Bill and Vonette Bright (1921-2003)
These two natives of little Coweta in Wagoner County, east of Tulsa, rose up to build the largest missionary agency in history. The New York Times reported that when Campus Crusade for Christ (Crusade) changed its name to CRU in 2011, it fielded 25,000 missionaries in nearly 200 countries.
Bill grew up on a ranch near Coweta and attended a one-room schoolhouse. When he arrived in Los Angeles in the 1940s and started a confection business after graduating from Northeastern State in Tahlequah, he wasn’t even a Christian. That changed under the influence of renowned Sunday School teacher Henrietta Mears, as well as young evangelist Billy Graham during events related to Graham’s legendary 1949 L.A. revival.
The Brights married in 1948, Bill pursued theological training, then he sold his booming business interests in 1951 to launch a unique Christian “parachurch” ministry. As such, CRU, like organizations including the Oklahoma-berthed Fellowship of Christian Athletes (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 8) and InterVarsity allied themselves and cooperated with churches, but operated separately from them.
The Brights recruited several volunteers from Los Angeles-area ministries and began engaging and evangelizing students individually at UCLA. Soon, Bright codified their approach into a four-step gospel talk tract that over the next seven decades would be printed 2.5 billion times—the most of any booklet in history. Its major planks:
God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.
All of us sin and our sin has separated us from God.
Jesus Christ is God's only provision for our sin. Through Him we can know and experience God's love and plan for our life.
We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God's love and plan for our lives.
Within months, the CRU team led some 250 UCLA students to Christian faith. Among them were the student body president, the campus newspaper editor, and several athletes, including African American track star and future Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson. From there, Bright established CRU teams on other campuses. Their network eventually stretched across America, then around the world. The author was first evangelized by OU fraternity brothers involved with the Norman campus’s Crusade chapter.
CRU’s 1979 Jesus film was dramatic, evangelistic, and conceived by Bill Bright and bankrolled by Bunker and Caroline Hunt, devout Christians of Dallas. It paralleled the Four Laws tract by becoming the most frequently-shown motion picture, with the largest audience of any film ever. Its “theaters” have ranged from corporate offices to mountainsides to canyon tops and bottoms.
As CRU expanded to historic proportions, the ministry emphasized the discipleship of new Christians, and equipping them with the knowledge to vigorously join in the effort to evangelize other students. A major enabler of CRU’s stunning growth was its policy that all staff, including the Brights, generated their own financial “support,” or salary. They did so from family, friends, and others interested in and supportive of their personal ministry labors. This freed the organization from a vast amount of financial overhead.
CHRIST OVER COMMUNISM
Toward the end of 20th century, CRU’s reach diversified into dynamic ministries to families, the inner city, the military, politicians, and athletes, as well as sprawling efforts in foreign countries. The full import of Christianity on the destruction of the Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe will never be known. The great godless empire of history collapsed in the face of its mortal foe, thirst for faith in God’s Son. And no organization on earth was more invested on the ground to those tyrannized nations than Campus Crusade for Christ.
OU graduate David Robinson served both as CRU’s Area Campus Director for Eastern Europe and Russia, and National Director for Hungary and Serbia during and after the Communist occupation of Russia and Eastern Europe. He was Bill Bright’s point man in Bright’s driving vision for spiritually reaching the millions imprisoned by the same Bolshevik monster he mortally feared would bring down America.
Robinson made many dangerous trips into both Soviet Russia and its Communist-imprisoned eastern European neighbors. He told the author in the late 1980s: “I was stunned to realize there is no purpose in sharing gospel tracts with students who don’t even know there is a God.” Such was the bitter harvest of a half-century of enforced atheism.
But year by year, soul by soul, with Bright’s support and direction, Robinson, CRU colleagues, and other dauntless missionaries, as well as valorous Christians within those tortured nations, turned the tide. Now, in Hungry for instance, Robinson’s Youth on the Threshold of Life (YTL) program, supported by police officers across the country, has reached much of the nation’s student population. YTL is a comprehensive, biblically-based program teaching the young how to deal with the multitudinous problems of life. The Hungarian Ministry of Education approved it as an official curriculum and more than 8,000 teachers have taught it.
So resounding has been the Christian impact of CRU and others, the national spiritual life of Hungary now exceeds that of long-“free” western Europe, and in many ways America itself. Incredibly, Robinson said, “YTL was launched behind the Iron Curtain, but has now spread beyond it.”
DEEP AND POWERFUL
Nancy DeMoss Wohlgemuth, herself an internationally-respected ministry leader whose book sales total in the millions, considered Vonette Bright “my second mother.” She recalled that when Bill passed away in 2003, after nearly 60 years of marriage:
“Vonette refused to wallow in grief or ‘take it easy.’…As a widow in her 70s and 80s, no one would’ve faulted her for wanting to relax and leave the heavy lifting of intercessory prayer ministry to younger backs. But she never departed from God’s presence, ‘worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day,’ giving thanks to God for the fulfillment of his promises in Christ, and speaking of him to all who were waiting and longing for redemption (Luke 2:37-38).
“She traveled thousands upon thousands of miles in those sunset years, continuing to serve the Cru staff while taking on numerous other ministry endeavors. She found great delight in encouraging anyone and everyone who sought to proclaim the gospel; I recall her telling me a decade or so ago that she was taking an online course so she could become an honorary member of a Christian biker’s association that was using Cru resources to evangelize lost bikers.”
Shortly before Vonette’s 2015 passing, her daughter-in-law Kathy Bright wrote:
“So many deep and powerful lessons Mother and the Savior are teaching us even now. Her caregivers have been blessed by the fact that even in her weak state, Mother says, ‘Thank you, honey; thank you, thank you,’ when they help her. She is as gracious and grateful now as she has always been.”
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.