How co-founder of Campus Crusade found Jesus

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By Mark Ellis —

Vonette in college
Vonette in college

Vonette Zachary grew up thinking she was a Christian, she maintained high moral standards for herself in college, but there was one thing she lacked – a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

The eldest of four children, she grew up in a happy, quintessentially American home in Coweta, Oklahoma.

Her church background motivated her to strive for goodness and moral purity. But in college, her confidence in Christianity faltered and she began to question her faith.

“My prayers seemed shallow and ineffective. In high school, my major interest centered on church-related activities, but in those early days of college, Bible reading was meaningless. Doubts came, and I was not faithful in church attendance,” she wrote later.

One day after her freshman year in college, she received a letter from a former classmate from her hometown in Oklahoma, Bill Bright. “I remembered him from our school days and was impressed by a speech I had heard him deliver when I was in the seventh grade.”

Bill was establishing himself in business in California, and his stationery read “Bright’s California Confections.” Vonette read the letter several times before she shared it with her father.

When her father read it, he said, “Well, our hometown boy has gone away and made good. Now he’s going to come home for his bride.”

Surprisingly, she decided not to respond to his letter! “I decided I would not allow William R. Bright to think I was thrilled to hear from him, so I ignored the letter.”

A forgotten letter

Months went by and she resumed her college classes. But as she cleaned out a desk drawer one day she rediscovered the letter.

After she told her roommate about the curious young man from her hometown, the roommate insisted she should write to him.

She hadn’t seen Bill in three years, but she spent that evening writing a 10-page response to his original missive.

“That was the beginning of a beautiful romance in which the correspondence flourished as we began to write daily. I received flowers, candy, a telegram or telephone call every week. My long-distance courtship became the talk of campus. I was truly swept off my feet,” she recounted.

When Bill came to visit, they had a delightful time together and Bill quickly brought matters to a head. “After talking about what had happened in the years since we had seen each other, Bill proposed marriage, and I accepted.”

But soon it became apparent to both that Vonette did not share Bill’s passionate faith in Jesus. “As we continued our relationship over the next three years, many spiritual questions plagued me. Bill had a deep religious faith. He sent me passages of Scripture to read, but they just did not have the same meaning to me as they did to him. He would also ask me to pray about concerns. I began to realize I was engaged to a man to whom Christ meant a great deal, and yet He was not real to me.”

“I decided Bill had become a religious fanatic and that somehow he must be rescued from this fanaticism. At the same time, Bill was beginning to think that perhaps I was not a Christian. He knew he could not marry me until there was a change in my spiritual life,” she noted.

Nagging doubts

When Vonette graduated from college she was already engaged to Bill, but doubts about the relationship continued to plague her thoughts.

Then Bill invited Vonette to travel to California for a Christian conference. “My parents were opposed to me going, even though our engagement had been announced and the marriage was planned for September,” she recalled.

As she walked across the stage to receive her degree, she decided she would accept Bill’s invite to California. “My motive was to save Bill from the influence of those I considered fanatics. Unknown to me, Bill’s motive was for me to find Christ.”

After her arrival in L.A., they went to the college conference at Forest Home, a Christian conference center in the Southern California foothills.

Vonette was surprised to meet many on-fire Christians. “I met young people who possessed a quality of life I had never seen. They vibrantly shared their faith. Their statements annoyed me because I felt that Christianity was something personal that you didn’t freely discuss. I tried to put their comments out of my mind, yet I admired them and liked their quality of life.

Afterward, as they discussed the difference in these young people, Vonette came to the sad conclusion that Bill’s faith was right for him, but it wouldn’t work for her.

“I knew I did not want to stand in the way of his relationship with God, so I concluded that perhaps the best thing to do was simply bow out of his life. At the end of the week, I would return his ring and we would go our separate ways,” she decided.

Henrietta Mears
Henrietta Mears

But he was not ready to give up easily. Bill had a secret weapon in his arsenal – he arranged for Vonette to meet with Dr. Henrietta Mears, the highly impactful and inspirational leader of the 6,000-member Sunday school at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood.

“Miss Mears was expecting me, and what I did not know was that the entire staff was praying for me. Miss Mears explained that she had taught chemistry in Minneapolis and that she could understand how I was thinking. I had minored in chemistry in college, so everything had to be practical and logical to me,” she wrote.

Mears told Vonette that God loved her, and if she was the only person in the entire world, He would have done everything He could to make Himself known to her.

“God has a plan and purpose for you that is far beyond anything you can possibly imagine,” she said. “But before you can know that plan and purpose, it is necessary for you to know God.”

Mears said the reason man does not know God is that he is sinful and separated from God. Speak for yourself, Vonnete thought to herself. That doesn’t apply to me. I’ve worked at this business of being a good girl.

Then Mears showed her Romans 3:23: “All have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” Mears explained that sin is falling short of God’s perfect standard and breaking His rules for living.

“I had to admit that I fell short of this standard—and even my own standard—many times. Vonette had been striving ‘desperately’ to be a good person.

Next Mears read Romans 6:23: “The wages [result] of sin [falling short of God’s standard] is death [spiritual separation from God], but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Then Miss Mears read John 14:6, where Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”

Vonette realized that her attempts to live a good life, keep a high moral standard, and attend church fell short. In spite of these things, there was still something missing in her life.

“I admitted that perhaps Jesus Christ was the ‘ingredient’ I was missing. I turned to Miss Mears and asked, “If Jesus Christ is the way, then how can I know Him?”

Mears responded, “In Revelation 3:20 Christ says, ‘Look! Here I stand at the door [entrance to your heart and life] and knock. If you hear me calling and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal as friends.’ Receiving Christ is a matter of turning your life completely over to Him—your will, emotions, intellect. It is as if we walk out of our lives and Jesus Christ walks in. He takes control.”

Vonette suddenly realized that if what she said was true, she had nothing to lose and everything to gain by following Jesus. “I bowed my head to pray and asked Jesus to come in to my heart and take control. At that moment, God became a reality in my life.”

Immediately after she received Christ, God gave her a remarkable dream.

“The picture that came to my mind was one I shall never forget. I was standing in utter darkness on the edge of a diving board. (I do not swim; as a matter of fact, I almost lost my life in a swimming course in college. I passed the course but have not jumped off a diving board since.) In the dream, I did not know whether or not I could swim, but I knew I had to jump—and I found out that I could swim and that God is real! I gave Him all my trust, and He didn’t fail me.”

Vonette began to notice striking changes after she was born again and became a new creature in Christ.

“God’s direction in my life became a reality as I found my strong will and temper easier to control. The Bible

Bill and Vonette's wedding
Bill and Vonette’s wedding

became a living Book and a guide for my life. I could not have imagined how the decision I had made would impact the rest of my life, but it has and is continuing to be the greatest influence,” she wrote later.

Bill and Vonette were married a short time later, and their great adventure began.

Soon after the nuptials, Vonette was awakened by Bill with tears streaming down his face. He told her he decided to quit seminary only a month before graduation, sell their yellow convertible and his businesses, and spend the rest of his life telling others about Jesus.

God had given him a vision to launch Campus Crusade for Christ. Still groggy, Vonette said, “Bill, I think you’re overreacting.”

Unsure of this new calling Vonette prayed, If Bill is right, and this is right, I pray that You will give me a heart to respond.

Starting Campus Crusade for Christ
Starting Campus Crusade for Christ

“I sensed an invisible altar waiting somewhere ahead. Gradually, the Lord Jesus answered my prayer and I became willing to put my sacrifices on that altar—my master’s degree, my career, my book manuscript.”

Bill and Vonette’s new ministry was bathed in prayer. “Bill and I recruited everyone we could think of to serve as prayer partners. We worked to fill every [15-minute slot] and have around-the-clock prayer. We wanted to know that someone, somewhere was uniting in prayer for this ministry. Campus Crusade was born in prayer and prayer is still our lifeline.”

Soon the Bright family grew to include Zac and Brad. The ministry grew to campuses across the country and launched internationally. In 1965, Bill wrote a little tract originally called, “Have You Heard of the Four Spiritual Laws?”

This small yellow booklet has been translated into more than 200 languages.

Campus Crusade grew to more than 100 countries and launched more ministries like Athletes in Action and The JESUS Film Project.

In 1988, Vonette introduced legislation for the National Day of Prayer, signed by President Ronald Reagan. She

With their sons, Zac and Brad
With their sons, Zac and Brad

served on the National Day of Prayer Task Force from 1982 until 1990.

“I know beyond a doubt that God moved upon my heart with the realization that through united, specific and earnest prayer, we can move the hand of God and have a part in helping change the world.”

Thanks to Vonette’s efforts, today tens of thousands of events are held nationwide for the National Day of Prayer.

In 1993, Vonette launched Women Today International and its radio program, now aired on more than 486 stations.

In 2003, after a valiant fight with lung disease, Bill was called home. Vonette carried on their commitment to helping fulfill the Great Commission until she joined her beloved Bill and her awaiting Savior December 23, 2015.

 

If you would like to know more about a personal relationship with God, go here

6 COMMENTS

  1. oh what joy to read this article. i did not know the history of the CC4C.
    what remarkable and extremely fruitful seeds that Bill and Vonette have planted through our God and Jesus and Holy Spirit. thank u one and all.

  2. I remember attending the Campus Crusade Conference in Ft Worth in my first year of grad school but did not have the private doubts Vonnie did. What I did lack was guts to make a public commitment because my faith was a private event…and had stayed that way until my pastor, Tommy Nelson, entered my life and I realized what a life of hypocrisy I had been living.
    CCC harvested what my pastor began because that great throng of believers infected me and I knew that mine was not just a localized event: it was a national – and even international, universal claim and cause that would not be smothered.
    I thank God for raising up men and women like Bill and Vonnie Bright. May their tribe increase until we all reach heaven’s shores.

  3. CCC became part of my consciousness from the time I received Jesus as my personal Savior in 1974 through a neighborhood Good News Club I took my children too. I had been born, raised, and attended Roman Catholic schools my entire life but when it came time to educate my own children, 3 of them. I just couldn’t have my children learn the church doctrine I had learned but deep down I knew they needed to learn about God, Jesus and Holy Spirit.
    A lady in our neighborhood invited them to GNC so I thought I had better go along so she wouldn’t teach them heresy and was quite sure I would recognize it if I heard it. I helped by writing the scripture verses for all the children in the club each week. The verse for me that broke the cast around me was, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.” That started it. Jesus started to make sense. She then introduced me to the person of Jesus and His DESIRE to be part of my life, whalla, the journey began and what a ride. She walked me through the four spiritual laws and Jesus proved Himself to me, not that the God of the universe needs to do that for just me but He did.
    Holy Spirit reality came on gradually and more slowly but it has been only in the last 6 years that the Father has stepped in and I just can’t get enough of Him. What a team they are. They are all so needed and appreciated in my life. I want to know them all so much more. Once I invited Jesus into my life those many years ago I was so connected with the ministry and the Brights though I never met them. What great rejoicing it will be when we meet Jesus, thanks to them and many others committed to God’s plan for their lives.

  4. Inspiring story. Vonette has served as the backbone of Campus Crusade with her faithful husband, Bill and in what the Lord has raised up in the prayer movement in this nation.

    Again, we can be grateful for the ministry of Henrietta Mears. Where would America be without her mentoring of Bill Bright and Billy Graham and her impact on the Sunday School movement?

    Finally, Cru has been instrumental in my son’s life at UCLA. How many other students have been blessed or brought closer to the Lord through this great ministry!

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