to visit and one began petting Janetkay's naturally curly blonde hair. Another woman said to Janetkay, "You look so pretty today." Janetkay replied, "Drop dead." Of course, I was mortified and took her into the bedroom and asked where on earth she had learned that expression. She said Eddie had taught her. That was another favorite joke all throughout these years

Pope's nephew, Howard Thomas also came to live with us while seeking employment after getting out of the Navy. We had a full house again.

We met a lot of interesting people through the camp. Professors and students from Harding would come to help us and fell in love with the idea of a camp. Harding College started a camp named Wildewood. Later, Harold Thomas built one in Maine and Eddie Grinley started one in New Jersey. Gradually, they began to spring up all over. There are camps all over the country now. In 1953, George Pope wrote a book, entitled Christian Camps, about how to run a camp, what to teach, and how to get it started. It has been used as a textbook in many colleges and preacher schools ever since.

We had a lot of fun in the snow and did not need a freezer. We just put our food on the roof of the porch in October and it wouldn't thaw until April. We had a toboggan at camp that could carry four of us down the mountain at a time. Everyone was healthy at that time, but the weather was hard. While Pope was studying at Syracuse, once in a while it would snow so hard there would be high snow banks on both sides of the road. For him to even begin his journey, Eddie and Wayne would run beside the car and, when they found the road, they would get in the car and ride. That was kind of exciting and, but they went into the ditch quite a few times. Pope received his Masters Degree from Syracuse.

Called to Japan

World War II was over and one day we received a call from our home church in Chicago. They said the missionaries in Japan were all quite young with one exception. Someone was needed, who was a little older and had been successful in church planting and mission work. In other words, they wanted to send us to Japan.

George Pope didn't want to go to Japan at that time. We were successfully running the camp and planting churches in New York. He had an ideal job, teaching at Colgate and had summers off to do mission work. We were happy. We felt like we were accomplishing the Lord's will with our lives. Initially, George didn't see why we should interrupt what we were doing. Who would run the camp and preach for the church in Hubbardsville? Who would edit the Empire State Christian.

We prayed a great deal. They urged us, relating how much we were needed. We had met the one elderly missionary a number of times and considered him to be one of the most spiritual men we knew. We thought it would be inspiring to work with him and that we would grow spiritually because of the relationship. We had always wanted to be missionaries and reasoned perhaps this was God's calling for us. Pope called back and said, "I really feel after praying and fasting that this is what we need to do".

Before leaving for Japan - bulletin photo

I wasn't that eager myself. All I knew of Japan was that we had to sit on the floor and eat a lot of fish. But I thought, "If this is what we need to do, then we'll do it."

Lewis Case said he'd take over the camp. Someone else offered to preach for the church in Hubbardsville. After camp that summer, we made plans to leave for Japan. My mother, however, wrote me a letter stating that my father was so upset that I would cause him to suffer a heart attach if we went. As a disciple, I had made Jesus, Lord and that meant being submissive to my husband. I decided to trust God to care for him.

Chapter 3


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Copyright (c) 2000 Tokyo Church of Christ. All rights reserved.
Revised: January 18, 2002 .