February 9, 2012
A giant in Southern Baptist preaching and evangelism, Dr. John R. Bisagno, returned to his alma mater during OBU’s Founders’ Day chapel service Wednesday, Feb. 8, to reflect on lessons he learned on Bison Hill more than 50 years ago.
Founders’ Day is an annual event commemorating the university’s incorporation in February 1910. This Founders’ Day, OBU celebrated involvement with and support from the Baptist churches across the State of Oklahoma and Southern Baptists around the world.
“This is a special time that we’re able to reflect on where we’ve been now for 102 years, and to celebrate not just the founding of OBU, but to celebrate the vision of those early Baptist pioneers who envisioned a liberal arts Christian university preparing young people to go out and change the world in all areas and in all disciplines,” said OBU President Dr. David W. Whitlock.
One of those notable alums is Bisagno, a 1955 OBU graduate. He is pastor emeritus of Houston’s First Baptist Church, a congregation with 25,000 members. He is the author of 30 books, and he has lead 37 international evangelistic crusades. He has spoken at every Southern Baptist seminary, and he has been a guest lecturer at 17 Billy Graham schools of evangelism. Despite his success as a preacher and author, he shared seven basic lessons he learned while a student at OBU with the current student body.
The first lesson he gleaned from attending OBU was about extending the grace of God to others. Bisagno admitted he not only followed the tradition of painting OBU’s Oval bison, he and friends took their prank to the next level by tarring and feathering the statue. Unfortunately, a trail of feathers led administrators to their doorstep. He later was caught after tossing eggs at President John Raley’s house, another college-type prank. Expecting to be expelled from the University, he instead was met with grace from Dr. Raley coupled with a dose of higher expectations.
“Grace means you get what you don’t deserve,” Bisagno told the students. “Mercy means you don’t get what you deserve.”
The second lesson Bisagno learned at OBU was the basis of true beauty. Prior to becoming a Christian, he said he was part of the “night club world,” surrounded by booze, dance halls and girls whose attempt at beauty was made by a thick application of makeup. At OBU, Bisagno said he realized true beauty is reflected not by a person’s outward appearance, but by a beautiful internal spirit based in a relationship with Jesus Christ. The most beautiful young lady he saw at OBU was Miss Uldine Beck, the 1953 Freshman Class queen. Nearly 60 years later, the couple is still married.
Through his involvement in the Bison Glee Club and with Dr. Warren M. Angell, Bisagno said he learned about sensitivity to life and people. Dr. Angell would lead the Glee Club during practice using his facial expressions rather than his hands, and the many weeks of practice taught Bisagno to tune into the people around him.
“God gave me, because of Dean Warren Angell, a special sixth sense -– a sensitivity to life,” Bisagno said. “I can go into a church, I can meet a new person, and somehow I always have a special sensitivity to who they are and to what the situation is. In 35 years of pastoring churches, which can be difficult, I can honestly say I never had a problem because I knew how to treat people, and they treated me the same way I treated them.”
Bisagno said he also learned humility at OBU. While leading music on an evangelistic crusade in Ireland, he began to feel God calling him to preach. While considering the life-changing decision, he decided to call one of his well-respected OBU professors, Dr. Forbes Yarborough, who left class to accept the trans-Atlantic telephone call. Bisagno said he was greatly impacted that an esteemed teacher would give a former student such consideration.
Another lesson from Bison Hill was the foundation of integrity. A trumpeter, Bisagno enjoyed Dixie-land music despite criticism from judgmental classmates who believed such music was not godly. Yet he witnessed some of the same students cheat on a Bible-class exam. The paradox created a moral dilemma for him, and for the next several days he retreated from campus to consider if he wanted to be connected to such Christians. A local pastor found him, prayed with him, nurtured him, reasoned with him and brought him back to OBU.
“Integrity is everything in the work of the Lord,” Bisagno said, noting the principal applies to both ministers and marketplace leaders.
Bisagno said he learned the value of true friends. He said what is important in life is not how big a person’s house is -– even if a person has seven showers, they can only use one at a time –- and it is not what kind of car a person drives. What is important, he said, is to have a relationship with God, family, friends and good health.
During his time at OBU, Bisagno led evangelistic youth revivals during the evenings. He and his friends would take turns driving across the state, while the classmates sat in the back seat with a flashlight to complete the next day’s homework. He drove a flower truck to help pay tuition, and his wife also worked. He learned the value of hard work, a lesson he still clings to today.
“At Oklahoma Baptist University, I truly did learn the value of a great Christian university,” Bisagno said. “I never truly measured the impact of Oklahoma Baptist University on my life and my passion to change my world for God and for good until I began to write these words. My president and my professors at once taught me the Gospel of Jesus Christ and modeled it to me.
“But now I’ve fought the good fight, I’ve kept the faith, and I’m nearing the end of my race. Here’s the question: Who will next step up and run the race? You owe it to your Lord who died for you, you owe it to America who nurtured you, you owe it to this mighty university and those who birthed it and sustained it with their lives and fortunes, to say: ‘I will be that man.’ ‘I will be that woman.’”