My first recollection of Bill Bright is when I was about 6; he would have been 11. He was waiting at the gate to the Bright home to greet people coming in for a church party.
I lived in Coweta, Okla. (population 1,500) and went to school in town; Bill went to a country school. But we attended the same church, and that was why my family went out to the Bright’s for this particular party. And there was Bill, standing at the gate in overalls, no shirt. Barefoot.
Growing up, Bill was always active with organizations like Future Farmers of America (FFA) and 4-H. I think it was when he was a senior in high school that he won a national oratory contest, and the school celebrated with an assembly. The students were seated in the usual order: seniors in front, then juniors and so on.
I was in seventh grade, and my last name was Zachary, so that put me in the very last seat in the very last row. I remember hearing Bill’s speech and thinking, “He’s going to be a great man. He could be president.” I had no romantic interest in Bill at that moment, but I knew I wanted to marry someone like him.
“Seeing Jesus Sooner Than I Expected”
We were married on Dec. 30, 1948. In 1951, while Bill was studying at Fuller Theological Seminary, he felt God call him to take the Gospel to students on the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles. We began this mission together, founding Campus Crusade for Christ International (CCCI).
For more than 50 years, we followed Christ’s call to evangelism and discipleship, and God grew CCCI beyond the campus work to include more than 60 ministries and projects in 190 countries. But there were hard times, too, and in 2000 we were hit with our greatest challenge yet: we discovered that Bill had pulmonary fibrosis.
When Bill died on July 19, 2003, we had been married 54 years, six months and 20 days. I miss him greatly, but I never get to the point of despair. It’s been a marvel to me. It’s just God’s grace. All the same, there are some days I’d just as soon mark off my calendar and not have to face.
Bill was so positive about going to heaven. “I guess I’ll see Jesus sooner than I expected,” he said when the doctors gave us the preliminary diagnosis. Our last trip together came soon after, when we attended the Amsterdam 2000 Conference for preaching evangelists.
The doctors had told me that Bill might have only six months to live. I realized that we were going to see a lot of Bill’s colleagues at the Conference–people whose lives were healthy and normal.
I prayed, “Lord, please give me something that I can really cling to, something that will sustain me.” I had read John 14:28 many, many times, but at that point I saw it with new perspective: “If you really love me,” Jesus says to His disciples, “you will be joyful that I’m going to be with my Father” (Cf. John 14:28).
I took that as my signal. I would rejoice with Bill that he was going to see Jesus sooner than he expected, as he would say. He lived two-and-a-half years after his diagnosis and we praised God for every day.
A Time for Learning
Bill wanted to complete 89 projects before he left. He wanted to record all of his basic teaching on video. It was recorded in front of a blue screen to allow a background setting to be dropped in later. He spent a lot of time and strength putting that together.
We had Hospice helping us, which was wonderful, except that every time Bill had a physical complaint, they suggested a sedative. They were trying to make him more comfortable, and they thought that he should not be doing so much.
Finally, I said, “He wants to do this as long as he feels like working. He has the energy to do this.” So Bill didn’t take anything until just days before he passed away. He just didn’t need it: God was in control, and it was a beautiful, beautiful experience.
Bill saw those days as an adventure, a time for learning. There was a lot of laughter but also times of serious conversation. At times we cried together just because we hated to part. We were able to do much of our grieving before he left and that helped.
Along the way, God gave me encouraging verses of Scripture. One of the first was Isaiah 42:16. I realize that God is speaking to Israel–and yet I believe He gives us these examples so we can glean from them what He will do for us as individuals.
This ministered to me: “I will lead blind Israel down a new path, guiding them along an unfamiliar way. I will brighten the darkness before them and smooth out the road ahead of them. Yes, I will indeed do these things; I will not forsake them” (NLT). Another verse that sustained me was Psalm 34:5:”Those who look to Him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces” (NLT).
In those last days I had with Bill, God also put a song in my heart. I would leave to go on an errand, and although I wasn’t singing when I left, as I slipped behind the wheel, I would be singing songs such as “His Eye is on the Sparrow” or “Count Your Many Blessings.”
It was as though God was saying, “You’re not going through this alone, Vonette.” I depended on that so much. God was with me through it all. And He gave me people who could walk alongside me.
I have our two sons and their families, and the Campus Crusade for Christ staff is like family, too. There is a special group of women–I call them The Committee–who with their husbands had attended the Lay Institutes of Evangelism. When Bill and I moved here in the summer of 1991, these women had us unpacked and settled in two days.
One of them had just lost her husband, and she invited us to stay with her until we had a place of our own. I marveled at how she had demonstrated her confidence in the Lord through the way she handled the death of her husband. She lived that confidence, and her example showed me that I could live it, too.
If God withdrew His hand for a minute, I would collapse. I’ve been very busy since Bill’s departure, but in the last few months I’ve had health issues–a torn meniscus and broken ankle–and have had more time alone, more lonely times. Still, every time I go out in public, someone tells me how they found Christ or were changed through Bill’s ministry or CCCI.
I think that Bill is alive, happy and at work in heaven. I believe that God gives us work to do after this life. If all Bill does is stand at the gate of heaven and welcome people who God saved through his ministry, that would keep him busy for a couple of centuries.