Barbara MacDonald is an author whose own layered story includes running a publishing company, hosting national youth conferences, discovering and launching careers of well-known ministry leaders, and managing a Christian camp. She believes, “Each thing in life builds upon another. Every single thing. Our past experiences build on that and make life really worthwhile.”
“I grew up in a single parent home in the days before there were helps for single moms,” said Barbara. Her mother, a secretary, worked hard, but there wasn’t much money. She learned, “poverty in a single parent home makes one self-reliant, makes one learn to be a hard worker, and to contribute to the family.” In the process of overcoming the pain and sorrow of being abandoned by her father, she discovered that God is a Father to the fatherless, and she learned the power of forgiveness. “Forgive and be forgiven. I had to do that as a young child and adult. I had to forgive other people because, ‘Why go through life with that uncomfortable feeling that something is amiss–and especially amiss with God?’”
When she married her husband, Aldon, they were inseparable, blending work and family life. “Al is a visionary and a risk-taker. He showed me what it was like to be under the umbrella of protection as God designed it. Their first job was part-ownership of Roper Press, where they published the popular Through The Bible studies. “We published books in the days before computers,” she explained. In this process, edits were done manually. Content for the books was typed and printed. If there was a mistake, rather than retype the whole page, the error was cut out with an exacto knife, and the corrected material was aligned with a t-square and pasted in place with rubber cement. The rubber cement had to be carefully removed with an eraser before it was fit to copy. It was a long and tedious process compared to today’s desktop publishing.
During that time, Barbara recalled, “my husband happened to see some of Dawson McAllister’s books published by Moody Press that were no longer in print, and he somehow got the publishing rights for them.” Al saw the potential in Dawson’s speaking and writing, “so we and Dawson teamed up and started doing the conferences. We started at First Baptist Church Dallas. Robert Jeffress was the youth pastor. And then we went to bigger and bigger venues, like the Dallas and Fort Worth Convention Centers.” Soon they were hosting conferences in arenas in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and other major cities across the nation. Even in an auditorium full of teenagers, “when Dawson McAllister spoke, you could hear a pin drop. They all were paying attention.”
In addition to Dawson’s teaching, the conferences featured illusions by Mark Matlock, and musical sets by emerging artists Al Denson, Todd Proctor, Chris Tomlin, and the groups Gabriel and Mercy Me. “We found Chris Tomlin, who is so cool now, when he was just a kid graduating from [Texas] A&M. But we already had a ‘cool’ singer and worship leader in Todd Proctor, and we wanted somebody different, so we made Chris a cowboy, and made him wear a cowboy hat and sing country western style. That is hilarious because he is so not that! But he was willing. It was a job, and he did great. His talent showed up even then. And his spirit!” Barbara recalls. “The musicians we had through the years had great servant-hearts. They are great guys with hearts to worship.”
“The first time we heard [the song] ‘I Can Only Imagine’ was at the Fort Worth conference. Mercy Me was doing a sound check before the conference, so as I finished folding t-shirts [for the product tables on the concourse], I wanted to go in [to the auditorium] and listen. Their sound check was a song that [lead-singer] Bart [Millard] had just written. I sat in the first row, and heard it for the first time,” Barbara recalls. “That was so meaningful. We knew it was going to be more than a blessing. It would impact lives then, and it still does today.”
“I Can Only Imagine” topped Billboard’s charts in Christian, country and top 40, earning Song of the Year, and SongWriter of the Year at the 33rd GMA Dove Awards. It has since become the most played song in the history of radio, as well as the best-selling Christian song of all time. The movie “I Can Only Imagine’‘ tells the story behind the song. “We had a lot of fun watching that movie because we knew all the background details,” said Barbara. “You know how Hollywood does things. We know how it really happened.”
Youth conferences led to youth camps. Once, they held a camp on Jekyll Island. “We were doing a camp on the beach. We had a big tent with a thousand kids and air conditioning [and sound equipment] in it. You know how big the tent had to be! The hurricane came across the Gulf into Florida, through Georgia, and swept across the island. It was raining cats and dogs and we had to get those kids out of that tent. You never know what’s going to happen in a hurricane! We loaded them back onto the buses, and had to find someplace willing to take a thousand kids in a hurry. Everybody was soaking wet, had no food, and it was time to eat. A church opened its doors to us, and fed our kids–that church fed our kids!–and let us have our evening service there. We were grateful–yes, very grateful in many ways–to them for opening their church to us. Then it was over. We were able to go back to the tent, which did not blow away. I think that was the camp that everyone remembers as the most fun. If everything goes perfectly, who remembers that?!”
“We ate a lot of bad food in camps, we slept on a lot of lumpy, hard cots. We said to ourselves, ‘If we ever have a chance to have a camp, we’re going to serve good food and have good beds.’”
And then they had the opportunity. When Mark Matlock came back from a conference in Arkansas, he said to Al, “You won’t believe the great place where I just was. And guess what! It’s for sale.” Barbara and Al talked it over and said, “We weren’t planning on doing this, but since we said ‘if we ever have a camp…’”
“So Al went to see it. It was 600 acres, mostly raw land. There were a couple of cabins and the lodge where Mark spoke. It was beyond us. But the owner knew that we came and looked at it, and he said he really wanted us to have it.” He had an auction, but Barbara and Al didn’t bother to attend. “It was too much for us,” Barbara explained. The other bidders wanted to divide the land and sell it off, but the owner, Dr. Frank Minirth, didn’t want to do that and withdrew from the auction.
Then Frank called Al and asked if he could come to Al’s office and see how he could make it work. About the same time they were talking about this, Al received an unexpected call asking if they would be willing to sell a piece of their property. It wasn’t on the market, and they hadn’t thought about selling it, but when the buyer suggested a price, it was exactly the price needed for the downpayment to purchase the camp. “That’s when we knew God was in it,” Barbara said. “We were going to step forward and do it because God was in it. So we did, and we patterned our camp after Horn Creek camp [in Westcliffe, Colorado], because it was so fun.” They called the camp Shepherd of the Ozarks (SOTO).
“After 19 years [at SOTO], we were getting a little older, and a couple came to us and asked, ‘How could we do what you do?’ There’s only one way to do what we were doing: they had to own the camp. It had to be theirs. And they made it happen. Sort of like what Frank did for us, we made happen for them, so it worked.”
For the next three years, as they entered into retirement, Barbara and Al used money from the sale to host couples getaways. When the money ran out, they asked, “What will we do next? We waited, and didn’t have a lightning bolt out of the sky, so we just continued doing what we were doing [being active in their church and community]. But Al wished for another ministry.”
“It happened accidentally. Our church was asking for volunteers to help with Beach Club, an after-school program at public schools. I volunteered as a helper. I liked to use imagination as I taught. They asked me to do the Christmas story.” Barbara pondered how she could tell the familiar old story in a fresh and engaging new way. “I don’t know where you get your good ideas, but [for me, it’s] the shower. It’s like a think tank!” When she told a friend the idea behind Angels Tell the Story, the friend said, “‘You ought to put that in a book.’ I didn’t know how to make it into a book, but you know who did? The person who worked in a publishing company 40 years ago! Al went to the library and spent hours looking at children’s books to figure out how to make it happen. An illustrator was found, their grandchildren and neighbors gave input, and their son Loren designed the covers and put the pages on screens for public readings. “A writer needs support from family and friends. You can’t do a project in a vacuum.”
“Is there something about hot running water?” asks Barbara. She was in the shower, thinking about the millennium when the next book idea came to her: “Zoom Into The Future and Beyond”. “Will we have hot running water in the millenium? I just like to think about what it will be like. So I had to write it down. I want to make teenagers excited about being a Chirstian, and the life that is open to us, that is surely going to be ours in the future. I just wanted to write that down.” The book “Before There Was Time” came right after. Both of these books are sold as a bundle on Amazon.
Layer upon layer of learning has resulted in these bits of wisdom:
- God loves to use us as a conduit for blessing. When we are faithful with small things, God gives us bigger things, like character qualities. If he can trust us with little things like money, he can trust us with bigger things. God has blessed us so abundantly.
- We have to keep the lines of communication open with God and other people. If you get crossways with someone, you’d better make it right. You never know if that clogged communication will keep something wonderful from coming in your life.
Layer upon layer of life, as one thing leads to another, Barbara says, “It is a wonderful thing to have your hands and heart open to our creator and to see what He would like to do. He has been faithful through the years. That is the fun of looking back over life. As we have started and gone through all these things, it’s been plain old fun. Life has been plain old fun.”