Written in collaboration with Dr. Benson.
I used to have a grudge against my college dorm because of all the dorms on the Bob Jones University campus, it was the furthest away from the Dining Common. But eventually, good old J.Y. Smith won my heart and I was one day surprised to find I had become sentimental about it. So many fun, weird, and even special memories are held for me within those dirty brick walls. One night—I think it was less than a week before we had to leave campus because of the virus—the guys on my hall all crowded into the Smith Study Lounge. It was already dark outside, so the lamps in the room threw a yellow hue on all our faces, and we could see our reflections in the black windows. All the chairs and tables had guys sitting on them, and a few sat on the floor as well. The pleasant odors of shampoo and deodorant from guys who had just showered mixed with the dirty sweaty scent of those who had yet to do so. There was a brotherly atmosphere as we jostled and joked with one another. We had all gathered tonight to hear Alan Benson, the Vice President for Student Development and Discipleship, speak to us. He was standing in front of the double doors on one end of the study lounge. A plastic, transparent box full of cookies stood on a small table beside him, and several of us eyed it hungrily. Dr. Benson was a tall, middle aged man with the broad-shouldered build of an athlete. His iron-grey hair was neatly combed, and his beardless, youthful face was complimented by a pair of black-rimmed glasses. Instead of wearing a suit like he would in chapel or in general when he was on campus, many of us saw him for the first-time wearing jeans and a hoodie.
Our Resident Assistant stood up and said a few words by way of introduction, and then he turned it over to Dr. Benson. We all perked our ears, some of us more out of politeness than interest, to hear the devotional or challenge he would share with us. However, no such thing was forthcoming.
“Good evening, men,” Dr. Benson said. “When I first got the invitation to speak to you guys, I was trying to think of a challenge from the Word to share with you. But in the end, I decided to be a little more informal and share my salvation testimony.” He sighed briefly as he gathered his thoughts. “I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland.”
I furrowed my brow in confusion. Dr. Benson sounded quite American. I remembered faintly that he had some kind of connection to Canada, but his history with Ireland took me by surprise.
“My father was a rock quarry worker during the time the Irish Republican Army was wreaking havoc in Northern Ireland,” he continued, oblivious to my thoughts. “In the 1970s, when I was a little child, my father saw a job advertisement in the newspaper. ‘Nova Construction,’ a rock quarrying and paving company in Nova Scotia, Canada that was hiring. My father applied and was accepted, so we left Northern Ireland and moved to a small town called Antigonish in Nova Scotia, Canada. Economically, this was a good decision since the new job proved to be a good one. However, there was one thing my father had not counted on. We had moved into a town that was predominantly Catholic and my father was a staunch Protestant who disliked Catholics because of the conflict in Ireland. He was a Protestant loyalist of the Orange Lodge, which is a fraternity similar in structure to the freemasons and sworn to preserve Protestant Ascendancy. It is named after King William the Orange who defeated the Catholic king James II in the Williamite-Jacobite War in the 17th century. My father would go to bars in town and drink and was always ready to defend his point of view.
“About 8 years after we moved to Antigonish, my sister Helen, who had married and moved out, was led to the Lord by a pastor of a very small church in town. She asked him to go visit us, so he did. The pastor’s name was John Banks. He was a short BJU graduate with thinning hair and a pair of glasses. John Banks was a very forthright man with a gentle spirit, and he and I spent much time together. Often, I would accompany him on ministry activities such as visiting nursing homes or other institutions, and it was then that I first developed an interest in ministry.
“His interaction with my father was often quite interesting. As a construction worker, my father was a muscular man with a rough background. He was short in stature, but he was a fighter, and a very hard worker who worked long, labor filled days. He lived for the weekends when he could work in his garden and party, and he was both a smoker and drinker. Despite all his strongly held views, he was an enjoyable person to be around. As an Irishman he was always ready for a chat and a laugh, and thus got along well with John Banks.
“One evening in October 1981, John Banks was at our house visiting. During a conversation with my parents he asked if we had a Bible. I was very surprised when my father answered in the affirmative and went to go look for it. I knew very little about the Bible. We never really went to church. While my father was out of the room looking for the Bible, the Pastor spoke to me. I was curious about the conversation regarding the Bible and waited for what the pastor would say. What he did say hit me right between the eyes. As he read from the book of Romans, he explained that Christ died for me. Even though I was only 11 at the time, I knew a lot about death. I could remember the violence and the destruction caused by the IRA. Once while visiting Northern Ireland some soldiers had confiscated a toy gun I had been playing with. I knew of friends and family who had died a martyr’s death and suffered for a cause, and it was a very real thing to me. When John Banks said that Jesus died for me, I essentially heard, ‘Jesus died and it was your fault.’ Because this struck me in such a real way, I confessed my sins and became a follower of Jesus Christ that very night.
“Eventually my whole family accepted Christ. My father was the last. Though he had not yet surrendered to Christ, he and my mother started taking my siblings and I to the tiny church that John Banks had founded in his basement. One day an evangelist by the name of Lin Croxton came to our little town for some evangelistic meetings. On one of those nights, my father’s heart of stone finally melted, and he went forward to receive Christ as his savior. It was a wonderful day just a few months later when, after the ice had finally melted off the rivers, all seven members of the Benson family were baptized in a river near Antigonish.
“Two years after I had accepted Christ, I found out about a small Christian boarding school 5 hours away from my town. I decided to leave public school and my home to attend there and I stayed there during 8th and 9th grade.”
A smile began slowly creeping across his face as he continued.
“Now some of you think BJU is strict now, and it used to be much stricter, but this boarding school was even stricter. We got demerits for things like talking or sleeping during study hall or showing up to breakfast late. Bedtime was no later than 10 pm, and we had to be out of bed by no later than 7 am. But even though it was so strict, I look back on those two years with fondness. There were twelve of us in the boys’ dorm, and I never lacked any playmates.
“However, when 10th grade came around, I decided to move back home and go back to public school. This particular public school had a rather long name: Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School. I had developed a love for basketball, and I enthusiastically joined the high school team, which was called the ‘Royals.’ In 11th grade, the team went out of province to play in a basketball tournament in Quebec. Fortunately, we won the tournament, and I was selected MVP. It was customary, though not allowed, for the team to sneak out and drink and party after a victory. Usually I declined their urgings, but this time they were unusually persistent. It was against the team’s tradition to go party after a victory without the MVP. I am ashamed to say I gave in to their peer pressure, and I got very drunk that night.
“The 18-hour bus ride back home was pure torture. I mentally wrestled with myself. My spirit was in a struggle. I knew I had sinned. I had broken the rules, and I had gotten drunk. I came up with dozens of ways to keep my getting drunk a secret from my parents. But the minute my mom picked me up in our blue Mercury Marquis, I burst and told her everything.
‘I’m so sorry, mom,’ I said, hiding my head in my hands, avoiding her gaze. ‘So ashamed.’
‘I forgive you,’ she said solemnly in her Irish accent. We were silent for a while. ‘So,’ she said after a few minutes, ‘what are you going to do about it?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘Alan,’ my mother said, ‘you are a Christian, and you sinned publicly in front of the other players. You need to go to each and every one of them and apologize for what you did.’
“You can imagine my dismay at this proposition, but I realized my mother was right. So, I did just that. I went to each of my teammates and apologized to them for getting drunk. None of them were believers, so most of them were amused and puzzled at my apology and blew me off. But my conscience was put at rest and I was right with God, and that was all that really mattered.
“That summer I was thrilled to be offered the captaincy of the Royals basketball team, in addition to a scholarship to study at Saint Francis Xavier University. But I started having doubts about whether this was what God wanted for me. In the end, I turned the offer down and went back to the little Christian boarding school for 12th grade. I left my public-school class of over seven hundred students for my Christian school class of only seven.
“As my senior year came to an end in 1988, I became interested in playing basketball and studying at Pensacola Christian College, even though I knew very little about the school other than the fact that it was a Christian institution. I knew much more about BJU through summer mission teams that led VBS and a few weeks of summer camp for teenagers in my town. But I was pretty set on PCC because I wanted to play basketball. Then one day a man by the name of Wally Falconer, my Bible teacher at the boarding school, invited some of us students over to his house. As we joked and talked, he mentioned that he had recently bought a pickup truck and had plans to restore it. Interested, I followed him into his garage. As we examined the vehicle, we started talking about my college plans, and I told him I was set on PCC. He was a man whose faith in the Lord and knowledge of the Word had greatly impacted me. He listened calmly to my explanation of ‘how I could play college ball at a Christian college.’ Then, with a firm, peace-filled, and passionate gaze into my heart he said, ‘Alan, I am going to pray you into Bob Jones.’ I laughed a little uncomfortably, but my resolution stood firm.
“The weeks passed, and 30 days before BJU started classes, I was surprised when my mom asked me to apply to Bob Jones University. After another argument with her, I finally gave in a little more and told her I would go if the university accepted me, which in my heart I very much doubted, since my application would be sent in on very short notice. So, I filled out the application to BJU and sent it off. Sure enough, I was accepted, and at the end of August I got on the BJU mission team bus to ride to Greenville, South Carolina. We arrived five days before classes started.
“I quickly learned to enjoy the atmosphere of BJU. There were more professing believers at the university than there were people in my hometown of Antigonish. I spent my days studying God’s Word, preparing for ministry, and playing basketball. I developed an attitude of, ‘just tell me what I need to do to stay here and I’ll do it.’ I was super careful to not break any rules and keep up my GPA. I found that the more I gave my heart to ministry the less I even had to think about the rules or getting in trouble.
“And now, more than thirty years later, I’m the Vice President for Student Development and Discipleship. I’m nobody special. It amazes me every day what I’m doing here and now. I was a kid from literally nowhere, education wasn’t in my family, and I was the only one of my siblings to graduate from college. But God took me and brought me here. I want to encourage you guys to be surrendered to the Lord for whatever He wants you to do in your life. In the end you might be amazed at what that looks like. Back when I got saved as an eleven-year-old in the little town of Antigonish, I never could have dreamed of what lay ahead of me.”
Dr. Benson smiled and looked at our Resident Assistant to signal that he was finished. Our RA stood up and prayed, thanking the Lord for Dr. Benson’s testimony and asking him to work in our lives as well. After that, most of the guys quickly left. A few stayed around to chat with Dr. Benson or grab a cookie from the box. I was among those who went for the cookies. There was hardly anyone left in the room when Dr. Benson looked at his watch and decided he needed to go home. Taking his leave of us, he passed through the double doors of the study lounge and then went out the front doors of the dorm into the night. I stayed standing where I was, munching on my cookie and reflecting on what I had heard. As a missionary kid, I had heard a lot of fascinating salvation testimonies, and I decided to count Dr. Benson’s as one of them.
That was more than a month ago. Now, campus is almost completely deserted, and good old J.Y. Smith stands empty. The whole world is right smack-dab in the middle of an unprecedented historical event: the first ever modern pandemic. And here I am, typing up a little story for a student-operated literary magazine. So, what’s the moral of the story? If God can use the IRA to get a Vice President for Student Development and Discipleship for Bob Jones University, I can’t wait to see what He does with COVID-19.