As if that were not bad enough, my mother now began to invite friends and customers to attend a Bible study in our living room. Some ridiculed, some politely declined, but some had a hunger to know God. To her, the good news of the grace of God was not a thing to be hoarded. A door in the back of our luncheonette opened into our living room and kitchen, and steps in the living room led upstairs to three bedrooms and a bath. We lived behind and above our place of business. I shall never forget that first Bible study. There were always ten or twelve Jewish young people “hanging out” in the luncheonette each evening. Some played the pinball machines, others danced to the jukebox, and still others were seated in the back booth talking, joking, and perhaps eating a famous Philadelphia steak sandwich or drinking a malted milk shake. And then came the shock – “the unpardonable sin.” From this Jewish home in a Jewish neighborhood, amidst the noise and activity, arose the clear words of a Christian hymn. Those who had gathered in the back room were singing, “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus” Words cannot adequately convey the impact on those present of hearing such lyrics in the center of a Jewish community.
If going to church had caused problems – this was far worse. Our family had become the open scandal of our neighborhood – “traitors” to the Jewish people! The young lady I was dating was forbidden to see me by her parents. Friends whom I had grown up with now avoided me or made me a chief target of ridicule. Fist fights, became an almost daily event. A petition to have us thrown out of the neighborhood was circulated. And anonymous, threatening, phone calls would occur in the middle of the night. Fannie counseled, “If they rejected the Lord, they will reject the servant.” Maybe she was right, but I wasn’t ready to pay that kind of price to be a Christian.
Jonah couldn’t flee from God, but I was sure I could. I planned to go into the military, leaving Christ behind. I wanted no more ridicule. Soon after I turned eighteen, I enlisted in the Marines. It was, I decided, time to do my thing. The night before I left home, Fannie had some farewell advice. “You’re a true Christian, Marvin. You have that paid-up ‘life insurance’ policy I told you about. One day when your earthly life ends you will go to Heaven because of what the Messiah has done for you. But if, when you get to Heaven, there is a great big parade and if, in the front of the parade, there is a great big band, if you don’t change your way of living, you’ll be so far back in the line that you won’t even hear the music.” Fannie never gave me a scripture to support that statement, but somehow it impressed my impressionable mind. Nevertheless, I planned to stand firm in my rebellion. God had no place in my plans.
During basic training at Paris Island, South Carolina, I received two or three letters a week from my mother. In retrospect, I’m sure she was convinced that tracts were “cheaper by the dozen.” In every letter she enclosed a packet of them. I was furious! In the rebelliousness of my heart I wrote, “Mom, I love you very much, but if you can’t write without including Christian literature, I’d rather you not write at all.” I received the next letter and opened it quickly to see if there was any literature. There was none, and I thought to myself, I have finally gotten away from God. Then I read the letter. It began, “Dear Son.” The body of the letter followed, and she closed in her usual fashion, “Oceans of love. Mom.” Then followed a postscript. (I have been fond of writing brief postscripts ever since.) It pierced my heart like a knife! It read, “Keep looking up, for He is always looking down.” She sent no more literature. But, it wasn’t necessary. She had committed me to her Lord, and whenever I went where I should not have been, or did what I knew God would not approve of, the Holy Spirit was ever present to convict of sin and remind me of my mother’s words, “Keep looking up, for He is always looking down.”
Through Closed Doors
I felt self-confident in the club car drinking my cocktail. The train would soon arrive at Philadelphia and I would be back home in my neighborhood called Strawberry Hills. My three years in the Marine Corps had passed rapidly. They were, I felt, good years. I had experienced life – I had grown up (no longer an eighteen year-old-teen but a twenty-one-year-old man). I even had sergeant stripes on my sleeve to prove it. I was, in my eyes, a real “John Wayne.” And this young guy was now ready for all the world had to offer.
Prospects for the future seemed excellent. My older brother and sister-in-law were both professional dance teachers. I loved to dance and had won a dance contest on national television. I was certain that I would make my way in life as a professional dancer. Only one thing clouded my optimism that day. I had gambled away all my money while in the service and would have to live with my mother in her recently acquired suburban home. But that, I was certain, would be short-lived – about six months – long enough to save some money. Then I could get my own apartment, a half-dozen suits, three redheads, and a new sports car.
I moved into my mother’s home and soon started teaching at a dance studio in downtown Philadelphia. My life became a predictable cycle. I went to the studio at about 1:00 p.m. and finished at 10:00 p.m. This was frequently followed by a night of dancing at some of the after-hour night clubs. On occasion, I broke that routine by playing poker until early morning at a friend’s home. Both my mother and Fannie encouraged church attendance, but I wasn’t interested and was now far beyond parental control. Week after week they pleaded that I attend the Bible study in our home, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. But God has ways of making the deaf hear. It was my day off. It was also the night of the Bible study. I had been burning the candle at both ends and decided to stay home and get some much needed sleep. Of course, I took precaution to make sure that I was safely in my bedroom before my mother’s friends arrived. I did not want to have to answer questions about my spiritual condition, which I was certain would arise. It was early evening and, try as I might, sleep would not come. I heard the guests arrive – hanging their coats in the closet, singing some of the Christian hymns, and I desperately didn’t want to hear.
Then the Bible teacher began his lesson. In rebellion, I pulled the covers up over my head, but I could not drown out his words. In a last desperate attempt, I clamped the pillow over my head. I thought, Surely this will blot out the teacher’s voice – but I was wrong. From the living room, down the long corridor, through the closed door, and in spite of the up-pulled covers and pulled-down pillow – God was speaking to me. I could not flee from the “Hound of Heaven.” For the first time in years, I lay still, emotionally spent, and let Him speak.
When the message was over, unknown to all of the guests, I got down on my knees beside my bed, with tears streaming down my face. I don’t remember the text or the message on that occasion, but what I have never forgotten is the fact that God – the Sovereign of the Universe – the One who spoke the worlds into existence and breathed into man the breath of life, was communicating to an unhappy and confused twenty-two year old. I still remember my prayer on that occasion: “Father, I have no gifts that I know of – I have nothing to offer you but my sinful life. I know it is Yours by right of redemption. I give it now, if You will receive it, for Your purposes and Your glory.”
In my heart, I knew that the words of Augustine were true – “O God, Thou hast created man for Thyself, and man is restless until he rests in Thee.” I had experienced that restlessness. King Solomon expressed the same thought when he wrote, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Solomon’s words can be paraphrased this way: soap bubbles of soap bubbles; all is soap bubbles. Soap bubbles are attractive, colorful, and tantalizing. They float leisurely by, and hold out so much promise, but when you reach for them, they break! I knew in my heart that is what life is really like without God.
A Desert Place
Needless to say, my mother and Fannie were thrilled to hear of God working in my life and my new commitment. They shared the news with the pastor, and within a week I found myself at the Sandy Cove Bible Conference grounds in the State of Maryland. Hearing, through the pastor, what God had done in my life, the director graciously made a temporary job available to me. It was winter and the conference grounds were closed, but there was a great deal of work to be done to get the facilities ready for the summer conference season. The director would visit on the weekend and assign work for the following week. And work I did – digging a trench for the pipes to be connected to the new pool, scrubbing and waxing the very large dining hall floor, painting and cleaning cabins, fixing some of the cabin roofs – there seemed to be no end to the things that had to be done.
I felt like I was in the middle of a desert with no television, no papers, no one to talk to – only work and study and sleep. (Only later would I read of the 40 years Moses spent in the Sinai Desert, and the three years Paul spent in Arabia.) I remember saying, “Lord, I told You that You could have my life, but You’ve got me here in the middle of nowhere.” I began to pack my suitcase. I was going to walk out to the highway and hitchhike home. But somehow I sensed God’s thoughts. Did you say I can have your life? Well, this is where I want you now. I unpacked my bag and stayed on. As spring began to turn to summer, I welcomed the news that the director planned to send me to their teenage camp. I was to be a counselor and life guard. For the first time, I experienced the thrill of teaching others the Word of God. It was just basic stuff, but I could tell that the Lord was there and that made all the difference in the world.
The camp was nearing its end, and before me lay an uncertain future. “Tomorrow’s your day off, isn’t it?” asked the camp director and his assistant. “How about spending the day with us?” I was to meet them the next morning. I had no idea where we were going. We drove north for about an hour and a half and entered the city of Philadelphia. They parked the car and we walked into a large building. Over the entrance in bold letters was written “Philadelphia Bible Institute.” We then entered the Office of the Director of Admissions. I broke into loud laughter when they said , “We have a young man whom we think the Lord wants in the ministry.” The admissions director sternly inquired, “What’s so funny, young man?” I explained that I had never graduated from high school – didn’t even make it through the 11th grade! I had never read a book through, had never written a term paper, did not know the difference between a noun and a pronoun, had cut classes in school much of the time – and here I was at a college in the Office of the Director of Admissions. I was certain he would see the humor in the situation. How wrong I was! My laughter turned to bewilderment when, after an extended interview and examination, I was told I would be admitted to the college on academic probation. That, I soon learned, meant that I could not participate in any extra-curricular activity until I achieved a grade point average of “C” or better.
And so, with considerable fear and trepidation, a young man – from a Jewish background, who had served in the Marine Corps, and taught dancing professionally – entered Bible college alongside young people who, with few exceptions, had been raised in Christian homes and Bible-believing churches all of their lives.
The college would become God’s instrument to faithfully impart the Word of God to me and in turn lead to a world-wide prophetic ministry where I as a Jewish believer would share the gospel with my fellow Jews.
But what of Fannie – faithful Fannie? She was never listed in anyone’s “Who’s Who.” No banquet was ever attended in her honor. No gold watch ever given. Materially, she never had much of this world’s goods – she lived by faith. Educationally, her formal training ended at fourth grade – but few knew the Word of God better than her. The world never took note of her. Some would say her life never counted for much – that she was only a lowly missionary. Were they right? You judge. More than forty years ago she was used of God to reach my mother with the gospel. Six months later she reached me and the succession started; my younger brother, my older brother, my sisters-in-law, other relatives, and friends. Home Bible studies were started and continue up to the present. Literally millions of tracts, books, and tapes have been distributed throughout the world. Today, we can identify students studying for Christian service, men in the pastorate, and men and women on the mission field and other areas of Christian service as a direct result of what God began to do 40 years ago in a luncheonette in a Jewish community in Philadelphia. Thousands have trusted Christ and, if God pleases, thousands more will be reached. All begun by one solitary woman faithfully serving her God, starting a chain reaction that will continue into eternity. When I heard of Fannie’s home-going, I didn’t weep for her. How could I? If mansions in Heaven are of varying sizes, she’s got a large, beautiful one. And she’s doing what she loves to do best – praising her wonderful Lord.