The extraordinary story of mission’s pioneer George Verwer and why he was in Hollywood
By Dan Wooding
Founder of ASSIST Ministries
“Hey, Dan, I am walking down Hollywood Boulevard and I can’t see your name on the Walk of Fame,” he chuckled.
For anyone who knows this rather amazing man, born in New Jersey, but now living in London, England, they would appreciate his off-the-wall sense of humor.
A few hours later, I was face-to-face with Verwer, the Founder and former International Director of Operation Mobilization, which is a ministry of evangelism, discipleship training and church planting. George led Operation Mobilization for over 40 years before stepping down in August 2003. George has a burning concern for vital, propagating and revolutionary Christianity in his own life and in those he meets.
We met up at the recent 19th Annual Faith & Values Awards Gala, held at the Universal Hilton Hotel in the heart of Hollywood to interview him for my “Front Page Radio” program. He was wearing a smart suit this time, rather than his famous world globe bomber jacket which he usually preaches in.
I began by asking him what on earth he was doing amongst the glamor and glitter of this event which is also known as the “Christian Oscars,” and he replied, “I’ve always believed right from the early days of OM, and those first campaigns in Europe, that you have to use film; that it is a very important communication tool.
“That led me to discover Movieguide® magazine about twenty years ago and Ted Baehr [its founder] became a friend. I’ve only been at three or four of them but I really believe in what he’s doing.
“For instance, in a place like Bangladesh, in reaching Muslims, we have to us a contextualized approach to try to bring them the message [of Christ] in a way they’ll understand. Ted Baehr’s has also got this contextualized approach in trying to influence and reach the people who live in this very unique Hollywood culture. So it’s a relationship and I’m on his counsel of reference.”
Verwer then revealed what his life was before he accepted Christ as a teenager when Billy Graham was preaching in Madison Square Garden, New York, and the rest became history in the world of missions.
“Before I knew Jesus, my whole life was romance,” he laughed. “I had Marilyn Monroe pinned up at the end of my bed and, by seventeen, I’d dated about 32 different girlfriends. This was not the age of jumping into bed so quickly, but the age of romance. June Allyson was my favorite and a whole bunch of others.
“It’s amazing to see these people here that influenced me as a child through film also to see their stars on that boulevard. It was the first time I’ve ever walked down it.”
I then asked George Verwer to give a short thumbnail sketch of OM.
“It started when three of us, at 19 years of age, went to Mexico to learn Spanish, to serve, to give out literature, and to evangelize, and it just grew and began exploding in Europe, mainly in the wonderful country of Britain where I’ve lived now for almost 47 years,” he said.
“I first lived in Spain and it was God’s timing for this kind of short- term mission, again focused on the more unreached countries of the world, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Turkey.
“Of course, it has expanded way beyond that, but initially that was the vision and now we had in OM some 500,000 of us in 110 countries and it’s now led by Peter Maiden, an Englishman. I had the leadership for 46 years and he’s had it for seven, and he’s let us know that in two or three years we have to find another successor for him.”
Verwer’s face broke into a huge smile when I asked him to recall how he proposed to his wife Drena while attending Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
“I proposed on our first date when I told her, ‘Well, probably nothing is going to happen between you and me’ — that was my effort at reverse psychology – ‘but if anything ever did happen so that you would marry me, you have to understand that I’m a missionary and you’d probably end up being eaten alive by cannibals in New Guinea.’
“I was later counseled,” he added,” that that probably wasn’t the best way to try to win a woman’s heart, but God had another plan and we did get married over 51 years ago.”
A family enjoys browsing the books available on board Logos Hope
(Photo credit: Thomas Brouwer)
One of the greatest projects that George Verwer has been involved in is OM’s Ship Ministry which recently celebrated 40 years of global impact that began on Friday, February 18, 1971, when OM’s first ship Logos set sail for London from Rotterdam, Netherlands, where the ship had spent four months being made ready for ministry.
“The launch of the first Logos represented years of dreaming, praying and working to do something that had not been done before,” said Verwer who first shared the vision for ship-based ministry to early OM co-workers in 1964. “We have much to be thankful for and celebrate at this special time.”
In these 40 years of ministry, more than 42 million people in 164 countries and territories have visited Logos (1970-1988), Doulos (1977-2010) Logos II (1989-2008) or the current vessel Logos Hope (since 2009).
Most have come for the quality educational and Christian literature available on board. Many have left with new hope through the testimony and compassion of the international volunteer crew and staff.
In excess of 35 million books have been distributed through the onboard book fair, with many more donated to universities, schools and libraries in some of the world’s most needy nations. An estimated 50 million Bibles and scripture portions have also been given out.
So when a ship ties up in an area port what happens then?
“First of all, a line-up team goes on ahead to talk with the pastors, leaders and the government, as to what they think the best way we can serve,” he said. “This line-up is very important because without it we don’t go because they also cut through the red tape such as tug boat fees, government regulations and permission to sell books.
“I never dreamed that it would go so well that we almost always get permission to sell books and often we do not have to pay taxes.
“Then the ship comes in and there is a grand opening with VIP’s and sometimes even the Prime Minister. I believe Gadhafi’s daughter came in Libya and it’s just amazing how God works. We have a lot of people that follow this ship in prayer and many who donate finances usually in small gifts. We process tens of thousands of small gifts from God’s people, who help keep this whole thing going. And the book sales also help pay for the fuel as fuel prices have recently gone up again.
“The teams from the ship go as far as 200 miles away and have meetings in churches. They do also relief development projects in emergencies. We’re limited in what we can do, but we carry those materials on the hulls of the ship to be able to help people in some of these physical crises.”
Now he has “retired” Verwer says that he is as busy as ever with what he calls his “Special Projects” ministry.
“I felt led to get out of leadership completely in the movement,” he said. “Not every founder goes that way, but that’s what I felt very strongly. So I’m not on any committees and I’m not even in any advisory capacity.
George Verwer in full flow wearing his famous jacket and speaking in front of his blow-up globe
“I have my own preaching ministry and I spoke at 330 meetings last year. I hope to cut down and get it under 300 this year, because I’ve got a lot of other things to do, and I’m networking with other agencies outside of OM.”
Verwer then revealed that 150 mission agencies around the world trace their birth back to OM. He said the largest is K.P. Yohannan’s Gospel for Asia and others include SAT-7, Christian satellite television by and for the people of the Middle East and North Africa.
“I raise money to help them different groups in what they’re trying to do, especially for literature or film,” he continued. “Right now I’m dreaming of getting 10,000 DVD’s of ‘Amazing Grace’ and Ken Wales is here – he was one of the men that made wonderful movie happen.
“So I’ve got all these projects in about 100 countries. I spend about seven hours a day on my laptop or blackberry, so I don’t have much time to get involved in OM’s problems. That’s somebody else’s job.”
He went on to say, “My wife is fanatically and radically committed to world missions; to Jesus; and she also has an eight-hour-a-day job in charge of all data and a lot of correspondence.
“We don’t believe in retirement. We believe in change and in slowing down and we are doing just that. We’re taking time with our grand-kids and our kids. My grandson just had two years of on the ship and he’s signing up to be my helper and traveling assistant starting next August.
“My ‘Special Projects’ is now a one and a $1 ½ m operation, yet it’s a mom-and-pop operation, but the money is spent very carefully. Right now, I have a $300,000 matching fund, so any gift I get it automatically gets doubled. So it’s an encouraging time of the year for us.”
With that, George Verwer was off to join the “stars” at the glittering event and I just marveled at his seemingly never-ending energy.
I would like to thank Robin Frost for transcribing this interview.
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