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Alumni Profile in Excellence: Alum Couple Follows a Divine Path

October 25, 2008

In 1954, Southern Baptists adopted a church-growth campaign with the lyrical tagline, "A million more in '54." A young Oklahoma cowboy named Sam Friend, from a ranch in Osage County, was one of the people changed through that enthusiastic Sunday School Board endeavor.

In his early 20s when he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, Sam spent the majority of his time on the ranch, working alongside his dad and two brothers. He completed his basic schooling at Vinita (Okla.) High School in 1949. At the time of his salvation, Sam felt God leading him to preach. His church told him, "You need to go to OBU because you need training for preaching."

Across the country, in south central California, 18-year-old Donna Jones also accepted Jesus Christ as her Savior through the Southern Baptists' national campaign. Following the advice of two girlfriends headed to a Christian college in the Heartland, Donna packed her bags, borrowed the necessary funds from a bank and drove with her friends to Shawnee.

"I knew I needed a Christian education or some grounding for discipleship," Donna said.

God was leading the two young believers to Bison Hill.

Sam and Donna Friend celebrate the 50th anniversary of their Oklahoma Baptist University graduation with fellow Class of 1958 alums this year. But looking back, it's not a simple story of meeting the first day of classes, falling in love and living happily ever after. God had an interesting plan -- a divine path -- in store for this adventurous couple.

When he arrived at OBU ready to enroll, Sam faced a daunting message from a dean who said his grades were too low. Sam respectfully requested to speak with someone "higher up" in the chain of command, and he was directed to the office of Dr. John Wesley Raley, OBU's legendary president. Convinced that Sam felt pulled by God's call to attend OBU to learn to preach, Raley allowed Sam to attend on probation for six weeks. Any grade less than a "C" would equal instant dismissal.

"God blessed Sam and allowed him to make the grades," Donna recalled. "It was actually a thread of people who God influenced to allow both of us to go to Oklahoma Baptist University."

Donna sought employment as a student worker in the University's financial offices to enable her to make ends meet. She also worked in the summers to raise funds for college. Sam and Donna had met once in the student center during their early years at OBU. But in the second semester of her junior year, Donna's funds ran out, and she returned to California to attend Long Beach State.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, things weren't going very smoothly for Sam, who juggled home life and a full school load. A good friend encouraged him to press forward in his goals. In the meantime, the friend's wife contacted her friend - Donna in California - and asked her to pray for and write encouraging letters to the struggling cowboy.

Sam and Donna became pen pals the second semester of their junior year in college.

The summer of 1957, Sam traveled to California to visit family -- and to visit Donna. However, the trip was cut short by a family illness back in Oklahoma, and he went home early. But the pair stayed in touch, and Sam sent Donna a plane ticket to visit him.

"Then God intervened," Donna said. "Dr. Raley called and said, 'You are a wonderful student, and I want you to be a graduate of our school, so I'm giving you a full scholarship.'"

Donna returned to OBU her senior year, and she and Sam married on Dec. 20, 1957. As a cash-strapped college student, she said she borrowed "everything" for the wedding - the venue, the wedding dress, even her escort down the aisle: classmate Donna Nigh Jones' father filled the role.

The newlyweds completed their time on Bison Hill the following spring, graduating with the Class of 1958.

"It's amazing how God brings beauty out of ashes," Donna said.

While attending Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Sam felt challenged to fulfill a call to missions. At the same time, he continued managing the family ranch, developed a housing division and served as pastor of a growing church.

Following their call to missions, God led Sam and Donna to Bellingham, Wash., where they helped a small church. In 1968, the family - including children Rauk Friend, '80, Robin (Friend) Day and Joe Friend -- answered a call to First Baptist Church in Bothell, Wash. Sam and Donna served there until 1996.

Missions became a priority not only for Sam and Donna, but also for First Baptist Church. Since 1979, Sam and Donna have traveled to Eastern Europe each summer to minister to pastors and churches. The ministry became a vital part of the church, with many of its members serving overseas.

The Friends ministered in Poland and Hungary, but the main ministry was to Romania until 1985, when the Romanian government expelled Sam from the country. Donna carried on the work, while Sam remained just outside the country.

"It has been fulfilling," Donna said. "It was a tremendous impact on our lives and the lives of the Romanians."

They have ministered in the former Yugoslavia - Serbia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Kosovo and Croatia - as often as possible with the current political climate in the Balkans. They also worked with pastors in Bulgaria and Albania as soon as the countries opened to Westerners. Their church organized Friend International, a non-profit corporation, in December 1992 to continue the ministries to Eastern Europe and around the world.

"God has used all of our experiences from our days at OBU until now to honor Him," the Friends said. "We have always worked as a team in all of these years."

The couple continues to follow a divine path, going wherever God leads.

Click the following link to view a full list of previous Profile in Excellence recipients.