In the dusty storeroom
of an abandoned church:
i.m. Gladys Vearl Randall
by Leroy Randall
Dwight Randall, the Director of Life Ministries, and his brothers, Leroy and Morris, both well-known pastors in evangelical circles in Perth, recently lost their mother, Gladys Vearl Randall. At the funeral service in Cincinnati, Ohio, on 23rdAugust, Leroy offered a moving tribute to Gladys; and in the process he also offered an enduring tribute to the power of the Gospel. A slightly edited version of this two-way tribute is printed here for the encouragement and enrichment of Life News readers.
It is not possible to adequately summarise a life as varied and full as Gladys’ was. So, I want to focus on what I believe was the core, defining event of her life. Shy and reticent she may have been, but her life, without exaggeration, was a kind of “unrepeatable wonder”. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about her is seen in the tragic nature of her early life, and how well that life turned out in the end.
Gladys was the first and only living child of an Iowa farming couple. She was born in 1918, ninety-six years ago. Toward the end of her tenth year, she lost her mother in childbirth. She also lost the stillborn child who would have been her longed-for little brother. This tragedy began an astonishing series of catastrophes, like lightning striking in the same place time after time. Within three weeks, her beloved grandmother, the only Christian in the family, died of grief over the loss of her daughter (Gladys’ mother). Three days later, adding disaster to disaster, her grandfather also suddenly collapsed and died at the funeral service for his wife. Young Gladys had been sitting next to him during the service. She saw it all happen.
So, in less than a month she had lost the three people she loved most and the only three who really loved her. Her entire life had been turned upside down.
Her father, himself deeply bereaved, felt that he could not take care of his young daughter. He turned Gladys over to a childless aunt and uncle who would much have preferred to remain free of that responsibility, and who made it plain to her. Their treatment of her, along with the pain and grief, if it had not actually caused her death, should certainly have destroyed her as a sane and coherent individual.
But something extraordinary happened to her. It is impossible not to see the hand of God in this. She was a sixth-grade student at a tiny, one-room, rural grade-school that employed an unmarried young lady as a teacher. There were not more than a dozen pupils in the school.
In her lonely grief, Gladys formed the habit of sitting by herself in a corner of the small playground during recess time. Because of her sadness, her fellow students did not know what to say to her, or how to deal with her grief. It so happened that directly across the dirt road from the school, there was an abandoned, wooden Methodist church, neglected, paint peeling, walls grey with age.
One day, Gladys crossed the road to see the church. She was alone and no one tried to stop her. She soon discovered that the door to the small storeroom at the rear of the church was unlocked. She entered it. There were no windows, but light streamed in through the door. Lying on the storeroom floor was a scatter of dust-covered Sunday-School leaflets. She read one. She felt it was a great privilege: She had wanted to go to Sunday School for years, but her parents would not allow it.
And thereafter, she returned to that storeroom every day during the recess period. Sitting on a box, she would read another of the leaflets. But she was still deeply affected by her loneliness and misery.
On this particular day—it would have been in the Fall of 1929, when her mother, her stillborn brother, and her grandparents had been dead for four or five months—with no help in sight—the event that changed everything for her took place.
She had seated herself on the box she now sat on by habit when she was in the storeroom. The box was located near the door, where the illumination was best. On one of her early visits she had characteristically straightened up the room, gathering the scattered leaflets. She had stacked them neatly on top of one of the boxes near where she sat.
Now she picked up one of the leaflets from the small pile. The light streamed through the door. She glanced at the front cover. It pictured, in simple silhouette form, a man hanging on a cross. She knew right away that it depicted Jesus. She had heard her teacher read about him one morning not long before.
Beneath the picture she read the words, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life”. It was that famous verse, John 3:16, familiar to all Christians but in truth quite strange to young Gladys. In spite of all that she had heard from her teacher, the idea that God loved had not yet come home to her.
She read the whole leaflet. As she did so, she found her heart strangely comforted. She did not understand everything about John 3:16—who does?—but she gleaned enough to know that the verse had an application to her, personally, as part of the world God loved.
In common with many children who undergo terrible tragedy, she had fallen into thinking that perhaps she was herself somehow to blame for the loss of her mother and grandparents. How else could she account for the personal focus of such a surfeit of disaster? Surely, there was some-thing about her that attracted God’s anger, and brought down His punishment on her. That, at any rate, was the bleak colour of her thinking before she encountered John 3:16. The weight of the issue could not have been borne much longer: it was just too heavy.
Now, reading the leaflet, she saw that the words of the verse meant that God loved her. The words could not be seen any other way. They meant that He sent His Son to die for her. They meant that, if she believed in this Son that God sent, whatever wrong she had done or ever would do, was dealt with by His dying. They meant that, believing, she would be given eternal life.
It is hardly possible to exaggerate the impact of this experience upon Gladys. She felt that a God who loved the whole world enough to give His own Son must be a very great God. At the same time, she felt that He was prepared to meet her, and to love her in the midst of her grief. This was an enormous comfort to her, and she would not forget it in the hard days to come.
Gladys met the Lord Jesus during the recess hour in that little storeroom. She spoke to Him. She told Him that if He helped her —because she was feeling very helpless— she would commit her life to Him. She vowed to serve and obey God if He would protect and care for her, and help her to grow up. From this vow she would never retreat. She felt it was the right thing to do.
And He spoke to her. This is not to imply that He made a physical appearance: it is to say that in some way, in her deepest, deepest heart, He made Himself known to her, in a manner just as vital and assuring as a physical appearance would have been. He spoke to her and told her that He would take care of her. For the young lady, it was a dawning—a kind of epiphany—when the light of Christ shone in the dark recesses of her broken heart.*
Those who are well acquainted with Gladys know how real this experience was to her. The spiritual awakening she experienced marked the beginning of the end of the trials which commenced with her mother’s death. What she still had to go through would require all her courage and determination, but now she was armed with a wonderful confidence in God’s kindness and goodwill toward her. She had, in hardly more than a few moments, been made “more than a conqueror through Him who loved her”.
Nor was the effect of the experience temporary. It was not a passing phase brought on by the stress and grief of her experience. She would never be truly alone again. From that moment more than eighty years ago, Gladys never veered from her faith in the One she encountered in the little abandoned church.
I seized on this remarkable incident in Gladys’ young life, primarily because of its impact on her. I believe it was an amazing manifestation of the providence of God—one of the most outstanding with which I have come into contact.
But it goes so much further than that. There are none of us in the immediate family, along with so many others, who have not been profoundly impacted by what happened at that moment to eleven-year-old Gladys. Because, if she had not met the Lord, she would never have made those first commitments and vows. She would never have gone to Bible College. She would never have met Dad. She would never have gone to Africa as a missionary. We Randall children would never have been born, nor any of the huge progeny Mom and Dad left behind. We would never have enjoyed the privilege of being brought up “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord”. And that life which is the true life would never have been ours. It all began in the dusty storeroom of an abandoned church with the light streaming through the door.
* Some of the preceding paragraphs have been taken from Leroy’s book about his mother titled The Dawning. Copies of this book are available through Life Ministries.