I just heard that George Verwer went to heaven late last night (14th April 2023). So many memories are swirling as I remember all that George has meant to me and my family. It is hard to overstate how much God has used George in our lives.
I probably met George when I was two years old at the commissioning service for the Doulos. I don’t remember that, of course. My earliest memory of George was being introduced to him by my Dad after a service in Bristol. I was a teen. I was struck by George’s enthusiastic greeting of my Dad – “One of God’s faithful warriors in Italy!” It was George’s invitation back in 1962 that motivated my Dad to go over to Europe that summer, indirectly resulting in my parents going to Italy as missionaries.
Once I was introduced to George, he stayed in touch. It is easy to think of George the public speaker, but many thousands also know of the George who continued to care for the next generation of OM kids. He had no connection to me except my Dad’s involvement in OM thirty years before, but that was plenty for George. I remember him phoning me one day. He was on a train in Scotland and he wanted to let me know that he was praying for me. Getting a phone call like that as a teen rocked my world. I used to listen to cassettes of George preaching – those messages consisted of a sort of overflow of his energy, his drive, his gospel passion, and his transparency, blended with some oft-repeated doses of his humour.
He often told of the time in Pakistan when a pigeon dropped a mess onto the sleeve of his suit. “Praise God that elephants can’t fly!” He would tell of the time he lost his temper with his long-suffering wife, Drena, kicked a box which turned out to be full of books, and stormed out of the house in pain, only to re-enter the house by the back door and repent of his sinful outburst. He would share honestly about his struggles with lust. He would pour out stories and statistics of the great need in the world. He would recount God’s goodness through the years of OM’s history. And somehow it would all fit together in one message.
When I spent a year serving on the OM Ship, the Logos 2, I got to work alongside George a little. His gopher (travel companion and assistant) and I went to collect George and Dale Rhoton (co-founder of OM) from LA Airport. George didn’t like the idea of waiting for Dale so he found an empty row of seats and sat down. When we came back with Dale 45 minutes later George had covered a huge area of airport floor with piles of paperwork that he swiftly collected together. It was a privilege to listen to George and Dale chatting together in the back of the car. The third member of the original Send the Light trip to Mexico, Walter Borchard, also joined George during the 40th anniversary celebrations onboard. (Note – I heard that Walter also went to be with the Lord just a few days before George did.)
I secretly prayed for some months about becoming George’s gopher as I really aspired to the role. On my 21st birthday, he was onboard the ship and called for me to come to his room. He found out it was my birthday and so gave me a half-eaten bar of Dairy Milk, as well as a bag full of correspondence that he thought I should look through. More important than English chocolate, he asked if I’d ever considered being his gopher. I was so thankful and promised to continue praying about it.
I met up with George again at the OM conference in De Bron, NL, that September. We went for a walk around the conference site. He had just left the skylight on his bus open and his wife’s laptop had been rained on. He was feeling very guilty about that. He asked again about the gopher role for the following year. Maybe he sensed my hesitation, because he immediately followed up with, “you’ve met a girl?” I explained that I had met a girl in Portland. Of course, George knew her parents – also OMers from back in the earlier years. “Ah! Good Brethren stock!” Actually, Melanie’s parents had met on an OM team, so Melanie’s very existence was a result of George’s ministry! He had prayed for her family for years too. I was disappointed to not be his gopher, but was encouraged by his understanding of my desire to go to seminary and not be travelling in the year before we married.
During the seminary years that followed, my wife and I pondered where our future might lie. We wanted to be involved in missions. But where? We explored options all over the world but no doors seemed to be opening. Then one day my mother-in-law passed me a note: George wanted me to call him. I called him from the phone in the seminary building. He asked me, “Are you prepared to leave America? I know a lot of people like the salary that they can get from a US church. And I’d hate to see you stuck in a classroom teaching somewhere.” I assured him that we were looking at missions options rather than salaries and we planned to leave the US. “Come and be based here in the UK, we need trained Bible teachers like you. The UK is a place of real nee too . . . let me help you launch…”
Our church leaders all felt that this invitation was of God and they gladly sent us to be based in the UK with ministry details still to be determined. Lots of people in OM warned us that George would not be arranging meetings for me and it might end in disappointment. It turned out I did not need George to arrange meetings. I was happy to work loosely in his team and arrange my own opportunities with God’s help. As it turned out, we ended up living next door to George and Drena for that first year. Our third child was born “through the bedroom wall” of our adjoining houses. He enjoyed that little fact. “Which one of you was born next door?” he would ask my children on later visits.
During our time living next door to George, I enjoyed a number of walks with George as we talked about life and ministry and navigating the complexities of theological disputes and issues in world missions. My wife and I enjoyed a meal out with George and Drena. I was so enjoying his story of how he had been banned from India for smuggling two typewriters, but then saw the look on Drena’s face – she had endured a lot at George’s side. The weekly prayer meeting at Forest Hill was always so much better when George was there. He would whistle through worship songs, sort his mail during various phases of the meeting, spill little tidbits of random OM history in reference to any guests that happened to be there, and refer to an awful lot of ministry as “tremendous.” George had a way of building people up, and building up their contribution to world missions – even though most would have felt massively intimidated by George’s global impact!
What was George’s impact? George was a pioneer. In an age where missionary boards wanted seminary graduates, George pioneered a missionary force of willing volunteers. In a time when missionaries made a career commitment, George saw the value in short-term teams. Then there was the idea of getting a ship – totally crazy, but God was in that craziness. Mexico, Europe, behind the Iron Curtain, India, the Middle East and North Africa, etc . . . all across the world George’s pragmatic pioneering spirit has spread with OM. And then there are the hundreds or thousands of ministries that have launched out of OM. People who came to OM for a couple of months or a couple of years, but went on to have lifelong ministries under a different banner. George’s impact and legacy as a missions pioneer is vast.
George was a prolific speaker. If you were looking for careful expository preaching, that wasn’t George. But if you were ready to hear the overflow of a life set on fire by Jesus, then George was pure gold. Whether it was in front of thousands of students at Urbana, or a handful of saints in a little church, George spoke (often while holding a giant inflatable globe) and lives were marked. The last time I heard him preach he had three sets of seven points. It was classic George. But it was still so good. He might have been known as a “pied piper missionary speaker,” but his greater passion was always “reality in Jesus” – he knew that if people experienced that revolution of love that comes from really knowing Jesus, then missions involvement would follow naturally.
George believed and preached the radical grace of God for undeserving sinners. He would say, “Where two are three are gathered in my name, sooner or later there will be a mess.” It was not just a humourous line to get a laugh. It was the reality he lived time and again. People mess up, and God’s grace is critical. George would preach about that grace, and then he would live it as a leader drawing alongside strugglers as a fellow struggler and recipient of God’s great grace.
You might assume that George’s impact was all about leadership and speaking. After all, he was the International Director of OM (until 2003), a global missions pioneer, and had a full speaking schedule (apparently he dropped from 900x per year to just 350x per year after he retired!) But even if he spoke multiple times in a week, there were still so many hours outside of those slots – George wanted to use all of his hours for Jesus. Living next door for a season and working alongside him during those years, I noted several ministries that could easily be overlooked.
Prayer. George prayed for people. He had his gopher put pictures of people on his phone so he could pray for people when he was on the London Underground and lost his phone signal. If he couldn’t be talking to someone, then he could be talking to God about someone. He had photo albums full of ancient prayer cards – one day he knocked on our door to show us pictures of Melanie and me as little children. Another time we had guests and our friend was shocked to meet George for the first time as he held out a picture of her with her family when she was a toddler – he’d pray through these collections of memories again and again. In these last years, George was excited to know that our children also went out with OM – to Ireland, to Albania, and to the Logos Hope. That’s three generations involved in missions, in part, because of George’s prayers.
Connecting. George would get a phone call from someone. He would introduce them to someone else. He literally multiplied his ministry by connecting people to other people that could be an encouragement to them. He asked me to get in touch with an evangelist that could do with a friend. It might have seemed like a mess, but the chaos continually spawned more ministry fruit.
Giving. George was one of those people who God seemed to trust with money. After raising funds for OM over the years, he focused on his Special Projects for the last twenty years. Bibles, books, the Dalit Freedom Network, under-supported OMers, etc. George was constantly passing on funds to where they were needed most. Only eternity will reveal just how much money was recycled for God’s work through George. His extreme frugality was well-known in OM (George and Drena trading their wedding cake for gas to drive to Mexico is a well-known story from the early years). He repented of some of the more legalistic emphases that grew out of his own personality quirks, but that frugality surely led to him being trusted as a faithful conduit of Kingdom funds.
Books. You can’t have met George and overlooked his passion for books. Every meeting had an overflowing book table, with his incessant attempts to convince people to take books (post-date a cheque for a year beyond your college graduation!) His book pushes were superb. There was Operation World, of course. Grace Awakening – how many times did he push Swindoll’s classic (and mention that the first section was a bit dull, which somehow didn’t seem to put you off reading it!) Calvary Road – he loved Roy Hession books and worked with the Roy Hession Trust for many years. He would refer to A.W.Tozer books just sizzling away on the book table. And his own, Hunger for Reality and Revolution of Love were two powerful examples from the earlier years. Then Messiology came later – some of his most controversial comments compiled in a book. Yes, George had a passion for books that came through in every meeting. But he didn’t stop outside of meetings. He was constantly sending packages of books, plus calendars, and single sheet papers on subjects like making a prayer meeting work. If you were on George’s mailing list, then these packages would reassure you that you were in his prayers too.
It was so sad to hear that George was nearing the end. If you haven’t seen his final blog, please click here to do so. Right to the end he spoke of the many who still need Jesus. Hundreds of thousands have been involved in missions directly or indirectly because of George. That means millions will have heard the gospel directly or indirectly because of George. To many of us, George was a hero. Of course, he was no superhero. He was far too real for that. And he was definitely a little bit quirky and unique too. But he was a hero to my wife and me because of how God used him to mark our lives so profoundly.
Today I grieve for George and I also praise God for his willingness to give his all for Jesus. I will miss his energy and drive, I will miss his passion for Jesus and world missions, and I will miss his love for me and my family. I know there will be many around the globe who are sad at George’s passing, yet thrilled at George’s promotion. Maybe one of his crowns could be a global jacket like he so often wore. He will be thrilled to cast that down before his Lord!