Back in 1940, English novelist and playwright, Graham Greene, said, “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” For me, the year was 1963. The place? Lexington, Kentucky, standing in the lobby of a church. Our family had gone to visit my grandparents and went to church there that Sunday.
I remember the service as if it happened yesterday. The building was packed with people. There was a large choir, several musicians, and the music was good. The preacher made people laugh and cry, and at the end of the service many went forward making decisions for Christ. The church was Southland Christian Church. The preacher? The extraordinarily gifted, remarkably funny and wildly popular Wayne Smith. He was the founding Pastor and led Southland to become one of the largest and most influential churches in the country during his 40+ years there. Some have called Wayne the “Bob Hope” of the Christian Church.
I was in awe that morning, standing beside my three brothers, when Wayne knelt down, took my hand and said, “You’re going to be a great preacher someday.” Wayne had gone to Cincinnati Bible Seminary in the late 40s and early 50s and was friends with my parents. My grandparents went to Southland, and had for years. That morning a door opened and let the future in for me.
I don’t remember a lot for the next decade. But I distinctly remember a letter of congratulations from Wayne when I graduated from High School in May of 1973. He told me how proud he was of my accomplishment and encouraged me to go to Cincinnati Bible Seminary. He also told me I was going to be contacted by Roy Mays, which I was, repeatedly. Our family moved from Muskogee, Oklahoma, to Canton, Ohio, on the Sunday following my graduation. I had planned on attending Cincinnati Bible Seminary.
However, through a series of unique events, I wound up at Ozark Bible College in Joplin, MO. It wasn’t long before a letter arrived from Wayne, congratulating me on my choice to attend Ozark and encouraging me to learn all I could. I also started receiving the church newsletter from Southland every week, along with a cassette tape with both Wayne’s Sunday morning and Sunday evening messages on it. I received tapes from every service Southland ever had, every week, until the week Wayne preached his last message there in 1995. Twenty two years of cassette tapes and church newsletters, all for FREE.
Wayne Smith is the most generous, giving, loving, encouraging, genuine Christian man I have ever known.
Remember, this was the Pastor of one of the largest churches in America. A man who was speaking all over the country at conventions, conferences, revivals, men’s meetings; not to mention all the civic events he would do in the state of Kentucky and beyond.
Over the years, I’ve received hundreds of letters, packages and gifts from Wayne. In one way or another, he has acknowledged and recognized every major event in my life since I graduated from High School (which includes a letter and painting he sent congratulating me when I had taken my first ministry, becoming the youth minister at First Christian Church in Owasso, Oklahoma). He sent a letter and a gift when Janis and I got married. He wrote and sent a plaque when I resigned to accept a youth ministry position at Johnson County Christian Church with Ronnie Epps in Overland Park, KS. He did the same when I accepted my first pastorate in Port Charlotte, FL, and acknowledged every major event during that 12-year period. When I resigned, in July of 1992, to move to Arlington, Wayne wrote and congratulated me and sent a couple of gifts, too.
Over the years whenever I would see him, when I was a student at Ozark or in later years at a conference or convention somewhere, I repeatedly asked him for a job. But he always said I needed to keep doing what I was doing and stay where I was because God had even greater plans. I have cars, boats, watches, clocks, plaques, paintings, golf clubs, a golf bag, golf balls, golf jacket, all kinds of trinkets, including a bobble head of him, and more. He’s only given me three books in all the years I’ve known him: a book about his life, a book of his favorite sermons and articles and a book of funeral sermons.
In 2006 I wrote a book called Contagious Generosity and dedicated it to Wayne. Janis and I met Wayne and Marge at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Louisville. Wayne had no idea what we were doing except for having dinner. Marge knew and helped me plan the surprise. True to form, Wayne showed up with gifts for everyone. When I gave him the book and showed him we’d dedicated it to him, because of his generosity, it was one of the few times I’ve seen him speechless.
Wayne Smith has been a father to me for the majority of my life. I have no idea how many phone conversations I’ve had with him, or times I have written him, getting his advice and wisdom for something going on in my life or our ministry. He has always been an encourager to me and one of my biggest fans.
When we moved to Texas in the early 90s, Wayne and I became closer than ever and talked more often. I would always call him and say, “Wayne Smith.” His answer was always, “Barry Cameron.” A greeting we’ve shared every time we talked, and the conversation or call always ends with, “I love you!” “I love you, too!” I will miss our Saturday afternoon phone conversations.
He came to Texas in 2004 to dedicate our new campus and facilities. I’ll never forget it. We had 100 acres and a 3,100 seat auditorium I was convinced we’d never fill and never pay for. His response? “You’ll have this thing paid off in no time, and you’ll be a church of 5,000!” I was shocked. He was as sure about it as if it had already happened. And it did.
When Wayne left Southland, our church began supporting him and his new ministry. He began traveling around the country encouraging preachers and churches. I don’t know anyone who has loved and encouraged preachers more than Wayne Smith. Something he was doing the day before he died.
When he could no longer come to Crossroads and speak for us or attend our missions’ conferences, I started going to see him every year just to spend time with him and encourage him. But I was the one who always left encouraged. In recent years, I would go see him every chance I got. One of the extra blessings has been getting to know Marge (before she died), Jana, Judy and their families, too.
There’s no way I will ever be able to put into words what Wayne Smith means to me. He’s the most generous, giving, loving, encouraging, genuine Christian man I have ever known.
Several years ago I asked him why he chose me and not my three brothers when he said, “You’re going to be a great preacher someday.” He said he felt it was something God wanted him to say. I asked him if it had anything to do with the fact that I was the chubby one of the bunch. He said, “Well ...”
I’ll probably never know this side of Heaven; but one thing I do know, back in 1963, Wayne Smith opened the door and my future walked in.
Thanks, Wayne! I love you!
© 2016. Barry L. Cameron
[You can watch Wayne’s funeral today at 1:00 EST, on LiveStream from the Southland Christian Church Facebook page]
Barry L. Cameron has been the Senior Pastor of Crossroads since 1992 when the church was averaging 188 in morning worship. Today, more than 8,000 people call Crossroads their church home. Pastor Cameron and his wife, Janis, have three children and two grandsons. He’s the author of the bestseller: The ABCs of Financial Freedom, Contagious Generosity, and The Financial Freedom Workbook. The Cameron family has been completely debt free since November 2001.