A major factor in my decision to become a missionary can be traced to an assignment devised by Dr. Tom Constable (ThM, 1966; ThD, 1969), today the chair of Dallas Seminary’s Bible Exposition department, but then of Field Education. The Student Handbook that year offered credit for a field experience that was simply called, “Four Dollars and a Toothbrush.”
To expose students to the poor and homeless, the Seminary gave credit for spending a weekend living by their wits, a toothbrush, and four dollars in downtown Dallas. One of my dorm mates that year was Peter Gentry (who today serves as a professor at the Southern Baptist Seminary). Peter and I set out for the center of town on a Friday afternoon in October with eight dollars, two toothbrushes, and a fair amount of trepidation.
After hours of aimless wandering, we despaired of finding accommodations for the night and decided to sleep behind a hedge next to the Masonic Temple. Before the evening was over Peter and I would become much closer friends.
Although dorm mates, Peter and I were very different. I was a Baptist with Okie roots and a pastoral ministries major. Peter was Canadian with Brethren roots and a keen student of biblical languages. However, as the temperature dropped that crisp autumn evening, these differences became irrelevant as we moved closer to conserve body heat. Lying on his back behind the hedge, Peter pointed out the vastness of the sky filled with stars.
“Larry, I’m having trouble sleeping. How about you and I review some Bible verses?”
My immediate thought went to Dr. Charles Ryrie’s (ThM, 1947; ThD, 1949) theology class. If a student arrived late to class, he was required to repeat a verse before the other students. I had seen a number of my classmates cramming in a verse before entering, and many tried to repeat John 3:16 (a practice Dr. Ryrie frowned on). I had come to Christ barely three years earlier and had memorized a few verses, but my repertoire was limited. Peter, on the other hand, had a vast storehouse of verses, so he offered to go first.
“What if we simply quote a verse starting in Genesis and work our way through the Bible?” he asked.
Why couldn’t I have picked a New Testament buff instead of this Old Testament scholar? I thought. At least I could make it through the Gospels and a few epistles.
Peter rattled off a few verses in Genesis, which I managed to match, but by the time we got to Leviticus, I was out of my league. I let Peter proceed through the rest of the Old Testament.
After a few hours of fitful sleep we decided to find a warmer spot—the Greyhound bus station. The hardback chairs at the station were not much better than the ground, and for the rest of the night we sat in a kind of stupor as we prayed for dawn to arrive.
Around 5.30 A.M. we noticed a man distributing literature to people in the bus station. The man was an evangelist who handed out tracts there every Saturday morning for years. When he heard what we were doing (and that we were already low on cash), he offered to buy us breakfast.
As we wandered the streets of Dallas, a few homeless people befriended us and gave us advice. One told us where to find the soup kitchen. Another told us where we could get a free sleeping bag. Still another knew where to get a hot meal and bed
for the night.
I was surprised to find a kind of brotherhood among these people as they networked and sought to help one another. I had been “homeless” for only a day, but I was getting a taste of what it must be like to live this way year after year.
Some hours later we walked to the fairgrounds to attend the State Fair of Texas and to man an outreach booth. Before nightfall we trudged back downtown and made plans for the evening. Peter vetoed the “Masonic Hotel,” and the “beds” were much too hard at the Greyhound Inn. Our last chance for a hot meal and warm bed that night was the Union Gospel Mission (UGM).
Peter and I presented ourselves to the supervisor of UGM and asked if we could stay there. We also told him that we were DTS students on a field trip.
“Yeah, right, I’ve heard that story before,” he said. “Sit down over there.”
For the next twenty minutes he grilled us as though we were felons under scrutiny for a crime. If I had any lingering doubt about my salvation before that interview, it was gone by the end. Peter and I gained at least one thing from that weekend—
assurance of our salvation. The supervisor finally received the answers he needed and released us to spend the night.
We sat with a number of men on wooden benches as a preacher gave a short salvation message. From there we proceeded to the grub line to receive a piece of stale bread and beans. Following dinner, we were instructed to place our clothes in a container and receive our “pajamas.” Mine turned out to be an old T-shirt and a pair of size thirty-eight-inch Bermuda shorts with a rope belt. The shower was activated by pulling on a cord with one hand while soaping down with the other. From there we proceeded to a large room where we chose bunks.
Once again our sleep was fitful as men snored and coughed through the night. Then at 6 A.M. we heard a loud alarm. To our amazement it took only ten minutes for all of us to find ourselves back on the street.
Since it was Sunday, Peter and I decided we would visit a downtown church. For the first time we understood how out-of-place street people must feel in most congregations. After two days downtown, we didn’t fit in, and we certainly didn’t smell the part of regular churchgoers. Peter suggested that we have our own informal “service” on the street instead.
On Sunday afternoon we retraced our steps to the Seminary. We were exhausted. Peter decided to rest by catching a nap in a corner of the library. He slept so soundly that he found himself rudely awakened by a policewoman, her belt bristling with bullets and pistol in holster and waving a nightstick. He was informed that the library was no place for vagrants and was quickly ushered out.
Our weekend downtown was a pivotal event in pointing me toward a career in missions. And today, though I have spent more than two decades serving the Lord in Thailand, I look back on Peter’s and my experience with four dollars and a toothbrush as key.
That weekend helped me clearly see that a minister of the gospel needs to have both the head of a scholar and a heart to protect those in need.
Larry Dinkins (ThM, 1979) is a church planter with OMF in Thailand, where he has served as academic dean and seminary dean at the Bangkok Bible College.