John Bradshaw - Conversation with Dr. Gary Wagner - Part 1
Not only has he been a pastor, he has been a missionary in some fascinating places, a church administrator and leader in some, perhaps, equally fascinating places. He's also an author of a book that I want you to know about. His name is Dr. Gary Wagner. And this is our conversation.
John Bradshaw: Dr. Wagner, thanks so much for being here.
Dr. Gary Wagner: Thank you very much. It's nice to be able to come and visit with you, John.
John Bradshaw: Now your career in ministry stretches back and stretches forward, you're still very active and recently authored, I think an important and a challenging book in the most appropriate of ways. But there's a lot to talk about here. You've had some remarkable experiences over your time. Before we dive into that, let's go way back to the beginning. Tell me where you hail from and how things got started for you.
Dr. Gary Wagner: I was born in Garden City, Kansas, Southwest corner of Kansas. And it was a great time. My parents were neither one Adventist, neither one of them claimed any Christian lifestyle.
John Bradshaw: Right, right.
Dr. Gary Wagner: But my grandmother was an Adventist and she made sure, through our growing up years, there were seven of us children in the family, she made sure that somebody from the church would come by and invite us on Sabbath mornings to come to Sabbath school. And that continued for years. And praise God for my grandmother.
John Bradshaw: Oh, yeah. Your parents didn't object to that, they were okay with that?
Dr. Gary Wagner: No, they didn't object. I think both of them really were interested in having us have some kind of Christian upraising.
John Bradshaw: Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Gary Wagner: But they were raised in different backgrounds and they had apparently agreed, before they started having kids, that they weren't going to push either one so that they wouldn't be confusing us. I think it would've been perhaps better, had they given us at least some background, but God is good and He knows what He's doing.
John Bradshaw: Let me ask you this. What was your family doing in Southwest Kansas anyway? How did you wind up there?
Dr. Gary Wagner: My grandparents, grandmother and grandfather, grandma, as we called her, came to the States when she was 24, all by herself.
John Bradshaw: Where from?
Dr. Gary Wagner: She's from the Ukraine. She's German, from the Ukraine.
John Bradshaw: Sure.
Dr. Gary Wagner: Her family had come out of Russia, and she got out in time to miss the Russians going back into Ukraine. She came by herself and settled in Kansas, in Rush County, Kansas, where she was met by grandpa. And they got married, had a place there for a while, a farm. And then they moved to Southwest Kansas to Garden City and he got a job, they started raising my father and his siblings.
— What was life like in Kansas for them way back then? I mean, I cannot imagine it was, I don't wanna paint it with a bad brush here but it had to have been relatively primitive back in that time.
— Well, we didn't notice that, we didn't notice it being primitive, because we had never been anywhere else to compare it to.
— I'm thinking way back to this 24-year-old Ukrainian princess who traveled to Kansas of all places. She didn't stop in New York City and other places where the immigrants congregated, but she somehow found a way to the center of the country.
— Her ship did stop in Ellis Island.
John Bradshaw: Sure.
— But she was a little sick with something, and so she couldn't get off the boat.
— And so it went on to Canada where she got off and then made her way back down to Rush County.
— Did she have contacts there? She must have known somebody there.
— We think that she must have known somebody, but we don't have any the evidence of that.
— Oh okay, okay. Well, however it happened, it happened. And she and her new husband found Christianity, or they had a Christian background, or what was their situation?
— She was apparently a Seventh-day Adventist from the Ukraine. And her husband, grandpa, didn't seem to have much of a background. Although, we just in the past year, have found his information of being baptized.
— Oh, how fascinating, yeah.
— It didn't stick with many of their children. Although there were a couple of them that still maintained their relationship with God and with the church. And one of those is still living in Oklahoma.
— But grandma reached across a generation and got to you kids. And that had, well, tell me why that had an influence? It could have been just as easy for you to become some secular-minded young man, but something lodged in you, owing to your grandmother's influence, you know, to have the church reach out to you. Talk to me about that experience, being raised in a home that didn't profess faith, but you had church contact and that stuck somehow, why?
— I've thought about that a lot. Trying to figure out just what it was, because I'd like to reduplicate that in the lives of other people. With the seven of us, my older sister and myself are the only ones who still attend church regularly. I stopped periodically. There were times when people from the church would come by and maybe for months and maybe even a year, I didn't go. There were other times when I walked myself to go to church, because I wanted to go. But when I got into high school, things started getting busy for me, I wasn't too interested.
— Which is fascinating because not many years later, you're a volunteer working in the Killing Fields, in Cambodia. This is just a few years later. Not long after that, you're a minister of the gospel. So this is relatively shortly after those, "I could go this way, I could go that way" years. Isn't it interesting how God works things?
— It really is. And I've reviewed that many times. I recognize because of different things in my life that God has always been working in my life. And I believe he's working in everybody's life the same way. And if we look back into those past experiences, we can see the times when He has definitely been making a claim on us and trying to bring us to a relationship with Him. But we have to be make those decisions.
— It was in high school, I got into debate. My first year of college as a freshman, I debated, and my colleague and I made it to the Nationals that year.
— And we were offered nice scholarships to, that was community college, to a four-year college. And I was considering that with a career in law or politics. And a friend of mine and I were getting ready, in the summer after my freshman year of college, to run off to Boulder, Colorado, and just disappear and be hippies. He was already pretty much a hippie and I was a wannabe. But I decided that I would go back to the church one last Sabbath morning, we scheduled our departure on a Sunday, I would go back to church one last Sabbath morning, and without saying anything to anybody, just kind of make my goodbyes, in my own mind, in my own heart, "I'll never see you again, been good seeing you". But that Sabbath, there were four student from Union College, who were at the church, a little church, and the pastor invited me to his house to have lunch with those students. And my friend left without me on Sunday. That summer I ended up canvasing, I ended up at Union College in the fall, was there for a year, chosen as a student missionary to Korea. And after my time there was just about finished, they asked me to go to Cambodia, to be the director of the school there.
— I wanna come back, everybody heard what you said, it made an impact, but I don't think it made a bigger impact on anybody than me. You were done.
— I was done.
— You went back to the church to, in your own mind, just resolve this, this was goodbye, I'm leaving tomorrow to dive into the Boulder, Colorado hippy scene. Quite the scene. And God arrested you there.
— Yes, He did.
— And stopped you there. That's a miraculous story.
— It is, it is miraculous. I'm continually amazed. As I said, by the way God was, through my whole lifetime, reaching into my life and saying, "No, I want this from you".
— Yeah, let's think back. You were raised in a, what's essentially a secular family, by Christian parents who didn't wanna push Christianity. That was the compromise they'd worked out. Grandma was tenacious. And it's not like grandma escorted you to church, she arranged for someone from the church. God has really worked in your life.
— Yes, He has.
— Truly, truly amazing. Okay, so you went to Korea and we're talking back around 1970, sometime.
— Yeah, yeah, yeah. And Korea, 1972 had to be a fascinating place.
— Oh it was, I loved it.
— Tell me briefly about your time in Korea, what was it like?
— I was teaching at the English language school and I just loved the culture, going out into the streets, going to the markets. Even until now, when I go to different countries, I like to go to the local markets,
— Yeah, yeah, yeah.
— 'Cause you can really get a handle on what the culture is like,
— At the local markets.
— Oh yeah, yeah.
— And so, I loved doing that.
— What was a kid from Kansas making of Korean food?
— Oh, I loved it.
— You could handle Kimchi and...
— Oh, yes, yes.
John Bradshaw: Yes, is that so?
— Loved every bit of it.
— You know, there's a Korean restaurant about half a mile from where we're sitting.
— Yes, I know.
— I hope you've been there.
— I have been.
— A terrific place.
— Yeah, yeah. What a rich culture of what great food, I'll always come back to the food. So the kid from Kansas went to Korea. You were at Union College at the time?
— Okay. So you went from community college to Union College, a four-year Christian school ran by the Adventist Church. The next year, you turned around and went to Cambodia, to do what?
— There had been another English language school started in Cambodia about six months before that. But the director from, who started the school, had to get back to the States and they needed somebody with some experience to direct it. They asked me if I would go and I told them, no. I didn't feel the Lord was leading me there. Reality was I wanted to get back home to family and to college. And maybe even a girlfriend.
— Yeah, yeah.
— But they came and asked me again and I said, "well, let me pray about it". And so I prayed about it and I told them, no, again.
— Oh, you did?
— Yes. And then they came back a third time said, "we really think that you're the person that we're supposed to be sending down for this". And I thought to myself, I think I've heard of this in the Bible somewhere.
— Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think so.
— And so I prayed about it again and finally said, yes, and traveled down from Korea to Cambodia on my own, of course. But that was a strange trip because I recognized that that trip was symbolic to me of a change in who I was.
— How so?
— Going from being, basically an untrained teacher, although things went very well with teaching and Bible classes, and I even held my first evangelistic series in Korea.
— Learned a lot about how the school was run, but, I knew that it would be different in Cambodia because I would be in charge. The language school was the only work that our church had in the whole country of Cambodia. When I arrived, there was one baptized member in the country. And there was a young couple who had arrived the week before from Singapore. They had just finished college at Southeast Asia Union College, and had just gotten married and immediately came to Cambodia and they were, their job was to study the language. And they were supposed to be there for five years. Study the language and begin working with the people. And so I met them when I arrived. And it was strange being in a place where we didn't have a mechanism for the rest of the church, the language school was it. So I recognized the need to do what had to be done. And of course I prayed a lot more.
— Dr. Gary: At that time.
— That was God's leading.
— Yes. It was. We had seven-week terms for the language school. And every week, every term, we had a series of evangelistic meetings. Initially we could do that in the evenings, after the classes were over, but very shortly because of the military crisis with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communists, they put on a curfew at night, at sunset. So we couldn't do that anymore. So I made the decision that we would have those meetings during the afternoon, during the siesta time, the rest time. And everybody told me that this is ridiculous. Nobody's going to come. But I remember standing there in our little auditorium, on the second floor of the school, preaching to the people, and in walked division officers from Singapore.
— Church administrators.
— Yes. And they were as amazed to see us doing evangelism in the middle of the afternoon, as I was see them.
— To see them walk in.
— How successful, and you can measure success a number of ways, were those evangelistic efforts in what was a very challenging culture with no church infrastructure?
— Like I said, we had one baptized member when I arrived there.
— 14 months later when I left, we had 23, God had given us amazing, amazing success in reaching into the souls and hearts of people.
— That's fantastic. When you went there, did you realize you were going there as an evangelist? Did you have that in mind? Were you expecting that?
— I didn't, that's something I hadn't thought through yet, but it became obvious to me very quickly. What I did was simply repeat the model that I had learned in Korea.
— And if it was going to be done, nobody else knew that that was what could be done. Then I did, because I had seen it done once before. Interestingly enough, that same model was followed later by one of the young men who was baptized there, after Pol Pot took over the country and was in control of it for five years. And finally people began moving into the refugee camps in Thailand, one young man, who was a friend of mine, who had become baptized, and who had become my interpreter for the language school and for distributions, taking relief supplies out to refugees all over the country. He led a group of 20 people across the Killing Fields, across Cambodia to Thailand. And he came to Thailand into one of the villages on the border. And he asked, ADRA was there working, it was SOS at the time, pre-ADRA, and he asked them if they knew me. Well, I was the director of ADRA there at the time. And so we reconnected. I asked him to, I went to see him, told him that we couldn't do anything for him in this place. Then I asked him to take his group of 20 people back into Cambodia, go upstream about 15 miles, and come back out at another village where my predecessor and some other people had built a large bamboo and thatch church. And we had no members there, and no one to lead it. And I asked him, I didn't have the authority to use this term, but I asked him, would you go there and be our pastor there? And he went and used the same model. And he started teaching English, started teaching Bible, started having evangelistic meetings, and they baptized hundreds. They had people from their camp that were going back into Cambodia, during Pol Pot's reign, to teach the people in the villages about Jesus.
— It's a stunning story. Just a few years earlier, you went to church for the last time. A few years later, you are growing a church work in what was basically an unentered country and acting, assuming the role of the leader of that work. It's phenomenal. In just a moment, I wanna ask you about your time in the Killing Fields. He is Dr. Gary Wagner. I'm John Bradshaw. Don't go away. We'll have more of our conversation in just a moment.
John Bradshaw: Thanks for joining us for Conversations. My guest is Dr. Gary Wagner, a man who has had some remarkable experiences. And we are yet to talk about the book that he's written. And it's a book I want you to know about. Gary, a moment ago, a kid who was giving up on God, found himself in a situation where he was leading and organizing a work in a culture completely foreign to him where Christianity, to all intents and purposes, didn't exist.
Dr. Gary Wagner: Yes.
John Bradshaw: Do you look back on that and say I was 22 years old. I was wet behind the ears. Didn't know what I was doing, what in the world, or how do you look back at this time, when a young, inexperienced man was thrust into an impossible situation, and yet you just said hundreds and hundreds of baptisms grew out of your work, what do you make of that? A kid, I say respectfully, being dropped into that situation.
Dr. Gary Wagner: The first thing is, it was all by the grace of God.
John Bradshaw: Sure.
Dr. Gary Wagner: It could not have happened any other way. But the second thing is, I believe that a great many of our young people, young adults, are being led by the same God.
John Bradshaw: Sure.
Dr. Gary Wagner: And if they had appropriate opportunities, could be led to accomplish the same thing. That's one of the reasons I enjoy working with students on public college campuses, because it's a chance to lead them a little bit further, maybe open up some areas of their mind and possibilities that they haven't considered.
John Bradshaw: Yeah. There was a great deal more for you here, author, church administrator in post-communist Africa. You picked up a PhD along the way. Before we get to that, tell me about your time in the Killing Fields. You talked about Cambodia. We talk about the Killing Fields. Why are they referred to as the Killing Fields? A basic question. Explain for me.
Dr. Gary Wagner: They're called the Killing Fields because Lon Nol and his military forces, when they took over the country, they came into the capital city of Phnom Penh, and they drove everybody out into the countryside. They went into hospitals and said, "okay, everybody out". If you were a patient at that hospital, if you could get up out of your bed and go, you were okay. If you could get somebody to push your bed, you were okay. If you couldn't, they killed you on the spot. Everybody was forced out into the countryside.
— Explain the thinking behind it, why?
— Hospitals and everything else in the then modern world was considered to be elite. In fact, at the language school, we knew that we had spies at the school and at our worship services. We had been told that they were almost certainly there, so that they could make a list of who was there with us. And that, when the Khmer Rouge would come in, those lists would become killing lists.
— So on one of our evacuations, I made sure that I burned every piece of paper that had a name on it, individually, not in a stack, because they weren't burning well enough in a stack and it would leave some names. So I burned every piece of paper before I left the country.
— Yeah. This opens up a whole new, well, takes us a little bit deeper. So, you were one of the elite, you're a teacher.
— Pol Pot was on a crusade to wipe out anybody who was elite.
— And anybody who knew me or had any contact with me, anybody who was educated, anybody who wore glasses.
— Had dental work, anybody who spoke foreign language, who was a member of a foreigner's church, who had a high school or above education, they were set to be executed.
— And tell me what Pol Pot was trying to accomplish by exterminating the elite. What was he hoping to end up with?
— Pol Pot is described these days as having performed the most pure experiment in communism that has ever been done. This shows you where communism is moving us.
— Oh, yes.
— In order to be successful.
— Oh, yes.
— In that, you destroy every person who has education or inclination to develop any uprising against your system.
— And so that takes care of everybody who has any of those things that I mentioned.
— Other dalliances with communism, socialism take another approach. They simply use the academics to prop up and support and propagate the system. So it was a fascinating approach that he took.
— Others have been, even today, you'll hear, well, they just didn't do it right. So those who are planning on doing it right, are the ones who will be willing to take it further.
— How many did Pol Pot kill?
— When I was there, the population of the country was about four, four and a half million. And by the time I came back, five years, six years later, to the camps in Thailand, there were less than half of that left.
— Some of those had fled.
— Some had fled, some had gotten to other countries before they saw the handwriting on the wall, but most of them had been killed, some by military actions, a lot of them by sending them out into the rice fields to work all day with nothing to eat. The rice was all being shipped to China and they weren't allowed to eat any of it because China had supported the war effort for those years with Pol Pot, and they wanted their money back.
— We've all seen those pictures of mountains of skulls and rice paddies, and bones, and so on. What did you see?
— At one point, one of the times that we were supposed to have evacuated and we sent some of our people out, but some of us stayed. By the way, you know two of the other people who were there at the time, just come back to this young Chinese couple, Gan Tio and Ivy, Un is now called Giti Un.
— But he and his wife were there too. But during the day, the Khmre Rouge had promised, it was at the Cambodian New Year, they had promised that they would send a thousand rockets into the city. And they were, of course, just taking those over from the Cambodian military. And I was, in the early afternoon during rest time, I wasn't resting. I never, it wasn't my rest time.
— I started hearing the explosions and I ran up to the top of the building and saw the explosions peppering all across the city as if the artillery that they had taken over, they were just shooting it and moving it, shooting it and moving it. Finally in one place, it wasn't too far from us, I saw huge plumes of dark smoke. So I went and rushed to that place. And when I got there, I don't want to describe the things that were there. And as I was walking, it was a village that was just getting. The market was just getting ready to open back up. But there began to be other explosions as well. And so, it was a harrowing time. As I watched the smoke that was rising up, my eyes followed the smoke up into the sky. And I could see the sun as a black ball. And I was struck by that. I'd never seen a black sun before. And that evening, when I went back to the language school and went back to the top of the building, just to think and pray about what had happened during that day, I looked up into the sky again, and it was a full moon, and it was blood red. And I remember the prophecies that spoke of the sun being black and the moon being red. And I considered that this was another personal message to me. God was telling me the end is coming, and you have a work to do.
— What is it like? 22 year old kid, you're far from home. Your name is on a list.
— When you went into Cambodia, did you know you were walking into the lions den or you'd had no idea?
— Yes. I knew.
— With the other student missionaries in Korea, we actually developed a plan so that I could communicate with them, and using certain codes as to what was going on. And we never used it because there wasn't any way for me to communicate with them.
— Your parents were not practicing Christians.
— Their son becomes a Christian, is baptized, goes to a Christian school, and turns around and goes to the Killing Fields. I mean, I can't imagine what your letters home were like, were your parents worried sick, or did they not really understand what was going on in Cambodia at the time?
— Of course, I didn't tell them everything. And they knew I wasn't telling them everything.
— My son has since served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he was communicating with us and we would be you asking him, okay, what is it that you're not telling us?
— Sure, sure, sure. Yeah. How about that? That circle turned, right there.
— Yeah. There was one time in particular when, you see, part of what we did at the language school, and we didn't, I didn't know about this when I went there, but the union had decided to start a refugee relief program there. And so, we were in charge of that. And I, on a monthly basis, worked with the course, continually working with the U.S embassy, but also with the Cambodian government leaders who were responsible for helping the refugees. And one, we would take these clothes and other items out into villages where they had just, the people had just fled to these villages from other villages, sometimes even just the night before, running away from the Khmre Rouge. And the military was always with us. In fact, at one point, I have a picture of the Colonel, Colonel Pak is his name. I always forget names, but I remember his name for some reason, and his assistant, they rolled out a big map and said, okay, here we are. Here's where the Khmre Rouge are, very, very close, very close. But on one trip, we were flying by a military helicopter, who was the government's leader for the refugee relief, worked with all of the different agencies. And there were only three or four of us agencies that were there at the time. He took me by helicopter to the place where we would have a distribution, but on the way he came, he was sitting in the co-pilot seat, and on the way he came back into the back of the chopper, you know, these Hueys with the two machine guns on either side of the open doors, and he said to me, he just got a call and there was a village between where we were and where we were going. And the village was surrounded by Khmre Rouge, and they were all going to die. And he said to me, would you be willing for us to stop there so that you can give them some encouragement?
— When you say they were all going to die,
— You mean what?
— The Khmre Rouge had marked that village they'd surrounded it and they're gonna wipe it out.
— They were gonna wipe it out. And he said, we don't have any troops around to come and help them.
— How many people in this village?
— I don't really know. I saw maybe, 50.
— You went to that village.
— Well, what do you say? I thought, certainly I'm not the person to be doing this, but then I said, if God wants this done, He'll do it. So, I agreed to it. And as we got over the area, we could see from above that they had a bulldozer in there and they scraped dirt from the whole village and made a pile around the village. So, at least when people came across, they would be able to see them coming. And so we were cork screwing down into that village, in the helicopter, and as we got down close enough, we saw people running out of some of their houses. And each of them were carrying a small bag and they were running with great anticipation. And as they got, like from here to that blue chair over there, I could see their faces and they could see me, our eyes met. And I knew they were looking to us for salvation. But the pilot recognized that some of them were just going to try to jump on the chopper to get out. And so he took back off. And as I was flying back out, watching those faces, looking for a savior, and being able to do nothing, it has affected me all my life.
— That would stay with you. It would stay with anybody. We'll be right back with more, this is Conversations.
John Bradshaw: Welcome back to Conversations. My guest is Dr. Gary Wagner. There, you were, in a helicopter backing out of a village that you thought you were going to offer hope to. let me ask you this, because I did not know how that story was gonna end, I wanted to ask you, what do you say when you go into a village, with a 50, 100, 200 people, and you there to offer them, what may be their last word of hope? Because the Khmer Rouge is gonna wipe them out. You never got to find out what you would've said. What would you have said? At 22 years of age, what would you have said?
Dr. Gary Wagner: That's a good question. I think the biggest answer is, you depend on God to give you the words that need to be said. I had put together a very short, few words saying, you're in a difficult situation, and God sees you and He knows who you are, and He knows what's happening to you. And I want you to know He loves you, no matter what happens in this situation. I want you to know that there is a God in heaven who loves you and is watching out for you and still has a plan for you for eternity.
John Bradshaw: It sounds to me that in that year or two you spent in Korea, and then, especially in Cambodia, you must have grown up a lot. Did it feel that way to you? Did you recognize that or maybe not?
Dr. Gary Wagner: Yes, I was definitely a different person when I came back to Union College.
John Bradshaw: Yeah.
Dr. Gary Wagner: Still in some ways may be gullible.
John Bradshaw: Sure. You're still a kid. I mean, you know, a young man, so there's still some learning to do. How would you, why gullible?
Dr. Gary Wagner: When we were being evacuated the first time from Phnom Penh, from the language school, somebody from the division office came in the night before we flew out and interviewed me for an article he said he wanted to do. And that article ended up coming out in the Insight Magazine on December 25 of that year. This was in September.
John Bradshaw: Yeah.
Dr. Gary Wagner: And it told about, you know, what we were doing there, and what I was going to be doing when I got back to the States, where I'd go back to college. The magazine was distributed to college and academy dormitories all over the country right at Christmas time, but there aren't any students on those campuses at that time.
— But there was a student on one of the campuses.
— What was her name?
— Her name was Dina. And she read the article. And she said, after she read the article, she said "that's the man I'm going to marry".
— Just like that.
— Just like that. Because she had an interest in missions work, and she wanted to do more than just be. So she had a strong interest. And the things that were said in that article were very interesting to her. She had decided where she was going to college, but it wasn't where I was going to go to college. And the recruiter for that college just happened to contact her and ask her to come there.
— Oh, very nice.
— She said, "well, no, I can't because you don't have the major that I want". And so after he got back to the college, he called her back and said, "what if we start that may major"? Which was journalism. And she said, "well, okay". So they started the major and she went to Union College.
— Not the first time God has done something spectacular for you.
— No, no. Like I say, He's been working in my life all through.
— Oh yeah.
— And I still believe that He's doing the same kinds of things for other people. And so often we don't recognize what He's doing. So she got there before I did, because she got a job at the school working for the school paper. She got there before registration so she'd get into it. And she found me in the registration line and interviewed me for an article for the school paper, because I was going to be involved in a lot of things on the campus. And she interviewed me a lot of times that year.
— Oh yeah.
— Very good.
— And it took me a while to catch on.
— It did!
— She must have been, what do I have to do?
— Well, she did invite me to Sadie Hawkins event. And she said she was trying to find me to ask me in person and never could. And so she put a note in my dormitory mailbox, and I got in and said, "no, if you want to ask me, you have to ask me in person". So I took the note and I answered it in Korean script and put it back in her mailbox. So she still had to come.
— That's smart aleck. Look at that. So she came to you to say, what in the world did you write?
— And it still took a long time for me to figure out what was going on, but we've been married for 45 years.
— Fantastic. Well, you got it figured out then. Thank God you did.
— I finally did.
— Yeah. Wonderful. Two questions, I need to back up and then back forward, Thailand, you mentioned Thailand, you spent some time in the refugee camps there that became part of your work.
— Yes. After I finished my master's degree, I was called back to be the ADRA/SOS director for the work in the refugee camps. And we had work in quite a few different camps and villages along the board.
— Yeah, yeah. By this time you weren't alone.
— Right. I was married and we had, our oldest son was about six months old when we went to Thailand.
— What was that work like? Challenging, rewarding, frustrating. How did you find it?
— Very challenging. Again, into areas that I wasn't fully trained for, but I knew God would train me. And I knew I also, that I had an interest in helping those people. I also had people who had been there before working with the previous director, and quite a number of those were Australians, who I loved, who did tremendous work. Couldn't keep them down, they were just always there and always working. And so we would provide, in some places, meals for mothers and children, some places, water, there were camps where we had the medical work for the camp that we were responsible for to the place where we had even a surgical unit. And all of these things were staffed by volunteers. During my time there, we've had probably 250 volunteers from the States and from Australia and other places, who would come for short terms to work in these settings. One of them was a village, Soksan, right along the border, it's actually just inside Cambodia. To get to it, we had to get, each time we went, we had to get permission from the UN and from the Thai military and from the Cambodian military to go into the camp. But we had some people who just lived there to do the work. And there were three small villages that we called Soksan one, two and three, and in each one of them we had a bush hospital. My first trip in, I got some mosquito bites in the evening. And two weeks later, I came down with Malaria and Dengue Fever.
— And almost died in the Bangkok Hospital to the place where the doctors, I'd been there for a week, they couldn't get a positive results from the tests, and didn't want to treat for something they didn't know. My own medical staff knew what it was and threatened to come into the hospital and treat me.
— But they didn't. But the doctor told my wife that I only had hours to live. And the next time she came into my room, she saw me in the bed with my head covered with the sheets.
— Oh, what a site for her.
— She thought that was that.
— What had actually happened is they had decided to go ahead and start the treatment. And my fever broke and I got cold and I must have put the sheets up over my head.
— After all she went through.
— She thought you'd taken her to Thailand just to die on her.
— Well, you know, that was one of the things that I actually prayed about that day. And this is another thing that changes your life, when you say, God, I didn't know that I came to Thailand to die. But if this is what you want, If you can be glorified.
John Bradshaw: Yeah. That's the prayer.
Dr. Gary Wagner: Then I accept it.
John Bradshaw: Yeah.
Dr. Gary Wagner: And when you've made that kind of a connection with God, the rest of your life is not the same.
John Bradshaw: We went forward when I thought we were going back, now let's go back. You come back from the Thai border. You come back from the killing, from Cambodia, you got a year or two left of college. I mean, so over lunch, your friends are saying, "how was Cambodia"? How does that change you? How do you relate to, I'm going to class every day with some kid who last week was running a combine on his dad's farm and don't have a clue. This has been life and death for me. And now I'm back in school. That's a whale of a transition.
— Yes. From being in charge of the work of the church for a country.
— To going back to the dormitory and having to be in at 10 o'clock at night. It was an interesting transition.
— Oh yeah.
— I tried not to chomp at that bit too much, because I respected the need to have people maintaining the rules.
— Oh, sure.
— But it was a strange thing.
— We don't have much time left, and we had a book to talk about, that we're not really gonna talk about. We'll talk about it next time, because we have to wait on creation, Operation Time Box: Creation's Rescue Mission. We're gonna wait on that because there's a couple of other things I wanna ask you about. So let me ask you about them. You got a PhD.
— Doctor of Ministry.
— Yeah. Why? That's not an accusatory question. What made you feel like, I wanna press forward and get my...?
— I recognized that because of the person I am, if I'm not always moving forward.
— Yeah. Good for you.
— I'm moving back.
— And I wanted to learn more. To be real honest, I never took school very seriously.
— No, I can relate to that.
— Until I was working on my master's program, I hardly ever studied for anything, and finally studied some, but even then it took me 20 years to get that doctorate.
— Yes. I was put out of the program several times by the university and by God's grace able to get back in for it. Well, okay. We'll give it a try, but.
— See, that's like repentance, when you repent, you know God He, 70 times seven, He told us.
— So, I just felt that, to help be considered more seriously by other people in the things that were being shared, having that doctor behind the name is helpful.
— And then I find that I rarely use it. Because I've seen too many people use them to beat other people with, you can't talk to me, I've got these letters behind my name.
— Yeah. Well, you've got the right approach. It's grown you and bettered you academically and in other ways and leadership and so forth. So that's what matters that you have it, and kind of, it has you now. So we ought to talk about your time as a church leader in post-communist Africa, but we're not gonna do that either. We'll save that for next time, because we want to give that time to, the time that it needs. We've got two minutes. So let me ask you this question, tell me who Jesus is to you? You know him very well. He knows you very well. And speak to me about the gospel. You got two minutes. It's not long.
— Jesus is an amazing friend, the one who created me and the one who has been leading my life, even during the difficult times, and there have been plenty of difficult times, and he has always brought me through. I know that I can put my faith and trust in him, and I want my life to mean something for him and for his kingdom. The gospel is full of amazing things that we don't even know yet. Jesus talked about the mysteries that have been since the foundations. Which means mysteries, even of creation, that have been waiting out there for somebody to stumble across them. And so, I think I've found some of those and put into this book, but there's never an opportunity to be bored when you're treasure hunting, when you're searching for mysteries, because periodically, God will just give you one of those mysteries. And I've found that I have to write it down, when He gives it to me, otherwise, I'll forget it. I know that there was something there, where did that treasure map lead me to? But it's an amazing thing to be able to say, even though I'm far from Him, I know that He's doing a work in me that He'll finish, 'cause He's promised that He will.
John Bradshaw: That's right.
Dr. Gary Wagner: And I just need to let Him do that.
John Bradshaw: Dr. Gary Wagner, I wish we talked a little bit more about Operation Time Box: Creation's Rescue Mission, but what I'm really glad about is we can talk again. This has been wonderful. Thank you very much.
Dr. Gary Wagner: Thank you for the opportunity to come on. I'm just pleased to be able to tell what God will do for any of us.
John Bradshaw: Amen. And He will. Thank you for having joined us. I hope you've been encouraged and inspired and blessed. He is Dr. Gary Wagner. I'm John Bradshaw. This has been our conversation.