[This is the fifteenth article in the series of God Moments in My Publishing Life.]
Before I wrap up my 11 years with Here’s Life Publishers of Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru), let me reflect on a God Moment with long term impact.
Before I left New England for Here’s Life Publishers, I helped Gordon College’s alumni relations director develop a plan for a Christian writers conference. By the time the conference was held I had moved to California and Here’s Life, but I decided to fly back and see what God would do at the conference.
The second night of the conference became a talent night, with writers reading poems, short stories, singing. In the middle of the program a gray-haired woman with a winning smile got up and told a story from her growing up years in a Norwegian immigrant pastor’s family. By the time she was halfway through her story I knew I had to meet her. I followed her into the hall and asked, “Do you have any more of these stories?” She smiled demurely and said, “I have a manuscript full of them.” I asked to see it and in a God Moment realized I had struck a vein of gold.
Margaret Jensen was the mother of the wife of the dean of Gordon College, Wenham, MA. Her daughter and son-in-law had insisted she come to the conference because they were aware of her story-telling ability. I later discovered she was 67 years old, a retired nurse, who with her pastor husband had moved to Georgia to take on a pastorate. Coming from the north, the Jensens did not have the prejudices of many in the church, so they began collecting clothing and food for African American families living in poverty—and worked to get the children an education. That so scandalized church members and leaders that they finally called a membership meeting to fire the pastor. Before the Jensens went into the church a friend alerted them that there were plans afoot to tar and feather the pastor and ride him out of town. Their advice, “Get out of town as fast as you can.” They did. The experience so unnerved and depressed Margaret’s husband he did not take another pastorate.
The God Moment Continues
I took Margaret’s manuscript with me and introduced it to my boss, Dave Orris, and then the editorial committee. They agreed to publish it with the author’s title, First We Have Coffee. Because I had just come from leading the book club program at Christian Herald Family Bookshelf, I approached the editor, Mary Risley, about making it a selection in the book club. After reading the manuscript for First We Have Coffee she agreed to make it a main selection, releasing it to her club just before we released the book to the Christian bookstores. God was gracious and the book club sold more than 20,000 copies and a year later we recognized our sales through bookstores also totaled over 20,000 copies.
What we did not realize at the time was that Margaret Jensen’s well of stories never ran dry—and that she would explode on the national seen as a speaker/storyteller. She traveled all over the U.S. telling her stories in liberal and conservative churches, in Catholic churches, to seniors in large churches and senior communities, to the rapt attention of teens. Each year we released another collection of her stories: Lena, Papa’s Place, Violets for Mr. B, A Nail in a Sure Place,The Mending Basket—and many more. The whole list can be found on amazon.com.
Lena, the story of an African American nurse’s aide who helped Margaret pray a wayward son turned racist in a Christian college into a loving family man, brought phone calls from all over the country. Families descended on the Jensen’s home in North Carolina, arriving unannounced to ask for prayer. After Margaret and Lena spoke to a large Sunday school class in a Methodist church people lined up after the service to have Lena, the African American heroine in the story, pray for them.
Impact on One Family
In one family where First We Have Coffee was read, the Christian mother grieved over a husband resistant to the message of life in Christ—and a son in a drug rehab program. After reading Lena she embarked on renewed prayer—and gave her husband the tape of Margaret telling the stories in Lena to listen to on his trip to see his son. On the way home he drove onto the breakdown lane, stopped the car, and turned his life over to Jesus Christ. Months went by. One day Margaret was walking in a nearby mall when on oncoming young man called out, “Margaret Jensen!!” She stopped and he approached, saying, “I’m the young man who was in drug rehab and I’ve become a Christian.”
Twenty-five years later I was to remember the amazing sales pattern of all of Margaret Jensen’s books when a 25-year-veteran of Emergency Room experiences, Dr. Robert Lesslie, presented his collection of stories over a lunch. I took that proposal with me and as agent sent it out. After three editors told me, “Collections of stories don’t sell,” Harvest House took it on, with sales of his series of Emergency Room stories, starting with Angels in the ER, at well over 360,000 copies as I write this.
In the next installment I’ll reveal the God Moments that provided extraordinary writing opportunities after Here’s Life Publishers was sold and I was set adrift with no job in sight.
Copyright, 2014, Les Stobbe