In 1965, when Bo Bowen began his senior year at Murrah High School, the Murrah Mustang’s Football Facts, revealed the following about John H. Bowen, III: “he could very easily be the best high school fullback in Mississippi – fine blocker – excellent speed – good balance – has it all to be one of the best ever.” He did indeed seem destined for football fame far beyond the Big Eight Conference.
As an Ole Miss sophomore in 1967, in his first college contest, he returned the opening kickoff for an 89-yard touchdown in the season opener against Memphis. That scamper down the field was just a preview of what the fans came to expect from Bo over the next three seasons.
Hap Farber, who has considered Bo Bowen his best friend since seventh grade, credits Bo with encouraging him to try out for football in tenth grade. He had never played any sport until that time, but found himself playing Defensive End and blocking for Bo through three seasons at Murrah and again at Ole Miss from 1967 through the Sugar Bowl victory against Arkansas in 1970. Hap smiles as he describes a “swish” that was pure music to the ears when Bo would come streaking past his right backside like a flash of light “heading for the promised land.”
Bo’s friends and his family agree that he has always possessed superhuman focus and dogged determination at whatever he set his mind to do. The fact that he is successful is hardly a surprise, but if anyone had looked into the future’s crystal ball forty or fifty years ago and predicted that Bo Bowen would be a Bible preaching, teaching, evangelizing missionary to Ukraine, that he would spend 26 weeks of every year there training leaders and that the Evangelism School for Leaders he devised and conducts would see their efforts reap a bounty of souls that number in the tens of thousands—well—it just did not seem a likely career path at all.
But when you add the God factor to the equation, you never know what the end result is going to be. As local architect and longtime friend, Doug Dale, who has made two trips to Ukraine, says, “Bo is pretty much like a modern day Paul.” That is really not meant to be heresy, and it is certainly no exaggeration.
Bo, like most good Southern boys, had been in church his whole life. He just did not know there was a great deal more available in a personal relationship with Christ. He was living in the athletic dorm at Ole Miss when a Campus Crusade rep, Mike McNames, knocked on his door one night. One of Bo’s former Murrah teammates had recently come to Christ, and he asked Mike to go by and see Bo. Mike was used to all sorts of receptions from college kids – some who were eager to talk to him and some who were not at all interested. Easygoing and polite, Bo listened intently to Mike’s presentation of the gospel, and when he asked Bo if he would like to pray to receive Christ, Bo said he would like to although he did not choose to pray aloud at the time.
There were no lightning bolts, but Bo did acknowledge to God that he was a sinner, that he knew Christ was the only salvation for his sins, and he invited Christ to live in his heart. Mike continued to meet with Bo and to encourage him on his new journey, but there were still a number of years before Bo’s dramatic “Saul-on-the-road-to Damascus” kind of experience took him in a 180-degree change of direction career path.
When college ended and a knee injury ruled out any future in professional ball, Bo, with wife Marty and two young daughters settled in Jackson. Bo went into the life and health insurance business, and he was really quite good at it. That same tenacity and drive that had characterized his athletic career were now channeled into his work.
It seems that God has placed strategic friendships in Bo’s life at different stages of his journey. There were times when something that did not seem to be a major turning point on the front end turned out to be quite definitive. Evangelism Explosion was one of those things.
He was in a deer stand on an island in the Mississippi River in 1977 when a friend and Evangelism Explosion (EE) leader Mark Roessler of Clarksdale, began a conversation about his relationship with Christ. This was the moment it all fell into place for Bo. Everything he had learned in the previous decade about faith in Christ was now personal and primary and the foundation for everything else.
The Bowens’ were already members of First Presbyterian Church, and Evangelism Explosion was an important part of their missions outreach. Bo joined a team. EE trains people how to share their faith in Christ and how to lead others from unbelief to belief. A huge part of the program is on-the-job training of new leaders who go out in teams with experienced leaders. Trainees become leaders and thus, the principle of spiritual multiplication.
Bo saw the effectiveness of the approach and made some close friends in the process. Area churches were just beginning to take mission trips to faraway places, but Bo balked at the idea of joining with any one of several groups who invited him.
For one thing, a mission trip meant time away from work. He did not think he could afford the resulting loss of income. If he didn’t work, he didn’t make money. The second thing was that he doubted the long-term effect a one-week mission trip could really have in the lives of those who were served. If God wanted Bo Bowen to take a mission trip, he was going to have to make it crystal clear.
And He did.
A Reluctant Missionary
Bo drove to the Delta to visit a potential life insurance client one day, feeling fairly certain this was going to be a sure and successful sale. When he arrived at the restaurant to meet his client, Bo’s presentation was interrupted by a third person that mentioned that he had been on a mission trip to Honduras. The potential client lost all interest in life insurance as the enthusiastic friend monopolized the remainder of the conversation. “He was far more interested in hearing about Honduras than in listening to me!”
When Bo got back to Jackson that evening and began to lament to Marty about the sale that wasn’t, she did not offer the sympathy he was seeking. Instead she suggested he sign up for a mission trip to Honduras and take their oldest daughter, who at that time was floundering her way through college. Marty thought the mission trip was a perfect way to help Taylor find her priorities and distract her from a few questionable choices she had made recently.
Bo’s answer was that he would do that only if Taylor wanted to. Certain that she would have no desire whatsoever to go to Honduras with her father, he dialed her number right then and asked her. To Bo’s surprise, she said, “Yes, I would really like that,” and suddenly there was no turning back.
“That trip really broke the ice for me,” says Bo. The Honduras mission team they joined was the very one he had sat through that lunch hearing about. Dr. Walter Rose of Indianola had been taking groups to Honduras for several years. Bo was not prepared for the well-organized group of Christians who were clearly making a difference in the lives of the Honduran people, and just as that zealous participant had shared in the interrupted lunch, Bo understood firsthand the greater blessings belonged to those who served. It was indeed an eye opening experience.
Evangelism Explosion continued to be a priority in Bo’s life. The ministry at First Presbyterian was flourishing, and several of the active team members were beginning to go far beyond the metro area putting together teams that traveled outside of the United States. But Bo declined several invitations. Despite the impact of the Honduran trip, he could always find good reason not to go again. What would he do about his business? That was first and foremost on his mind.
When fellow EE team members David and Corrine Bradford decided to make a trip to Ukraine in 1992 after the communist regime had fallen, they approached Bo about coming with them.
“I did not want to go,” says Bo, “but David had discipled me years before, and I felt like I owed it to him to at least pray.” The pressure at that point came from God, and Bo made his first trip to Ukraine in 1992.
That first trip lasted two weeks. Bo, with his unique drive for pursuing any goal with 100% of his heart and soul, discovered a deep connection with the Ukrainian people. They had endured so much in those years from 1922-1991 when the doors were closed to the practice of Christian faith. Their openness and their hunger for the gospel moved him, and he had a great God-given desire to return, on his own again and again.
There was a battle going on much of the time in Bo’s mind. He had a heart for reaching the Ukrainian people, and God had provided an open door and much blessing on his efforts. But he also had a family to support and a business to run. There was just no way he could devote the kind of time this evolving ministry would require. Still, there was something inside his heart that would not be quiet.
The year was 1993. Bo had made several short trips to Ukraine, using the EE materials, sharing the gospel, building relationships in the churches, and becoming more and more passionate for the souls of those who had yet to hear of Jesus.
It was the movie, Schindler’s List that mowed down every excuse Bo had ever erected as to why he could not spend more time taking the good news to Ukraine. The story of the WWII German industrialist who gave his entire fortune to buy the lives of 1200 Jewish prisoners bound for Nazi death camps, turned Bo’s heart inside out. There is a scene in the movie as Schindler pleads with the Nazi Commandant who holds the fate of the Jews in his hands. When the commandant asked, “How much is a life worth to you” the question gripped Bo and continued to ring in his mind even after the movie ended.
“I realized I was worried about the money I would miss out on, but I kept asking that question of myself—is it worth another $3,000 to have 500 more people come to know Christ? So, I went from two weeks in Ukraine in 1992 to 22 by 1998.” He chose his treasure—and it wasn’t about his income.
Today, with Marty’s blessing, Bo spends 26 weeks of each year in Ukraine. He laughs when he tells me, “I want her blessing on whatever I do, and I don’t want to be there even one day longer than she blesses.”
Marty has never been to Ukraine, but she is completely supportive of the ministry and incredibly proud of her husband. She lightheartedly says she is certain God has, at least to this point, not called her to the Ukraine. She considers herself very much a “behind the scenes” kind of person. Her great contribution is to keep Bo’s work and family humming in his absence. With four daughters and seven grandchildren out of state, she manages to visit them all and to be involved in her grandchildren’s lives. Her mother and mother-in-law live close by, and both enjoy a generous amount of Marty’s company.
Now that he was spending so much time in Ukraine, conducting numerous leadership training schools and sending out teams who spoke to almost 1,000 people a week, the need for materials—lots of materials—was endless. The fact that whatever materials Bo used had to be written in the Ukrainian language certainly made the challenge even bigger.
His ministry is structured, too, so that there are follow-up teams who are constantly keeping up with the new Christians as well as encouraging the church leadership.
Bo was constantly furthering his own skills by taking courses at Reformed Theological Seminary. He had also built a relationship with leaders at the Presbyterian Seminary in Ukraine and the CEO of Mission to the World. The consensus seemed to be that he should develop his own literature to use with the leadership schools he was conducting.
When he was assigned a major project as his semester grade in one of his classes, he asked his professor, Dr. Paul Long, if he might create his own manual that could be used by his Evangelism School for Leaders in Ukraine. With Bo’s personal revisions and fresh ideas, and with the Evangelism Explosion literature as a basic guide, Bo was able to produce his own materials for the Ukraine’s Evangelism School for Leaders.
A Fellowship of Faithful Support
Over the years, Bo has enticed many a Mississippi friend to join him in Ukraine for weeks at a time. Even with more than twenty years under his belt, Bo speaks about his trips, the Ukrainian people, and the multitudes of new converts with such enthusiasm it is as if this were all brand new to him.
You won’t ever run into Bo that his shirt pocket is not packed full of photographs of his latest Evangelism School graduates, and he always has time to tell you exactly how many people they talked to in a week, how many were willing to hear the entire gospel presentation, and how many prayed to receive Christ. We always hear that it’s not about numbers, and Bo knows that. But without tracking the numbers, how does he know that he and his teams are effective?
Thousands pray to receive Christ during those 26 weeks, and thousands more, through the continuing work of those trained in Bo’s leadership schools, receive Christ during the other 26 weeks of the year!
Homer Lee Howie, who was among the EE pioneers at First Presbyterian Church back in the late 1970s, has accompanied Bo 16 times. Like Bo, Homer Lee has a great heart and a natural gift for sharing the gospel. It was only two years ago that he, at the tender age of 87, decided he would not be going back, but that he would continue to be involved by encouraging others and supporting the ministry with his monetary gifts.
The trip is physically grueling—even by the standards of Bo’s young sons-in-law, Darby Ricketts and Chip Crush, who have both made trips with him. A typical day begins about 6 a.m. Accommodations are typically austere as church members in the different villages house the team. Sometimes the bed may be a cot in a corner of the dining room; sometimes there are five or six flights of stairs to climb; there is seldom much hot water; and bathrooms may or may not be indoors.
The Ukrainian pastors and church member trainees meet with Bo and whoever is with him at the local church after breakfast. The five-day, all-day-long schools, though intense, involve a daily process of prayer, worship, song, praise, testimony, teaching, lecture, demonstration, recitation, on-the job training (OJT), and report-back sessions. In the OJT, the teams, along with an interpreter, go into hospitals, apartment buildings, and the streets—everywhere—stopping people and engaging in conversation asking for enough time to give their gospel presentation. Little by little, the trainees participate in parts of the presentation until they eventually are proficient in doing the entire presentation by their selves.
The teams continue to work into the evening, finally meeting back at the church to report on their number of contacts, presentations, and decisions. A regular day ends at midnight, and begins all over again at 6 a.m.!
Hap Farber has made two trips to Ukraine, and, despite the pace and the rigorous physical demands, he is preparing to go a third time. To Hap, as to Bo, there is tremendous joy and a supernatural energy that comes with playing even a small part in so great an outreach.
Hap describes an almost palpable love the Ukrainians have for Bo, who brings the good news of Christ to them. The Living Hope, the Light of the World, the Good News—we so often take for granted, but when you’ve lived without hearing such words for generations as these gentle people did during communist rule, is there any wonder the Ukrainian people welcome Bo and his friends with wide open hearts, wide open arms, and wide grins that reflect a deep affection.
As they say in the Ukraine, “Slava Bogu!” (Praise God!)