Inspired by a Different Kind of Traveling Salesman

A man named Harry Denman had a profound effect on his life.

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- Posted on Nov 30, 2008

He came to our little Methodist church in Glencoe, Illinois, like an old newspaper blown to the front door. No big announcements, no hoopla. The pastor simply said one Sunday morning that Harry Denman, a layman and traveling evangelist, was coming by to speak that evening.

I had never heard of him, and at first I rebelled. Why couldn't they fit him into the regular service? Sunday evening had my favorite television shows.

Come that evening, however, I was grudgingly ensconced in a pew. A craggy-browed, graying man in a rumpled suit ambled to the podium. He certainly didn't look like much.

It was his voice that first got me: deep and sonorous, yet with a friendly homeyness. He was easy to listen to. But he reached me even more when he spoke of Jesus. I had always thought of Jesus as being "up there" with God, far removed from the world's nitty-gritty.

But as Harry Denman talked in simple, matter-of-fact terms, I began to feel Christ's presence. This man obviously knew him—knew him as those sweaty fishermen on the Galilean wharves had.

I sat mesmerized as he told how Jesus can help us through our darkest nights, how he can guide us. "Prayer is not just talking and asking; it is listening to God," he said.

Then he spoke about our part in the relationship: love. "I'm not very sympathetic to the idea of just telling people, 'God loves you.' So many people are doing that, and it's not enough," he said. "Love has to be seen."

He admitted he himself had once wanted to put up billboards saying God Loves You. But he felt the Lord telling him, "You don't have to put up billboards. You are a billboard."

I found myself enrapt. Religion, I was beginning to understand, was more than listening to Sunday sermons, and life wasn't just looking forward to job promotions and vacations with the ultimate goal of a company pension.

Life and religion, it seemed, could be an ongoing adventure, with exciting possibilities, and a destination so wonderful I wanted to do everything I could to be ready for it.

Harry Denman left the next morning as quietly as he had come, traveling to his next engagement by Greyhound bus (often his mode of travel), carrying only a briefcase with a fresh shirt, pajamas and a change of underwear—which was just about all he owned.

Intrigued by this unprepossessing person who walked so humbly with God, I endeavored to learn more about him, and read his biography, Harry Denman, written by Harold Rogers.

Born of poor parents in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1893, Harry Denman left school at the age of 10 and worked as an errand boy. His Sunday-school teacher encouraged him to get an education; he eventually worked his way through college and by age 31 had earned his master of arts degree.

He went on to hold leadership positions in the Methodist church, including secretary of its General Board of Evangelism, which he almost singlehandedly forged from one man and a helper in a tiny office to an organization of some 250 people.

But Harry's first love was speaking. He traveled continually and was booked two years in advance. He made more than 400 talks in 19 countries in just one year alone.

During some 50 years of going all over the world, he talked with bartenders, porters, airline pilots, housewives, boys and girls. Cab drivers told this genial old-shoe of a man their troubles and drove away with a good tip, in more ways than one.

When he discovered that one cab driver's wife had left him because of his alcoholism, Harry asked, "Does your wife know you're now sober?"

"She wouldn't believe me," said the driver. Harry took down the woman's address and wrote a letter assuring her that her husband had stopped drinking.

At a restaurant he noted the waitress's wedding band and inquired about her family. Learning she had a brand-new daughter, he asked if the baby had been baptized yet.

"We want to," she said, "but because of my work schedule we haven't been able to make those arrangements." Before leaving the restaurant, he talked with the owner and arranged for the waitress to have the next Sunday off for the baptism.

"It's our actions that speak, not what we say," Harry often said. "Maybe you have a friend or business associate who's in trouble. Help in any way you can, but always watch for the right moment to tell him where you turn for strength and courage."

It was because of this that Billy Graham called Harry the greatest practitioner of personal evangelism in America. "He was one of the great mentors for evangelism in my own life and ministry," Billy Graham wrote, "always ready to share his advice and wisdom with me whenever I would ask him."

Too immersed in his work to marry, he felt all families were his family, and his files bulged with letters and photos of graduations and weddings, and children's drawings.

Since he traveled by air in his church-supported years, he also gained the admiration of hundreds of airline stewardesses. He prayed with them, sent them books, and often wrote parents to compliment their daughters.

Stewardesses, senators, shoeshine men, Africans, Koreans, Jews—Harry Denman knew no distinction among people, regardless of their economic or educational status, or race.

"I never think of anyone as a person of another race," he said. "To me we are just children of God." He began a drive to register black voters and often spoke in defense of Jews.

To Harry no one was beyond God's love and concern. When speaking to a church women's group he was told of a prostitute living nearby. "What have you done about it?" he asked.

"We are praying for her."

"But have you gone to call on her?" he asked. "Have you told her that God loves her and that you love her? Too often we try to substitute prayer for action. We want the Lord to do what we are not willing to do ourselves."

His Bible was his constant companion. He read it on planes, in hotel lobbies, everywhere. Every day he would copy a portion of it by longhand in a stenographer's notebook.

He eventually copied the whole New Testament and Psalms, feeling that in this way he could better absorb them to guide his every thought and action.

A reporter described him as an evangelistic gyroscope who spun around the world. Harry never carried a watch. "There are clocks everywhere," he said, but he also found asking the time usually started a conversation that turned to deeper things.

Never once, he said, had he sensed resentment from any one of the many thousands of people he talked to about Jesus.

A close friend of religious leaders from Oral Roberts to Bishop Fulton Sheen, Harry observed, "We have different churches, but we ought to have an ecumenical movement which will help us work together."

At age 83 he held his last preaching mission, speaking 12 times in one week in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Exhausted, he entered a hospital in Birmingham shortly thereafter. From then on, though no longer preaching, he could still pray and write letters.

At the bottom of his letters he drew a cross, saying, "This is the church." The horizontal beam was labeled "Sacrificial love for all persons." The vertical beam carded the words "Obedient faith in God." And he always concluded his letters (and his prayers) with "Sincerely your friend, Harry Denman."

On November 8, 1976, Harry Denman died. He left nothing material except a rumpled suit, an extra shirt and a change of underwear. What he really left was a legacy of love for his fellowman, a memory of his humility and complete artlessness, and millions of changed lives.

I am grateful to be one of them.

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Richard H. Schneider is a former member of the Guideposts staff.

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