An Answer to Prayer

By David M. Howard   •   March 29, 2007

He arrived at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., during my junior year, 1947-48. A German who had spent time as a prisoner of war, he was now working as a janitor, sweeping the halls and cleaning the restrooms of Blanchard Hall.

Many of my fellow students had served in World War II; some had even been prisoners of war themselves. We heard that this man had served in the German military forces, but we knew nothing else about him. Had he been a Nazi himself? Or was he one of those young men who were obligated to serve their country regardless of political opinions? We did not know. And since he spoke almost no English, we could not communicate well with him.

The janitor had a pleasant smile, and we enjoyed greeting him in the hallways as he carried out his duties. As far as we knew he was not a Christian, so Jim Elliot (who would later be martyred along with four other missionaries in Ecuador) got the vision to start praying for him. Jim rounded up several more of us and challenged us to pray that this young man would give his heart to Christ. We would get together from time to time and pray especially for this German, who remained a mystery to us.

After a time, he left Wheaton and we lost track of him. We only hoped that somehow the Lord would be working in his heart to bring him to salvation. After a while he faded from our thoughts and memories.

In 1978, I was invited by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization to help organize and direct a consultation on world evangelization, which eventually was held in Pattaya, Thailand, in 1980. In January 1978, I met for the first time with the full membership of the Lausanne Committee, composed of Christian leaders from all around the world under the leadership of Leighton Ford as chairman and Billy Graham as honorary chairman. Our meeting was held in Hamilton, Bermuda.

One afternoon we had some free time, so a number of us strolled around the streets of downtown Hamilton. I was standing at the waterfront with another committee member as we looked at some of the ships tied up in port. One was a large British submarine. My companion, who was from Germany, looked at the submarine and commented, “I served in Hitler’s submarine corps.” I was fascinated, so I asked for more details.

He said, “Toward the end of the war, as the Allies were sweeping across Europe and crossing the Rhine River into Germany, Hitler pulled most of us off the submarines and naval vessels, which were no longer of much use to Germany, and put us in the front lines as infantry.

“I was on the front lines in Holland, where I was wounded. This was the best thing that ever happened to me, as I was abandoned by our troops in retreat and was captured by the British. They sent me to a hospital in England. The rest of my contingent retreated eastward and was captured by the Russians. Most of them were never heard from again.”

I asked him what happened next. He went on to explain that he had gone from England to the United States for a period of time. He said his name was Peter Schneider, and he was the chairman of the board of directors of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Germany. He spoke perfect English, and so served as Billy Graham’s interpreter whenever Mr. Graham preached in Germany.

Suddenly my mind began to spin, dredging up memories of 30 years earlier. Peter Schneider? That was the name of the janitor in Blanchard Hall for whom we had prayed!

I asked, “Peter, were you ever at Wheaton College in Illinois?”

“Why yes,” he replied. “I worked there as a janitor, sweeping the halls and cleaning the restrooms in the main administration building.”

My heart leapt with joy. I burst out, “Peter, were you a Christian at that time?”

“No,” he said. “I became a Christian later, at a YMCA camp in Wisconsin. When I was at Wheaton I knew almost nothing of the Gospel.”

In my excitement I continued, “Peter, you would have no way of knowing this, but I must tell you what happened during your time at Wheaton. Jim Elliot got a vision to pray for your salvation. He organized several other students, including me, to pray that you would come to know the Lord. We could not witness to you, because we spoke no German and you apparently had learned almost no English yet. But we prayed faithfully for you in those days. We used to greet you in the hallways, and you always responded with a pleasant smile and a nod.”

My excitement knew no bounds. Here I was, standing at the waterfront in Bermuda with a key evangelical leader from Germany who was committed to proclaiming the Gospel to the world–and for whose salvation I had prayed! As my mind harked back to 30 years earlier and the prayer meetings we used to have asking God for the salvation of Peter Schneider, I could only bow in humble thankfulness for the way God had so abundantly answered those prayers. We never could have dreamed where this young janitor and former prisoner of war would end up.

Peter was equally moved and grateful as he realized how a few young men, whom he never really knew, had played some role in his coming to salvation and to the profound ministry that he now had as a colleague of Billy Graham.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9, NIV).

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