The Gospel Camper

This is a passage from the book A Sower Went Forth by Martha Palmer, wife of Ralph Palmer, who lived from 1903 to 1976 and traveled extensively in tract distribution and Gospel sign work. This book is available in hardback from Rod & Staff Publishers, PO Box 3, Crockett, KY 41413. (Phone 606-522-4348).

Ralph had not been satisfied with road signs alone but had sign painters put messages on the sides and back of the car and camper. One day as we stopped for gasoline at a service station near Richmond, a man came to Ralph introducing himself as the pastor of a Danville, Virginia, church.

"My people have been telling me about seeing this Gospel camper," he said. "They say it seems like everywhere they go they see these signs, 'Prepare to Meet Thy God,' 'Now Is the Day of Salvation.' 'Repent and Believe the Gospel.' They have said how thrilling it is thus to see the Word of God flashed before the traveling public. So I'm glad that next Sunday I can tell them that now I have seen it, too. I can see that this must be a very effective way to impress the message on people who otherwise do not get it. God bless you and keep it up!"

After a number of years Ralph decided he wanted to get the signs on the car and camper changed. "I want some stronger wording," he said, "something to warn people about hell."

Oh?" I was not very enthusiastic. "Like what?"

"Well, like saying, 'Sinners shall be turned into hell,' something to warn them where they are heading."

"Won't that be sort of shocking to people?"

"Sure it will be shocking! That's what I want—to shake people up! It's in the Bible, isn't it?"

"Yes. But... well, couldn't we tone the words down a little—make it sound not quite so rough?"

"Listen," he said, "suppose someone is fast asleep in a burning building and the only hope of saving him is to wake him up before it is too late. What do we do—study how to tone down the news so he will not be frightened? Send someone to give him a tranquilizer shot? Help him to get more comfortable, to sleep more soundly? It might be right much of a shock to a person peacefully sleeping to have someone rudely shake him awake, screaming that the house is afire!

"All this thing of playing up the mercy of God—telling people to smile, God loves them—people living in the worst kind of sin, just make me sick. In fact, seeing these 'Smile—God Loves You' signs just about everywhere we go is what brought on this idea. That is just lulling people to sleep when they need to be told to flee from the wrath to come—to repent! They need to be warned about the hell where they heading! Yes, wicked people will be shocked if they are effectively warned about judgment and hell! Let them be shocked! It's exactly what they need!"

Well, I still did not like the idea. I shrank from the words (who does not?). I shrank from the thought of driving a car around with such unwelcome messages flashing before the people. So I decided I needed to pray especially about it. Either God wanted these signs on our equipment, or else He did not want them there. Also God was able to change Ralph's mind—or mine—to correspond with His will.

So I talked to God about it—asked Him to show both of us what words he wanted on the new signs. It did not take Him long to convince and satisfy me that Ralph was right. Had not Jesus spoken far more about hell than about heaven? Had He not given much more warning about the judgment of God than teaching on His love? People of His day did not like His warnings either—in fact they hated Him so desperately that they murdered Him!

What right had we to tone down—to soften what He said? What right did we have to concentrate only on the picture Jesus gave of the love and mercy of God while passing over His far stronger warnings of His judgment, His wrath? If Jesus knew whereof he spoke—and I believe every word—then there was a desperate need for us to warn the masses of people of our generation—people who "make a mock of sin"! The words ought to be shouted from the housetops! I remembered the man who told Ralph in the early days of the tract work, "You are the only one I know of who acts like you really believe what you say you do!"

I went to Ralph. "How soon do you think we ought to get Mr. Bradish to paint those new signs about hell on the car and camper?"

"You mean you are willing to put on what I said?"

"Yes, indeed! I'm sure that is what God wants us to do."

And so before long both the camper and car carried large signs—signs which someone said "hit people like an explosion"—giving warning of judgment to come—yes, of hell.

By this time I was doing all the driving since Ralph had voluntarily allowed his driver's permit to lapse. He had felt that he was no longer a safe driver due to what both of us recognized as serious physical deterioration due to a diabetic condition. So up and down busy highways—over crowded city streets—I (accompanied by Ralph) drove the camper; for Ralph wanted the messages to make as strong an impact as possible, and the big signs on the camper really showed up.

A certain person who had only recently become acquainted with our daughter told her one day about seeing our camper.

"There it was running down Jefferson Avenue with these great big, glaring signs telling about judgment and hell. Well, I though I'd like to see what kind of person it was who was bold enough to drive that out in all that traffic. In my mind I envisioned a big, strapping, tough-looking man. When I got to the place where I could see the driver—you could have knocked me down with a feather! There at the wheel was this small, gray-haired, meek-looking Mennonite woman, wearing that little white cap, as calm as though she were relaxing in her own living room."

"That is my mother," said my daughter.

"Your mother! You mean your mother has that much nerve?"

"She sure does. You just don't know my mother!"

Well, let me add that my daughter did not did not know her mother, either—or at least I am pretty sure she did not remember her—the way she was back in the days when she might have been classed a "shrinking violet"—especially when it came to making such a witness as this—back in the days before God, aided and abetted by her father, had taken over and transformed the shrinking violet into—well, I will let someone else complete the metaphor.

There were many and varied reactions manifested as the signs flashed before the crowds of people driving on the highways or on city streets or walking along the sidewalks. As Ralph's physical condition continued to weaken, we no longer went as far from home—our work being concentrated mostly in and between cities of southeastern Virginia from Richmond and Williamsburg on down to Newport News and Hampton and sometimes across Hampton Roads to Norfolk and Portsmouth.

Newport News is a well-known harbor city, besides being the site of a large shipbuilding company. During the noon hour when many thousands of the shipyard workers were on the sidewalks, we sometimes drove the camper where it could be seen by these men and women.

Often we would hear remarks such as "Amen!" "Praise the Lord!" or on the other hand—"Get that truck off the street!" One time as we stopped for a traffic light we heard a man say to his neighbor, "What are they driving that thing around for?" And there was just time for us to hear the reply, "They're trying to get you to get right with God! That's what it's for!"

On another occasion as we passed some men working on a street in Hampton, one of them sneered that he was sick and tired of seeing those sings about judgment and hell. "Well," exclaimed his companion, "he's giving you fair warning !" As we sat eating breakfast one morning after Ralph had gotten a "fasting blood sugar" test for diabetes, a man who had just finished his meal at a nearby table arose to leave. He was nearly at the door when I saw him turn and look back at Ralph, who was sitting with his back to the door. I noticed the man hesitate an instant, and then he came and tapped Ralph on the shoulder.

"Mr. Palmer," he said, "I just want to tell you—I came out about two years ago." He looked as if he wanted to say more but then turned and walked back to the exit door, wiping his eyes as he went.

"I don't have the slightest idea," Ralph replied. "Someone who got one of my tracts, probably."

Evidently the man had used the expression "came out" based on instructions in 2 Corinthians 6:17, 18—"Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty."

And as we reflected that even though we did not know the man—God definitely did—we prayed that in him it should be fulfilled "that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6).

When we were out on the highways, quite often as people drove by they would make signs indicating their feelings about our setup. They ranged all the way from "victory" signs, indicating approval, to gestures of derision and even obscenity. Several times I would see someone shaking his head as though he thought we were quite ridiculous. And sometimes one would tap his forehead as he passed, indicating that he considered us to be slightly deranged.

As I described one such gesture to Ralph—who by this time was almost completely blind—he said, "Don't pay any attention to a person like that. He really is to be pitied."

"Yes," I rejoined, "it surely is pitiful. Don't worry about things like that bothering me—I've been thinking of what the Apostle Paul said regarding opposition far more severe than a motion of the hand—'But none of these things move me.'"

"You know, that man tapping his forehead—well, it just occurred to me—he's tapping the right one! Let's pray for him that God will not allow him to forget the words he has read."

One day as we sat at a lunch counter a middle-aged man whom we had known since his youth came to us. "I want to tell you, Ralph," he said, "how much I appreciate those signs you have on your car and camper. You know, I've been a church member for many years but I was not really right with God. Whenever I saw those messages about judgment and hell I would wince. They hit me pretty hard. You've touched me many a time, Ralph, when you didn't even know I was anywhere around. Well, about six months ago, I made a change—a definite commitment to God—really got right with Him. I saw your camper out there, so I came in to find you."

Ralph was so happy at the words that it was hard for him to talk. Before he left the friend said, "Just recently some unexpected money came to me in such a way that I want it to be used in the Lord's work. I cannot think of any better use for it than for you to take it to buy gas or anything you need."

He held toward Ralph a fold of paper money. But Ralph made no move to take it.

"Did you know Ralph has lost his sight?" I asked quietly.

"Oh, no! I'm so sorry!"

"Ralph," I said, "he's handing you something."

Ralph fumbled, reaching for it, then said, "Give it to my wife. Since I'm blind I've turned all these things over to her to handle."

After the friend had gone I looked at the folded paper—I could see that outside was a ten-dollar bill but that there was more inside.

"Looks like there might be fifteen or twenty dollars," I said, beginning to unfold it.

Then I saw that inside there were two "twenties"—fifty dollars in all. We finished our sandwiches in a special glow of pleasure. And let me tell you—the fifty dollars was a very small part of the cause of that glow. For what is fifty dollars compared to the joy of hearing such words, "You have touched me many a time. . . . I really got right with God"?

As I drove the camper down Broad Street in Richmond one sweltering day, I could tell that Ralph was feeling unusually discouraged. As his sickness had progressed there had come, besides the blindness and physical weakness, feelings of frustration and depression. Now tired and distressed in the oppressive heat and the constant commotion of the busy city, he expressed thoughts of despondency. "I feel like my whole life has been a failure," he declared. "I wonder whether I've done any good at all. I feel like a complete failure!"

"Oh, no! Far from it!" I exclaimed. "Look at all the messages for God you have put out. You've surely done a lot of good."

"But how do I know it has been worthwhile? Someone asked me not long ago . . . "He left the sentence unfinished as his voice trailed off into silence and I saw the look of distress deepen.

Ralph had not needed to complete that sentence, for I knew only too well the kind of questions people often asked, people who I felt should have known better!

"What about Joe Charnick?" I asked. "What about John Dan Miller?"

"Well, yes, I had forgotten about them. I guess I have done some good." His face brightened a bit.

"Some good! I should say you have done some good! Even if those two special ones we know about were the only persons who have been touched it would be well worthwhile. How much value did Jesus place on even one soul? We know of others besides these two, but only God can tell the total number who have been reached and helped by the messages you have placed before them."

"Well, I suppose I should not be discouraged. Probably when I can get to a cool place and rest awhile I'll feel better."

Just then up ahead near a street intersection my attention was taken by the sight of a feeble-looking, elderly man who appeared hardly to have the strength to walk. The thing that I especially noticed was that the man bore a striking resemblance to Joe Charnick, the man who had died in a sanatorium shortly after having been saved through Ralph's work.

"Oh, I wish you could see that man up ahead!" I exclaimed. "He looks like Joe Charnick. Oh, the poor man! He is very pale and appears to be so weak he can scarcely walk. Oh!"

A feeling of compassion swept over me—partly from the memory of Joe and partly from the appearance of the stranger as I saw his feeble steps.

"O God, help that poor man!" I prayed.

But then as the traffic light stopped us right even with where the stranger stood, I began to feel a new concern. For as the old man saw the "Judgment" signs on the camper a definite change came over him. I saw on his countenance what appeared to be an expression of anger. As his face flushed and his hands clenched he suddenly seemed to acquire extra strength and began walking toward us, looking as though he was about to launch a verbal attack on Ralph.

What had caused this dramatic change? I wondered. Was the man harboring feelings of resentment against God because of what he considered unjust circumstances in his life? Had those "Judgment" signs aroused his anger, and was he about to cause a scene which would be extra hard on Ralph in the present situation? These thoughts flashed through my mind in a second's time.

"Heavenly Father, take care of this circumstance! Oh, the poor man! Help him, Father, and don't let there be any trouble." As I silently spoke the words, there came again that strong surge of compassion. What I felt was an experience of the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost.

I am unable to understand what next occurred. I only tell you what I saw. The man's gaze shifted from Ralph's face to mine. And I observed a striking transformation. He stopped suddenly and for a moment stood staring at my face. An expression of astonishment showed on his countenance, and I saw him shake his head. Then he dropped his gaze to the sidewalk and slowly turned away.

The last I saw of him as the light changed and I began to move on with the traffic was his figure walking back the way he had come—with bowed head as he continued to shake his head and appeared to be wiping away tears.

What is this all about? I wondered. To me the man had appeared strikingly like Joe Charnick. Had the sight of my face in turn caused him to recall someone who had wielded an influence for good in his past life? mother? sister? sweetheart? wife? someone no longer living?

I do not know! I only know what I saw occur and what I myself felt. And as we drove on through the city traffic I could only pray, still with that feeling of compassion, that the Good Shepherd would seek and find this one who apparently was a lost, wandering "sheep"—"sick and helpless, and ready to die."

We were parked near the intersection of Main Street and Jefferson Avenue in Newport News. As Ralph's health continued to decline, less time was spent driving and more time parking in conspicuous places. Now, sitting in the cab of the camper, we—or at least I—watched the constantly moving traffic or those waiting for the light to turn green and observing the many who were taking notice of the signs on our camper.

Then I saw coming across the street from the far side a young man who seemed to be heading directly our way. As he drew nearer I said to Ralph, "Over there is a nice-looking young man who appears to be coming to us. I wish you could see him. He has and unusually good look on his face."

Just then as the young man came within speaking distance the stranger smiled and said, "Well, praise the Lord!"

"Amen," I smiled back. I noticed he carried a Bible in his hand.

"That's a mighty good Book you have there!" I reached my hand to touch the Bible lying on our dashboard. "It's the same Book we have here."

He flashed another happy smile. "Well, what about that! Looks like we belong to the same family, doesn't it?"

He told us his name and then went around to Ralph's side to tell his story.

"I've been trying to get a chance to talk to you folks for the past six months. Many times I've seen you driving around here and there—Newport News, Hampton, out on Interstate 64. But I could never find you parked where I might speak to you. I want to tell you what happened to me.

"Many years ago I became a Christian, but then later I got out of fellowship—completely out of fellowship with God. Well, one day, driving out Mercury Boulevard, there right in my face suddenly these great big signs hit me —'Sinners shall be turned into Hell and all that do not obey God.'

"I flinched as I read the words and turned my head away." The young man made gestures with his shoulders, head, and face to demonstrate his reactions.

"I was furious! I knew the words were true—and to tell the truth, that really is the reason it made me so angry. I thought—but, well, I'd better not put into words exactly what I thought. But I was mad that anyone had nerve enough to get out in public like that and force people to see what they didn't even want to think about. I wished I could take an axe and smash the whole thing!

"I watched my chance to pass and soon had left it all behind. But to my surprise—suddenly there it was again—right in my face! It happened over and over—I'd be peacefully driving along, and then without warning here these words were, hitting me like a slap in the face—'Sinners shall be turned into Hell, and all that do not obey God.'

"I couldn't get away from it—couldn't forget it. It began to get me. I was so nervous I had trouble sleeping. You know as well as I what this was. It was the Holy Spirit taking those words and using them to force me to face up to my condition—my need to get right with God.

"So finally one night, unable to sleep, I got out of bed, fell on my knees, and with all my heart gave myself, everything, over to God. Believe me, Brother, that was a happy time! I just wanted you to know how much good you did me!"

Well, right there in the midst of all the city's commotion we had a little time of thanksgiving and prayer. The young man had expressed a feeling that God wanted him to give at least part of his time to special work for Him, and we encouraged him to seek with all his heart to know and do His will.

We spoke to the young man about our strong belief in the complete inspiration of the Bible, of all the teaching it gives, of the place of the two Testaments in the revealed will of God, remembering the importance of the directions Christ gave in the Great Commission—"Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you."

Before the young man left he accepted a folder which gave information about Bible correspondence courses that would open his understanding to the will of God as revealed in His Word. While it was not possible for us personally to follow up with further teaching, we did remind him that if he truly searched with all his heart it was possible for him through the power of the Holy Spirit to understand and do the will of God.

As the young man left us we once again remembered the promise of the Scripture that "he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ." And we prayed that these words would be true in the case of this young man.