Meet Barb Collver
Nothing inspires me as much as a great story. Biographies have been a part of my reading life from way back in my Christian school days. We didn’t get a lot of Shakespeare, but we were fed a steady diet of biographies of great men and women of the faith. I still remember their names with reverence…Jim Elliot, John Bunyan, Brother Andrew, George Mueller, Amy Carmichael – they parade through my mind like an addendum to the Hebrews Faith Hall of Fame.
Lives lived for God’s glory. Brave men and women whose choices took on heroic proportions and whose names are remembered among the greats.
I think what inspires me the most about stories like these are the elements of weakness that we can all relate to. The humble beginning, or the painful childhood, or the fatal flaw finally submitted to the Holy Spirit. Sometimes years of carousing were the unlikely preamble to the lives most sacrificially and wholeheartedly devoted to Christ.
Often the heroes are unsure how to proceed. At times, they struggle with painful situations and debilitating doubts, all of which make us rightly suspect they are just regular folks, after all.
Hard on the heels of that realization comes the eye-opener that we too can make heroic choices amid the humdrum of our daily lives. We too can choose to bravely live lives of faith-filled obedience, to put God’s kingdom above our own comforts, and to love well and sacrificially those God has put in our path.
One person who has made such choices for decades and seen God weave a lovely tapestry of grace from the offered threads of her life in spite of frequent sickness, painful trials, and loss, is Barbara Collver.
Barb has crammed so much living and serving God in her 81 years, that it’s truly a challenge to know where to begin her story! I recently came across her name, along with that of her husband, Howard (Howie to his friends and family) while reading the book, The Cross and the Switchblade, to my kids. In this exciting and true story, Barb was the resident nurse who helped the street boys through the detox process of coming off drugs in the early days of David Wilkerson’s Teen Age Evangelism ministry (now called Teen Challenge).
As we came across their names repeatedly during our nightly read, my excitement began to grow. “Could this be Aunt Barb and Uncle Howie???” I asked my wonderstruck children. I had a faint memory of hearing that my husband’s aunt and uncle used to work with the famous Dave Wilkerson in New York.
Barb and Howie’s last name is misspelled in the book by two letters – “Culver” instead of “Collver”, so I wasn’t entirely sure it wasn’t an odd coincidence, but a quick cross-country Facebook message to Aunt Barb confirmed their misspelled identity. I knew instantly that I needed to share Barb’s story with you, and she graciously consented.
Here’s the ironic part of Barb’s story of decades of ministry: when growing up, she had great plans to avoid just such a life! In spite of the example of both of her sisters, red-headed and strong-willed Barb laughs:
“I always said I would never marry a minister and I would never go to Bible college, but I did both!”
God’s plans for Barb were so much more far-reaching than anything her young mind could conjure.
And Then There Were Two
Howard entered the scene in August of 1956 when Barb was 20 years old, and Barb says “I knew the first day that this was the one.” She was a junior in nursing school and had asked her sister Dee and brother-in-law Bill (then missionaries serving in Japan) to find her a Christian soldier she could write to. Howie, in the Army at the time and stationed in Japan, was the lucky soldier Dee and Bill selected. A short letter-writing campaign began, followed by a visit in Michigan where he and Barb met face-to-face. They were engaged a whopping four days later and married the following June before she graduated from nursing school in September. Barb may not have realized her request for a pen-pal would in effect turn into a mail-order husband, but her matchmaking sister Dee still smiles about it today.
Barb and Howie enjoyed a short time together before he had to leave two months later for school at Central Bible Institute in Springfield, MO. Howie moved their things, rented a house, got a job, and settled in for earning his ministry degree. When Barb graduated in September, he drove back to Michigan to collect his bride, and they were happily reunited. She couldn’t have known at the time what a good decision finishing her nursing program would prove to be – Barb’s nursing career would provide needed finances for their family many times over the years and opened the door for her to do mission work around the globe.
The Stork Flew By…More Than Once
The school years flew by and their little family began to grow – first their daughter Bobbi was born (1959), and then little Sherri came(1960) – in spite of their deciding to wait to have children until Howie was out of seminary! In 1961, the then young and unheard-of David Wilkerson came to C.B.I. to interview for summer ministers to help with the growing ministry in New York City. Howie, just graduated, was hired for the job as an Assemblies of God home missionary. Other students were hired as well to work as summer interns, but Barb says that with Howie, David got a package deal: “at the same time he got an RN for nursing the addicts at the Center (but most of them just got healed and delivered)!” Barb and Howie received $5 in monthly support from each of their mothers – thankfully, room and board were provided at the Center. With a tiny budget but great faith, they jumped out of their boat in New York City to follow Jesus.
For those of you who haven’t read The Cross and the Switchblade, this job was no easy gig doing Vacation Bible Schools and puppet shows for popsicle-eating children. The ministry existed to serve the street kids of New York, many of whom were gang members, drug addicts, murderers, prostitutes, etc.
To complicate matters, not only was this Howie’s first job out of Bible college but by the time he was hired, he and Barb had two toddlers to care for and were pregnant with their third child. Barb remembers this time as difficult and challenging, complicated by pre- (and then post) partum depression and feelings of being completely overwhelmed. Howie was gone for extended periods of time, learning the ins and outs of street preaching, taking care of the building, and working long hours at the Center, and Barb was left alone to care for the children. She also had her own duties at the Center, ministering to the street kids and helping them detox from drugs and sometimes doing the cooking for the Center. The nature of the ministry meant being constantly surrounded by violence and danger…not the most conducive setting to raising small children.
Barb remembers one incident where her little girls were napping and she needed to quickly dash to the main building. In the short amount of time that she was gone, someone entered their home where the girls were sleeping and stole their camera. Thoughts of what could have been horrified her as the reality of ministering in that dangerous environment hit home in a new way. Another time, as the two older girls were playing in the front yard, Barb saw a boy take Sherri out the gate and start down the sidewalk with her. Barb, who was watching from a 2nd-floor window, yelled to the boy “Where are you going with her?” The boy responded that he was taking Sherri home. Barb hollered “This IS her home – put her back in this yard!” Even though he didn’t get far, where the boy planned to take Sherri is unknown, and many prayers of gratitude were offered up for her safe return.
The First Pastorate And Life on a submarine
The stress of this life in the pressure cooker of high-risk and demanding ministry led the Collvers to prayerfully accept a pastorate in Norwich, CT, and a change of pace and scenery but didn’t forever close the door to working with David and the Teen Challenge program. They would work with Teen Challenge again, years later, in a different location.
Barb and Howie were at their first pastorate for 4 years, growing it from 20 people to about 100. They also accomplished the demolition of the 180-year-old building and construction of a new church building on the existing property, with Howie himself putting in over 3,000 hours on the new building over an exhausting 8-month period. Barb remembers singing a solo at the dedication of the new building, while hugely pregnant and miserable with poison ivy from working the garden. Their third daughter Patti was born in December 1961 and then their son Jim joined the family in 1965, with a miscarriage between them. In addition to helping pastor, teaching Sunday school, and caring for their 4 young children, Barb also worked outside the home as a nurse during this time. One of her more interesting jobs had her using her nursing skills in nuclear submarines! Barb shares:
“From June 1963 – Feb. 1964 I worked in Groton, Ct. at General Dynamics Nuclear Submarine Division as an RN in the ‘yard hospital’. We treated injuries, etc. and sometimes would be called for an emergency to go down in a sub. An ambulance would show up at the door and we would grab a black “doctor’s bag” and be taken to the sub. One time I was called for an emergency – someone had received an electric shock in the lower reactor room (where there was really only room for 2 men). There was the injured man, another man, and me, and they lowered a stretcher down by a crane to be loaded and taken to the hospital. The man lived, but it was scary…but interesting!”
Their time serving in New York City with David Wilkerson and then in Connecticut at their first pastorate was just the beginning of what would become a lifetime of ministry. Howard would (among other things) go on to serve as a senior pastor two more times, as an associate pastor (twice), as a licensed professional counselor, and as a Professor of Counseling and Resident Director (at Zion Bible College in Rhode Island, now Northpoint College). He also set up the counseling program at the Mid America Teen Challenge center in Cape Girardeau, MO. He added two Masters degrees to his education, has been in ministry for over 50 years, and he and Barb celebrate 60 years of marriage (on Barb’s 81st birthday!) the month this post goes live, June 2017!
Happy anniversary, Aunt Barb and Uncle Howie!
Barb says she loved her life as a pastor’s wife and when they were in between ministry assignments, she truly missed it. Pastoring small churches allowed Barb many and varied opportunities to use her gifts for the Lord, which included teaching Sunday School, teaching a “Catechism” class for children (teaching Christianity’s basic doctrines), leading the women’s ministry, helping to organize and teaching in the pre-school nursery school, caring for babies in the church nursery, and even cleaning the church!
The Missions Trips – Not Your Typical Grandma
In addition to her love for the local church, you can’t talk to Barb for long without her passion for missions bubbling to the surface. Incredibly, Barb has been on 43 mission trips to 27 different countries and has taken 6 of her 12 grandchildren on trips with her. When I asked her about scary moments with so many trips to undeveloped countries, Barb responded:
“In Honduras, it was right after the war in 1989, and soldiers with weapons were on all corners. We could hear shooting sometimes at night. In Albania, 1999, they were fighting, and long lines of armed vehicles would pass the place we were staying (above the church) going to fight. In several countries, the roads were totally UNBELIEVABLE (our worst doesn’t even compare!) and as we traveled to the ‘outback’ it was quite an experience. But I can honestly say I was never afraid. In Cambodia there was fighting going on in another part of the country. When we came out of the ‘country’ – (we were 6 miles from the Viet border) our line of cars was stopped by the military. Just 2 cars ahead of us there was a missile launcher shooting off missiles against the enemy miles away. We were able to talk to the army guys and they said we didn’t need to be worried because the other side had ‘poor aim’. So we just had to wait while they shot the missiles and then proceeded to Phnom Penh. The only time I was ‘concerned’ was flying from Athens to Albania (’99) – we had tremendous turbulence and I wondered if we would crash. The man next to me was really scared! But, I just always felt I was in God’s hands and whatever HE wanted was good enough for me to not be afraid. That’s about it – no real fears, just potential dangers.”
When asked if she could pick a favorite trip out of the 43 she has made, Barb enthusiastically responds:
“I always say Cambodia (3 times there, once for over one month). The reason I give is that of all my patients that I examined there, NONE had ever heard the NAME OF JESUS! That just astounded me! I had already done 8 trips by my first trip to Cambodia in 1992. Most of them were in Central and South America and everyone knew who Jesus was (even if they didn’t know Him personally). Also, in Cambodia, Pol Pot (Cambodian politician and revolutionary who led the Khmer Rouge from 1963 until 1997) had ravaged the country with killing most of the people in Phohm Penh. No one had been untouched by these killings! Most of the old people, the professionals, and college students had been killed. Therefore it was SO important to reach the college kids, especially the medical students, because they would be able to carry the Gospel message all around the country to many who hadn’t heard!”
Barb is currently working on scrapbooking her mission trips. I have a feeling that when she gets to Heaven, there will be a heavenly version of those scrapbooks waiting for her, and they will be complete with the parts she never knew – the stories of lives changed because of her faithfulness, sacrifice, and extraordinary courage.
Sickness – The Silent Companion
Illness has played a major role in Barb’s life, affecting every aspect of her existence. Her medical history contains enough events and surgeries to fill the pages of a book. The emotional strain of frequent and severe sickness was considerable, at times negatively impacting her walk with the Lord. The challenge of a life of ministry combined with financial struggle is enough for the most dauntless among us, but sickness and surgery (along with the resulting emotional issues) were often added to the mix.
The medical issues began in 1976 with abdominal pain, weight loss, and a major surgery to correct a GI disorder. Three weeks post-op Barb returned to work but still wasn’t feeling well. A visit to a Spirit-filled Christian surgeon followed, and he performed exploratory surgery to try to determine the cause of Barb’s pain.
“He told me later that he could not see or feel anything wrong and almost closed my abdomen. BUT GOD!! The Holy Spirit spoke to him and told him to do a needle biopsy of my gallbladder. When he did, he found that it was packed with gravel (which didn’t show on x-ray, nor could he feel it). So he removed the gallbladder. After surgery my peristalsis (what moves the food through the system) stopped working and I knew I was dying. I told him that and he prayed to see what would help me live. The Lord impressed him to give me IV Valium every 15 minutes until I was completely ‘out’. I slept for 12 hours and when I woke up, I was completely healed! I could do nothing but pace in my room and pray in the Spirit, praising HIM for healing. Three weeks later I returned to work – feeling much better. This surgeon said I hadn’t needed the first surgery if they would have found the gallbladder problem. We were praising the Lord for this doctor who obeyed the Holy Spirit!”
The relief lasted 3 years, but then Barb started feeling poorly again. New diagnosis: ulcers in the esophagus and stomach. This resulted in the major Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery (now frequently used for weight loss, which probably explains tall and slender Barb’s ensuing struggle to gain weight).
“I continued to have emotional and physical problems with ear surgery (’92), shoulder surgery (’93), kidney stones and breast biopsies, arthritis (hand) surgery (’94), bowel problems, and abdominal adhesions surgery (’97). In 2003 I was again not well, and was finally diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy in March 2003. After the breast surgery, I did very well surgically but was feeling terrible – weak, lack of appetite, etc. They decided there was something in my lungs and told me it was probably cancer or TB. I had a wedge resection of my lung and NO CANCER or TB (was found)!”
Barb was, however, diagnosed with Mycobacterium Avium (MAC).
“They had me on 3 very strong antibiotics for the MAC, but that made me very ill and I had kidney insufficiency. Sept. 2004, I had a renal artery stent inserted and that was good for the kidney problem (stenosis). I was well until Jan. 2006, more abdominal pain – surgery again for adhesions. Since this time, I have had some issues (more kidney stones 2 more times, cataracts (2007), a couple falls with hospitalization for UTIs (2011), anemia, pacemaker inserted (2013), and a total hip replacement (2014).
But praise the Lord, we’ve continued to grow in Jesus, stayed faithful, prayed a lot, and I’ve been well since 2014. GOD IS GOOD – ALL THE TIME! HE MUST NOT BE DONE WITH ME YET! All of this and I am still growing in Jesus- He is closer than ever to me and I to Him!”
Barb’s life as has not been an easy one. Five predominant strands would define the tapestry of her life – family, ministry, her work outside the home, missions, and illness. While living in the moment, these strands often appeared tangled, messy, and random, twisting around each other in seeming discord. But looking back from the pinnacle of 60 years of marriage and decades of ministry, the pattern of her life story emerges from the pain and struggles.
God used Barb in ministry, serving alongside Howie and teaching her to love people.
God used her nursing career to bring provision and open many doors to serve overseas.
God used her heart for missions to take the Gospel around the globe and leave a legacy within her own family and around the world.
God used her sickness and suffering to form her character, teach her perseverance, and bring her depth and compassion.
Through all these adventures, Barb can say emphatically that God IS good – all the time. He has used her life far beyond anything she could have imagined as a young girl who most emphatically did not want to go into ministry. She has touched lives in places most of us will only ever see on the news. Barb has intentionally imparted a legacy of missions-mindedness to the younger generation by bringing some of her grandchildren with her on mission trips. One of those grandchildren, Kimberly, is now serving as a full-time Chi Alpha missionary, and another granddaughter has been called into the ministry as well.
Barb is not one to sugar-coat reality or shy away from admitting the considerable suffering that has been part of her life. But the bottom line for Barb is that her life has been lived for His glory, and while her pastoring and overseas traveling days are over, she looks forward to more opportunities to serve Him at home, right where she is. Her wonderful example of perseverance through difficulty and sacrificial living truly make her an extraordinary person and a beautiful reflection of God’s grace!