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How SonLife Started

By John Wallbank ’85

The Ohio winter of 1983-1984 didn’t have a lot of snow, but it was cold enough to make Floridians like me yearn for a warm Spring Break. I had already formed initial plans for a trip to Florida with other students. As Campus Ministry Council President, I thought I’d make a proposal for a larger trip called Operation SonLife. I slipped it into a council meeting, but I’d soon receive a lesson about time.

We talked about other agenda items, then I brought up the idea of having fellowship and beach evangelism on Spring Break instead of everyone going their separate ways and being tempted by self-indulgence. I had done enough homework and was blessed by other industrious students who gave amazing support. But there were liability and financial concerns, and one administrator suggested tabling the idea until the following year. Then, a priest offered encouragement, at least as consolation. I offered some ideas about funding. I mentioned a groundswell of student interest was forming. Then, our leader, Mary Kay Lacke, noticed the time. We were just 10 minutes before noontime Mass.

The pendulum of interest had dipped, swung against us, then begun to swing in a favorable direction. But was it enough? We voted as time expired and witnessed the Spirit’s timing. The measure was passed! Even as I rushed to Mass, I was exhilarated by the decision and awed by its timing. In the ebb and flow of the process, a few minutes earlier or later likely would have led to disapproval.

The SonLife team was diligent and extraordinarily resourceful. We also did some innovative marketing on campus. For example, we had two students collide in the noisy cafeteria. Their trays, dishes, and silverware clanged on the floor, and they shouted in mock indignation. But, with everyone else silenced, they realized aloud each was going on SonLife, hugged each other, and walked out rejoicing!

The trip turned out to be an exciting adventure, and not without divine assistance to help us escape mistakes. We didn’t know, for example, that the bus driver was restricted from driving so far as our plans dictated. What were we going to do when he had to have rest times and then find a hotel to sleep? We should’ve been notified in the contract and in the response to our itinerary, but we no doubt neglected something critical. We humbly repented and asked the Lord for mercy.

Fortunately, one of the students onboard was a certified professional bus driver. After Bill Swedberg ’87 described his experience and showed his license, our driver agreed to let Bill fill in. We pumped up a blow-up bed in the aisle, and the driver got a solid night of sleep. After witnessing a few other acts of Providence and the care and love in his midst, the driver gave his life to Christ and insisted that we ask for him again the next year.

We had fun with games on the beach and joined parishes, youth groups, and prayer meetings. There were stories of healings, conversions, and Providence. Near the end of the first trip, we fell short $340 in our budget, but an unsolicited collection from St. Louis Church in Miami just happened to give us a few dollars over that amount.

In later years, we went to other attractions and ministered at places like Covenant House—where all 6’9” of me was squeezed into a “midget skit.” On one occasion, the forecast called for it to be overcast the whole next day. We prayed for sunshine, and there was not a single cloud in the skies, but it left us with a lot of sunburns. The subsequent day we went to see a film about Padre Pio—and the host just happened to be a physician who had plenty of ointments and care to offer the ailing students.

One final memory to recount came the year we had enough in the budget to afford a sky banner sign. So, what was the message thousands of Spring Breakers in Fort Lauderdale saw that Easter Sunday?

“Parties come and go, but Jesus lives forever.”

And what of my enduring lesson about time? When Kairos is pregnant, be ready. For timeliness and timelessness give birth to Eternity.

John Wallbank MA ’85 is a social science researcher and CEO of Pure Hybrid Media LLC, a firm that develops cross-fertilized innovations and bridges the divide between Christian and mainstream entertainment.