A little over five years ago, when I began ministering at Highland, I met a curious and stooped older man named Joe. I could tell he was eccentric even before the onset of the dementia that now made his commentary so “lively.”
Just as I began to learn exactly who this man was, his health began to deteriorate. So, I watched as one of the most accomplished church of Christ missionaries ever—Joe Cannon—slipped from this world into the next.
“Don’t cry for me at my funeral, pal, because I’ll be crying for you poor schmoes,” Joe said. And he meant that. Like Paul, this was a man who knew it was “better by far” to go on and be with Christ.
Joe’s legacy of mission work spans 65 years, and stretches from Japan and Okinawa all the way to Papua New Guinea and Ukraine. David Sitton chronicles Joe’s life in his excellent book Hard Fighting Soldier, so I won’t summarize all the details here.
However, I recently was fortunate enough to travel to Lae, Papua New Guinea, where in 1975 Joe and others founded the Melanesian Bible College (at the time the “School of Life”). For the last 42 years, the school has trained locals from Papua New Guinea to return and preach the gospel in their villages. The students do so at great risk to themselves, as their journeys often include treacherous travel over mountains and rivers, and some tribal groups are still violently hostile to the message of Jesus.
In all those years, hundreds of preachers have been trained, hundreds of churches started, and thousands baptized. In one village, I met three men whom Joe baptized himself. Those three are now old and stooped themselves, but they have faithfully shepherded a beautiful congregation set upon a hillside for generations. When they spoke of Joe, tears came to their eyes.
We were fortunate to arrive at MBC as another class of students graduated and prepared to head home. The nation is in the midst of an election season which also means that violence between tribes is escalated (you may wonder how elections could produce violence, but then you might reflect on our recent election season).
One young student was preparing to return to an area of the country particularly wrought with fighting. Several others in town from the same area were too afraid to return. But when I saw this young man packing his bags and heading to the bus stop, I asked if he was sure about heading home, “you know, considering the danger and all.”
He looked at me surprised. “I must go home. My people need to hear the gospel. Besides, God is there.”
How could I argue with that?
When I read about the unceasing evangelistic concern of Joe Cannon, and see the same impulse in students from his school 42 years later, I’m reminded again of the apostle Paul. He spoke about his “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” (Rom 9:2) over the unsaved, and so spent his life pursuing them.
Joe did the same. And I watched as another young preacher boarded a bus to follow in his example.
What a legacy.
Eric and his wife Lindsey have been at Highland Church in Memphis since 2012. You are likely to find them walking the local Greenline with their sons Noble, Foster, and dachshund Tucker. Eric cares deeply about preaching and social justice. He has a BA in Biblical Text and a Master of Divinity from Abilene Christian University. Eric is a board member for HopeWorks, an organization that provides hope and job training to the chronically unemployed and formerly incarcerated in Memphis.