To say that George Verwer Jr. (b. 1938) has a larger-than-life personality is probably an understatement. It would have been obvious if you could have seen him running around at Ramsey High School in Ramsey, New Jersey. Of the thousand or so students at the school, George stood out.
He doesn’t remember having an unhappy day in his childhood. He was from a stable home with good Dutch-immigrant parents who loved their son but weren’t overly strict. Life was fun, and George sought to live life to the full. He thought of himself as a hot-shot athlete in primary school, though he wasn’t quite good enough to make it into high school athletics. He was a Boy Scout who almost made it to the Eagle Scouts.
But he also had a mischievous side. He always had something witty to say and could make all of his schoolmates laugh. Each year he walked home with a lot of cash on “Goosey Night”—that’s what they call the night before Halloween in Bergen County— when kids act goosey or foolish: windows get broken and things get stolen. Think of it as the trick without the treat. He once lit the local woods on fire—but then again, he also started a fire-extinguisher business alongside his stamp-collecting mail-order business.
Apart from these shenanigans, George was a moral kid from all external accounts. He was against drinking, and though he had a lot of girlfriends, it was important to be clean and not to go too far. But he loved to go out and dance, staying up all hours of the night listening to the latest music from the 1950s.
On Sundays his mother took him to the local congregation of the Reformed Church in America (his unbelieving father stayed home), but he didn’t hear the Bible preached from the pulpit of this mainline congregation. It seemed to him to be more of a social club than anything.
But someone began praying for George. Dorothea Clapp and her family lived across the street from the high school, and her son Danny had been the president of the Student Council during George’s freshman year. For seventeen years Mrs. Clapp prayed faithfully for the students at Ramsey High to know the Lord. When sophomore George Verwer came across her radar screen, she put him on her prayer list and prayed that he would trust Christ and become a missionary some day. She had a Gospel of John, distributed by the Pocket Testament League, and sent it to him in the mail as a gift. George read it on and off over the year, but to little effect.
If George had been asked if he was a Christian, he probably would have said yes. But “girly magazines” enticed him more than reading the Bible. At one point in school—entrepreneur that he was—George hatched a scheme to begin buying and then selling pornographic magazines for a profit (though he never got around to doing so).
One day he was at the store, looking to buy one of those magazines, when he noticed a magazine featuring the 35-year-old evangelist, Billy Graham. George picked up the magazine, read the article, and realized that Graham was someone special.
Graham had also been featured on the cover of Time magazine, pointing his finger at the reader while the serpent tempted Eve in the background. Graham had exploded onto the national scene six years earlier in the fall of 1949 with the Christ for Great Los Angeles rally. After a number of famous conversions (including Louis Zamperini), William Randolph Hearst told his newspapers to “Puff Graham.” Graham was now the leading evangelist in the United States.
In the spring of 1955 a man who lived on the same street as George invited him to attend an event in New York City, where Graham would be the guest speaker at Word of Life’s 15th anniversary rally in Madison Square Garden, hosted by Word of Life founder and evangelist Jack Wyrtzen.
So on March 3, 1955, George and several others—including a girl from his high school and Sunday School—loaded into a bus and made the 30-mile journey down to Madison Square Garden in Manhattan.
The following clip is from crusade at Madison Square Garden two years later (1957), but it gives you a flavor of the sort of preaching and invitation George would have heard that night:
When George boarded the bus that Thursday afternoon, he had no thought of becoming a Christian. But at the end of Graham’s sermon, he issued an invitation, exhorting his listeners to come and to make a decision for Christ. But George didn’t move. As others began to walk the aisle, Billy continued to tell them to come as the music played. And George began to feel conviction for his sin and to sense his lostness. The thought was overwhelming in his mind: “This is the truth; my search is over; this is the most important thing in life.” He and the girl he was with both walked forward that night to trust in Christ. And his life would never be the same.
George found his faith almost immediately tempted. As they walked out of Madison Square Garden that night as born-again believers, a street gang member said something to George, who answered back. The guy promptly proceeded to knock George down. A gang leader emerged who told his member to back off, and George sensed the grace of the Lord. George now says that he has been knocked down frequently in life—too often by “the lust of the eyes”—but the Lord has always kept and sustained him.
It wasn’t until a few days later that George sensed full assurance, while walking across a field to get on the bus to go to school, having been helped by George Cutting’s well-known booklet, Safety, Certainty, and Enjoyment for the Christian. He then proceeded to read Billy Graham’s bestseller, Peace with God: The Secret of Happiness (published in 1953), and he received much of this theological grounding from Graham sermons and publications.
When God converted George Verwer, he not only made a new creation, he also created an evangelist. His senior year he was elected Student Council President, and he used this position to distribute 1,000 copies of the Gospel of John. He also began giving away free Christian books—a habit he continues to this day, as he has personally given away hundreds of thousands of books and hopes to reach the million-mark for personal copies handed out. By God’s grace George saw several classmates accept the Lord through his passion to call others to embrace the good news.
After he graduated from high school he attended Maryville College, a private Christian college in Tennessee. That first semester he had an idea: perhaps he could return to Ramsey High School while on Christmas break and host a rally at his old school. Amazingly, the public high school agreed, and the auditorium was packed with 600 students. George Verwer Sr. even attended to support his son’s new endeavor.
When it came time to call his listeners to faith, George was amazed to see 125 students stand up, professing their desire to follow Christ. Most surprising of all was that George Sr. stood among them. His father had become his brother.
Later that year George was shocked to learn that 7 out of 10 people in Mexico had no access to the Scriptures. The solution seemed obvious to George: he needed to go there and get them the Word. His friend Dale Rhoton said he would pray with George about this. After they prayed together for a few minutes on their knees, George turned to Dale and asked, “Well, are you ready to go?” Dale responded, “George, it takes longer than that.” George was disheartened and confused: “Why does it take people so long to see it?”
In the summer of 1957, George and Dale, along with their friend Walter Borchard—each 18 years old—sold their possessions, loaded a 1949 Dodge panel van with tracts and 1,000 copies of the Gospel of John in Spanish, and drove to Mexico. They called their ministry “Send the Light,” and it was legally incorporated the following year. They returned to Mexico in the summers of 1958 and 1959.
By this time George had transferred to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. He met and was attracted to a young woman named Drena. During their first meeting, he told her, ”Probably nothing is going to happen between us, but I’m going to be a missionary, and if you marry me, you’ll probably end up being eaten by cannibals in New Guinea.” They were married in Milwaukee in 1960 after George graduated. They skipped their honeymoon and headed straight to Mexico for missions. They were committed to not spending any money. When they got to Wheaton, George offered their wedding cake to the gas station attendant in exchange for gas. The worker, a Christian, filled up the tank and let them keep the cake. But at the next stop, the attendant took the cake in exchange for a tank of gas. They got to Mexico without spending a penny.
By 1960 George and his friends turned their attention to Europe, seeking to mobilize local churches for global missions which would be led by indigenous rather than foreign missionaries. By 1963 they expanded the work to India and the Middle East, and in 1970, the ministry—now called Operation Mobilisation (OM)—purchased its first ship.
Today OM is involved in over 85 countries (including Latin America, Central Asia, the former Soviet states, the Middle East, and Europe). They have around 3,500 workers, and it’s estimated that over 125,000 people have participated in an OM outreach.
George Verwer handed over the leadership of OM in 2003 at the age of 65. But he did not “retire.” Somewhere in the world today you can find 76-year-old George Verwer—a man with the energy of someone half his age—wearing his trademark globe jacket, speaking next to an inflated globe of the world, seeking to motivate students to read and to pray and to share and to go. One moment he will be bounding around the stage, making his audience laugh, and then without warning he will prick their consciences with the reality of the unreached who so desperately need to hear the good news.
He is a man who has never forgotten the goodness of the good news news, and he will not stop until God takes him home or until the nations are finally and eternally glad in Christ. Few people in the second half of the 20th century have done more to mobilize for the unreached and the unengaged, and few have equipped more believers and unbelievers with gospel literature. And it all began with a faithful mother and neighbor who committed to pray and to send a student the Gospel of John, and continued with a businessman who took the risk of inviting a student to an evangelistic rally, and it continued with a young evangelist who preached the message of the cross. God is always pleased to use the foolishness of the weak to accomplish great things for the fame of his name.