The Harding Years

by Irene Gurganus

When George Pope began teaching at Harding Graduate School, we were able to form great friendships with five or six other professors there. The librarian, Annie May Austin, was one of George's former classmates.

Until that time, the school did not have a full-time registrar; the registrar work was done by the executive secretary, who didn't really have time to maintain the records properly.  Consequently many of the records had been put in a closet and hadn't been filed or organized.  The school asked me if I would start doing this registrar work on a part-time basis, and I agreed.  I love to organize and do statistical studies, so I worked to devise a system of organization.  In time, they gave me a larger office, and I started working full-time and had an assistant.  I learned a great deal and thoroughly enjoyed it. My responsibilities also included ensuring that the records of the graduating students were in order and planning the graduation ceremony as well as the procession.

My mother was living with us at the time and helped me immensely. She did most of the cooking, and I helped her when I got home.  Mom said she never knew whether to prepare for two or for 20!  We had a very unpredictable life at the time.  George Pope insisted that anyone staying with us be considered a part of the family.  They had breakfast and supper with us, at which times we would discuss the events of the day.  Regardless of how many appointments we had, we always made time to have supper together. 

Seeing the many foreign people visiting us, our neighbors wondered what was going on in our home.  While at a beauty shop, one of the ladies from church overheard a neighbor saying that she feared we were dealing drugs because of all the foreigners she saw going in and out.  Our friend informed her that the foreigners were in fact missionary students ・quite contrary to what the neighbor had thought!  We laughed about this for many years.

We placed membership at the White Station Church of Christ, which had about 800 members at the time.  It was located close to the school, and most of the professors were members there. The church soon made George an elder as well as head of its Missions Committee. I taught the Ladies Bible Class, in which about 70 women participated.

George Pioneers Missions Programs

George started and actively promoted a number of programs to make Christians more missions-conscious.  He also piloted a masters degree missions program at Harding.  George held seminars at various congregations on weekends to get their members more interested in missions.  Using Ephesians 3:20-21, one of his favorite scriptures, he preached emphatically that we could evangelize the world in our generation.  He inspired some of his students and a number of friends to take up the banner and help him.  He traveled in order to participate in a number of conferences held by denominational groups, including Consultation on World Missions, held in Montreat, North Carolina, in October 1962.

George also began a series of annual world missions workshops; church colleges took turns hosting them. He preached that through the power of the Holy Spirit we could challenge the devil on all fronts and win the world for Christ.  At the same time, George began what were called Missions Seminars; these were held at Harding College in Searcy, Arkansas.  Each seminar group was composed of 30 students, each of whom earned six credit hours in missions・principles, anthropology, or cultural anthropology in eight weeks of classroom instruction.

It was also at the Missions Seminars, that we met Dr. Richard Rheinbolt, who along with his wife, became great supporters of the program. Dr. Rheinbolt later went to Guatemala as a missionary and thereafter joined the discipling movement. Renee, their first child, was on the mission team sent to Bogota, Columbia.

Following the completion of their Mission Seminars classroom instruction, George took those who had the time and money on an eight-week trip to two countries, where they assisted local missionaries in various ways.  This experience helped the participants decide whether they really wanted to become missionaries. Interestingly, these post-seminar mission groups were initially dubbed the Prince of Peace Corps,・but George had to rename them to International Study Group to avoid confusion with the Peace Corps.  

My younger daughter, Lynette, went on two trips with the International Study Group ・the first time, to Japan and Korea.  She loved going back to Japan, at which time the group spent a lot of time at the camp in Motosu.  In Korea, they helped make bricks for a sanitarium for poor people.  The following year they went to the northern part of Okinawa and worked with many non-Christian students.  They taught Vacation Bible School in the evenings for children in a nearby village and helped them clean up their pineapple plantations.  In appreciation, the villagers held a banquet for them. They roasted a whole pig on a spit and served lots of local specialties, including pineapple. Following the banquet, the chief made a speech, thanking the students for their help, saying that he knew somehow that he had r. Jesus to thank for all this.  Though he didn't fully understand, he at least gave God the glory!  Later, missionaries went back to that area and worked for a couple of summers, and they had a few conversions among the group.

While George was teaching at Harding, I could take courses at the school for free; and so, I decided to continue studying Greek.  Dr. Batey's course, The Book of Romans in Greek, was to become one of my most rewarding classes ever.  The book of Romans came alive for me, and I still have my class notes.  Dr. Batey also introduced me to some very interesting contemporary books ・one of which was to have a great deal of influence in my impact on other women.  The book described groups that met once a week in order for the members to share their strengths, weaknesses and problems and to pray for one another.

Early Womens Ministry

I went to the elders of the White Station church and asked if I could try something new with the women.  I wanted to select about 10 women with whom to meet each week in order to study the Bible, share our strengths and weaknesses, and pray for one another. Each of these women would then, in turn, become leaders of other groups of ten.  The elders did not understand exactly what I was trying to do, but trusted me and gave their approval.  I prayed and selected women whom I felt related well to other women and would be able to lead a group.  I asked them to commit to meet every week and to be completely open about their lives so that we could pray effectively for one another.  The women were very excited about the idea, and so we soon began.  Each week, I taught a short lesson using ideas from the book mentioned above.  The goals of my lesson were to apply the scriptures to our hearts to identify areas where we needed to grow spiritually.  Then we would discuss applications to our lives, pray for each other, and promise to continue praying throughout the week.

After the first meeting, they were very excited as I explained the format for the group, and at the next meeting, people began to share openly.  Many of the women had problems that they had never shared with the others.  I thought I knew them well, but in reality, I was unaware of many of the struggles they were experiencing.  In fact, each one was going through a very serious problem in her life at that time, and we were able to help one another work through these problems.  On Sunday mornings, their husbands would say, Irene, what are you doing with my wife?  I can not believe all the changes in her. I appreciate so much what you are doing. But it wasn,t me; it was God!

After meeting for 10 weeks, we were tightly bonded.  Afterwards, each of the women became the leader of another group of about 10.  Fortunately, we had enough rooms in the spacious church building for each group to meet in its own room.  The leader would read a lesson I had prepared and the women would discuss how this applied to their lives.  They would share their struggles and ask for prayers.  The women were greatly strengthened through these groups, and many of their husbands became Christians.  I think the church continued these meetings for a long time.  Ten years after leaving the White Station Church, we returned and I had a joyful reunion with many of the participants.

George Pope and I had always wanted a son, so we decided that we would adopt a boy whose age was close to that of our girls from one of the nearby orphanages.  We were told of a 16-year-old boy who lived in Springdale, Tennessee and he visited us on several occasions.  Many remarked that he resembled my mother and could easily pass as my son.  We quickly fell in love with him and learned that he had always wanted to be adopted but had not been successful.  We had previously tried to adopt, but missionaries weren't considered good candidates because they didn't have guaranteed incomes.  Now, George Pope was teaching at Harding Graduate School with a professor's salary, so we anticipated that we would qualify.  We made plans for him to come and stay with us for an initial week, and then the orphanage suddenly decided that it didn't want him to be adopted.  He was a good speaker, so they intended to use him to solicit donations for the orphanage from nearby churches.  Although we expressed our extreme disappointment, the orphanage wouldn't let us have him.  Later, someone gave him a scholarship to Harding University, which he attended at the same time as our younger daughter and they became good friends.

One of the original Japanese members of the church in Tokyo came to America to get a degree in marketing from Memphis State University and asked if he could live with us. We let him live in our study, and he became very active in the church during his year-and-a-half stay with us.

Exploring Hawaii

The missions program that George started went so well at Harding that Dr. Stevens, president of Abilene Christian University, asked George to start the same kind of program there.  After much prayer and seeking advice, we decided to move to Abilene, Texas right after Christmas.  We had made plans to attend a speech communication convention in Hawaii, so we went there directly after flying to Abilene arriving on New Years Day at about 3 a.m. We were on the 12th floor of the hotel with a few floors above us.  Some people celebrated by throwing fireworks out the window all night, which landed on our balcony and prevented us from getting much sleep.  

A friend picked us up and took us to the Keamoku church the following day, which was Sunday.  We met several friends there whom we hadn't seen in a long time.  After that, we spent a couple of days sightseeing.  We went to Hilo and drove to the other side of the island in a rented a car.  This part of the island was mostly covered with lava from an erupted volcano.  Roads and spaces for homes had to be cut from this lava, and the houses were all built on hills of lava.  It was a very unusual, but beautiful place. We went to visit a family who had church services in their home, and many people drove for an hour or two to attend.

Several days later we continued our car ride and drove around the whole island, which took about eight hours. Driving through the various areas was like driving through the United States in eight hours. We passed through desert areas very similar to those in the western United States, as well as through beautiful canyons. We also saw many areas with beautiful gardens, like similar to the Midwest. There were places that were very warm with colorful shrubbery, trees and flowers, as in Florida.  We also viewed places uniquely Hawaiian, with lots of pineapple fields.  It was very interesting and enjoyable to see such varied terrain in so short a span.

We returned to Honolulu, where I especially enjoyed the East-West cultural center. George even dreamed of returning to teach.  It was a very interesting place. Every day there was a sort of sprinkling rain, but people didn't bother with umbrellas; we just got wet.  We soon dried off as we walked.  Most of the women wore muumuus, which looked very comfortable, so I bought a number of them.  I even bought an expensive one, which I still have, to wear to one of the speech convention parties.  It is flaming pink and is gathered down the back to look like peacock feathers. I wish we could wear clothes like that in the summertime in America.  They were so nice and cool.


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Copyright (c) 2000 Tokyo Church of Christ. All rights reserved.
Revised: January 03, 2002 .