No one knows what a day will bring, except God. So it was on a beautiful summer day in 1976 in northern Colorado. Along with the tourists enjoying the clear skies and pristine air near Big Thompson canyon on July 31st were thirty-five Campus Crusade for Christ staff women.* Meeting at a retreat center to pray and plan for their ministry roles, they were eager to commit themselves to following Jesus. Their spirits were as high as the magnificent mountains. What better place to be close to God, to devote themselves to quiet moments with Him, to share in fellowship with those who knew Him and to witness to those who didn’t. John Howard was one who didn’t.
John worked as a waiter at the center to underwrite his medical education. He met many conference people in his work, some quite rude and condescending, but he noticed something different about this group Instead of being inconsiderate and demanding, they were kind and compassionate. They seemed truly interested in each other and in him.
They were always eager to talk to him. “Hey, John, what’s the best dessert today?” or “Are you going to specialize?” or “Have you worked on any cadavers yet?”
Such cursory inquiries were only touchstones to deeper considerations – “John, have you ever heard of spiritual food?” or “Did you know Luke the gospel writer was a physician?” or “Ever wonder what happens to the souls of cadavers?”
John would make light of the questioning, replying with obvious smokescreens. “I’m on ‘Science Diet’ – I deal with facts not fiction” or “I’m more interested in why those cadavers went – not where”.
The women were undaunted, witnessing to him daily. As he served them tasty food, they would give him scripture tidbits to chew on. These women were unlike the independent, self-centered women he knew at college. These women behaved the way they talked, sharing each other‘s hopes and burdens. It was not uncommon for them to stop in the middle of a meal to pray for a need. Hugs, laughter and tears confirmed their bond - closer, John thought, than many families.
John considered himself agnostic, dismissing Christianity as a crutch and Jesus simply as a prophet. What little he knew about Jesus‘ teachings was good, but John had never known anyone who actually practiced them. Yet, here were these women . . . could it be they were truly Christian? As he left the center that fateful day, John’s mind was as clouded as the sky above had become.
A light rain began to fall from dark clouds shrouding the mountaintops. People in the canyon below were settled in for the evening, but their lives, like John’s, would soon be disrupted and changed forever
By 7:30 p.m. the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning. Soon heavy rain pelted down the narrow canyon road that bordered Big Thompson River. Usually only a trickling stream, the river began to swell, overflowing with the downpour of eight inches in less than an hour. Sirens blared a warning to people to seek higher ground as a flash flood was imminent.
The Campus Crusade women evacuated the center in their cars, but were confused about which way to go. As they headed down the canyon, water began to cover the road, rocks and debris falling around them. Some abandoned their cars and climbed to safety, while others were swept away, their cars catapulted by a twenty-foot wall of water pushing everything in its destructive path toward the valley below.
John had taken refuge on a ledge overlooking the river. He trembled as he watched cars, houses, and debris surge by. He began to pray, speaking the name the women had so often. Jesus, save me. Save them.
The next day he made his way to Loveland, where a temporary morgue was set up. It was a terrible scene. Body after body was brought in, some with faces frozen in terror and fear. Then, he noticed the body of a drowned woman. John gasped. He recognized her, but what struck him most was her face. It was serene, composed, peaceful. He remembered her saying to him that heaven was her home. In all, six other Campus Crusaders were killed. Each of them bore that same blissful countenance, a marked contrast to many others who died that day. John cried - not from grief alone, but from the inexplicable joy for them and for himself. He was saved, truly saved.
*Based on a true event
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