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Adherence to orthodox Christianity lies at the core of Word of Life Bible Institute.
By LISA BUIE, Times Staff Writer
Published December 3, 2007
[David Degner | Times]
HUDSON - From far away, the scene is that of a typical state college campus: students chugging bottled water and checking cell phones outside the lecture hall as they wait for class to begin.
A closer look shows the men in neckties, the women in skirts. The only textbook they carry is the Bible. A bell rings and they file into the classroom for a lecture on the Gospel of Matthew.
Welcome to Word of Life Bible Institute, a one-year school tucked away in one of Pasco's remaining remote areas, away from any nightclubs, movie theaters or typical college hangouts. Its closest neighbors are a county wastewater treatment plant and the Humane Society.
Yet despite its seeming remoteness, Word of Life is part of a ministry that has a presence in 59 countries. In the Tampa Bay area, it is best known for its Broadway-style productions at Christmas and Easter and its summer youth camps. However, Bible institutes on campuses in Hudson and New York as well as various other countries offer students an overview of the Bible and lessons in orthodox Christian doctrine as well as opportunities to participate in missions.
Some of the students 119 in Florida and 496 in New York have family backgrounds in ministry. Others discover Word of Life by attending its weeklong summer camps, which in addition to religious indoctrination, offer ropes courses, swimming, and paint ball.
Alicia Wulf, 18, is a pastor's daughter whose parents met at Word of Life's New York campus. She chose to come to Florida after seeing it on the organization's Web site.
"I had a lot of questions this summer," she said.
Wulf's parents handed down a belief system but "do I really believe it?"
"A lot of stuff is controversial," she said. For example, is going to church enough to get a person into heaven? Or is God so generous that he'll let anybody in?
Wulf said attending Word of Life gave her the answers she needed to find her own path. It ended up being the same one as her parents.
As for admission to heaven, she said, "Jesus is the only way."
Inside the lecture hall, professor Charles Baylis talks about evil.
"How evil are you? Real evil," he said, as the students tap notes onto laptops or scribble into notebooks.
Baylis is one of about 25 adjunct professors who lecture at the Bible institute. He is an alumni and a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, which embraces a conservative philosophy that mirrors Word of Life's. Like Word of Life, it teaches that the world will end in a rapture of Christians, followed by a time of tribulation before Christ returns to rule the Earth for 1,000 years before finally defeating Satan.
The seminary also is the alma mater of Hal Lindsey, author of the apocalyptic book The Late, Great Planet Earth. Word of Life also says that it is "firmly committed" to a literal interpretation of the Bible and that it believes creation took place in six 24-hour days. It bans gays from being employed and calls all forms of sex outside of traditional marriage "a perversion of God's gift of sex."
Baylis tells the students they are deceived by a faulty mind.
"It tells you you're okay," he said. To be righteous, a person would have to be like God. And God "is 100 percent (perfect) all the time."
Good deeds are fine, he said, but "people who do nice things but don't do them for Jesus Christ are going to hell, along with their nice things.
"You want to be on the side of the king."
Baylis concludes class with a prayer. Afterward, a student announces the afternoon schedule. He also reminds them to pay overdue library fines and return missing reference books.
"Those aren't supposed to be taken out of the library," he said.
Everyone who attends Word of Life's school or camps will at some point meet Tom Phillips. He's the director of the Florida campus. He gives campers what those in evangelical circles refer to as "the cross talk." He breaks the bad news: they are sinners and therefore doomed. But that doesn't have to be the case, he says, if they believe that Jesus is the son of God who died to atone for their wrongs. He then invites them to do that.
He's a no-frills kind of guy. In a country where scandals result from slick evangelists spending thousands on personal perks, Phillips is balding and drives a purple P.T. Cruiser. The most recent tax documents on file with the IRS show his salary was $42,883, with $17, 656 of that as a housing allowance.
"Its' a shame when that happens," he said of the recent investigation into the spending practices of some mega-ministries, including Tampa's Without Walls International Church. "It has an effect on all ministries."
He also introduces Harry Bollback, one of Word of Life's founders in 1940.
Bollback, an aspiring teenage concert pianist from Brooklyn, gave up his career to do mission work in Brazil.
He has written the musicals for Word of Life, including The Sights and Sounds of Christmas, which opened Friday night. Word of Life's 1,300-seat auditorium, opened in 1998 and is named for Bollback.
Now 82, Bollback is officially retired but comes to the Christmas show each year, said John Nelson, vice president for the ministry's operations.
"He's still involved in the ministry," Nelson said.
Word of Life was founded in 1940 after a trombone player and insurance salesman named Jack Wyrtzen met a Christian friend in an Army camp. He later preached in jails, on the streets and the radio. He died in 1996 at age 82.
The Florida campus, a satellite of New York, opened in 1990 on land donated by local rancher Jack Lyon, who had once tried to start his own ministry. Its first anniversary speaker was legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, a friend of Wyrtzen's who paid his own expenses and accepted no honorarium.
The facility originally opened as a conference center. The vision was to give New Yorkers, who spent a week in the summers at the flagship resort, a place to take a winter vacation. However, staffers soon discovered that the snowbirds wanted to spend the whole winter here. So about seven or eight years ago, they opened an RV park and used the conference center for the Bible school, although a few hotel rooms remain available.
The one-year Bible institute program, however, is the organization's "bread and butter," Nelson said. Employees estimate that the Florida camps draw about 3,000 kids a year.
Some of those campers go on to attend the Bible institute, which does not grant degrees, though credits do transfer to some Bible colleges and state colleges, depending on the student's course of study, Nelson said. In addition to attending class, Bible institute students must perform on-campus jobs that include running the kitchen or doing maintenance. They also put on the shows and work as camp counselors.
One of those campers who ended up at the Bible institute was Brittany Gonzalez. She came to camp with her youth group from Yellow River Baptist Church in Atlanta.
She was impressed with the college students' enthusiasm.
"I thought they were on fire for God," said Gonzalez, who has spent nearly two years volunteering on the MV Doulos, the world's oldest passenger ship with a floating book shop and a mission to spread Christianity. "They weren't just sitting in pews."
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.
To learn more
For information about Word of Life Fellowship, its shows or its Bible institutes, visit www.wol.org.
[Last modified December 2, 2007, 20:55:20]