This week I met a saint and he was dead. No, I didn’t meet a ghost, I simply attended his memorial service and learned what true faithfulness really looks like. Elwin Palmer was ninety-three when he went home to be with the Lord and had lived a full and impactful life, but not one that he had anticipated. After serving in World War II, including participation in the Battle of the Bulge, he came back to the USA prepared to study Agricultural Engineering and to return to the poverty-stricken area of Mississippi where he grew up. He hoped to make a real difference in the lives of the next generation of farmers and their families and he was on track to make that dream a reality when he met his wife. Her commitment to world missions and his willingness to listen to the still small voice of the Lord led them to Colombia Bible College and then they joined WEC International.
WEC was founded by C.T. Studd and has always been a pioneering ministry. Some people that knew Elwin felt that he too wanted to follow in CT’s footsteps and to be a pioneering missionary himself on the foreign field. In the early days, Elwin helped the small WEC USA team get the campus in Fort Washington, PA ready for occupancy and spent many days and probably a lot of nights fixing windows and many other problems in the huge building that we call “the castle” today. The large property in suburban Philadelphia had fallen into a major state of disrepair as it had been abandoned and then looted for several years. My mother grew up in that building and often commented that the most important abilities of a missionary were flexibility and availability and Elwin exhibited those qualities every day. After serving for a few years on the home staff of WEC USA and having gone through their candidate training program, Elwin was ready to leave for a foreign land to begin his “real” missionary career.
This never happened and it devastated him. The leadership of WEC USA at that time did not feel that God was giving them a peace to release Elwin and his family to serve overseas and probably had good reasons for saying so. Whatever those reasons were, it did not sit well with Elwin and he certainly experienced his dark night of the soul wrestling with God over that decision. Despite this, Elwin submitted to God’s will and to the leadership decision and stayed on the team. He didn’t quit, despite being recruited at one point by a college that wanted him to serve on their staff. Over the years he served in a variety of positions and was known for his wisdom, humility and faithfulness. In 1968, to his great surprise he was nominated and elected to serve as the WEC USA director and he did this for the next fifteen years. Countless missionary families received training and preparation for service under his watchful care and went to the field to serve God in very difficult circumstances.
Elwin’s later years were not easy as he was faithful to his wife who suffered from illness for many years and he was her constant companion and prayer warrior. I only knew Elwin from afar through the eyes of his daughter Grace who worked in our ministry. Her quiet commitment to excellence as she proofread manuscripts was a testimony to her father and his training and example of living the deeper Christian life. Saying yes to Jesus was the hallmark of Elwin’s life even though it meant hardship and disappointment at key moments along the way. His willingness to lay down his own ambitions for a greater calling is an example that will live on as one of his greatest legacies. Many leaders, including myself, would do well to follow in his humble footsteps and to learn to love Jesus the way he did. Sometimes, God’s will is for us to stay in the place he has planted us even when it is really hard.