Shift: A Change of Direction
The amazing life and ministry of Howard Munsey...
Rough Road to Tuxtepec
by Eric K. Thomsen
"It was the worst road I ever remember traveling. Many places were washed out, and basketball-sized boulders were partially exposed. Riding in the back of an old pick-up, we were compelled to hang on for dear life for fear of bouncing off into the road during the trip.”
The terse description of his 2003 visit to a small church in a remote Mexican village seems fitting when you realize the writer was Howard Munsey, the no-nonsense, often outspoken Tennessee pastor who became a catalyst for Free Will Baptist missions work in Mexico. Rough roads? Business as usual.
Howard Thurman “Preacher” Munsey was born June 27, 1926, in the hills of Hawkins County, Tennessee. At age 17, Howard exchanged those peaceful hills for the bloody waters of the Pacific when he left high school to join the Navy, serving in World War II and later in Korea. By the time he left the Navy, Howard had achieved the rank of petty officer first class.
He often recalled how God spared his life during his time at sea. While stationed on deck during a stormy November night in 1943, an enormous wave swept Howard over the side of the ship. With a desperate grab, he caught the lifeline and hung suspended until another sailor came to his aid. “If it hadn’t been for that officer,” he often repeated, “I would be kickin’ chunks in Hell.”
With the military behind him, Howard and his new bride Mildred returned home to Greeneville. Howard began a career at the Magnavox Corporation, and the couple settled into a comfortable routine. That is, until God intervened again—this time at “Black Harry’s” shoeshine stand in the local barbershop. The gentleman in the next chair introduced himself as M.L. Bowman, pastor of a nearby Free Will Baptist church. As the conversation developed, Howard heard the gospel.
The following Wednesday night he made his way to the “Little Block Church” for prayer meeting. In the pastor’s absence, a deacon was attempting to lead the service. Out of a heart of conviction, Howard suggested, “Somebody ought to pray.” Assigned to the task, he knelt over the heat register in the center aisle and prayed the only way he knew how. He cried out to the Lord for mercy, asking to be saved then and there. It was the spring of 1952.
Photo: Howard and Mildred Munsey
With Howard’s new faith came an insatiable appetite to know more about God. Under the guidance of Reverend Bowman, he pored over the Scripture, soaking up the Bible like a dry sponge. Within two years, Howard answered the call to preach. He was ordained in August 1955 and began his ministry as bivocational pastor of Lowe’s Chapel Free Will Baptist Church in Newport, Tennessee. It was there, he often joked, that he received “his real education.” He continued to work for the Magnavox Corporation until a deacon told him he was a hypocrite for preaching against television. In spite of a $25 weekly salary, he quit immediately, trusting God to provide for his family.
As he prepared sermons each week, a burden began to grow in Howard that stretched far beyond the boundaries of his East Tennessee home. “Free Will Baptists in that day had a deep concern for those we knew personally,” he once noted to friend, “but little thought was given to the vast multitudes of the world perishing without knowledge of the Savior.”
When home missionary Arturo Villalobos spoke at the annual meeting of the Union Association in 1958, Howard’s burden for the lost suddenly had a face—a Mexican face. “Since that day,” he later wrote, “I have been an ardent supporter of missions, both home and foreign.” It was the beginning of a 50-year quest to take the gospel to the people of Mexico.
Howard quickly forged a partnership with Villalobos, and for 14 years he raised funds, sent supplies, handled itineraries, and mobilized others to the Mexico missions cause while staying busy with pastorates in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. He also established himself as a reliable homebuilder and started a construction company. God was preparing him for a new and daunting challenge.
In 1971, when missionary resignations threatened to slow the growth of the work in Mexico, Howard made a trip to visit his old friend Villalobos. After assessing the situation firsthand, he decided to take a personal role in the ministry. He returned home and founded Berea Ministries, first chartered as the missions arm of a North Carolina radio ministry called “Cross Beams.” Howard’s goal was to help Mexican Christians evangelize their own people by providing training, building materials, supplies, equipment, and volunteers to help establish churches.
The ministry flourished. Working with Pastor Villalobos, a new church was established 130 miles south of the border. Howard worked feverishly to raise funds for a building, traveling with the Mexican Pastors Quartet and speaking at churches and conferences. As money came in, he made trips to Mexico with teams of volunteers to help with construction. Soon, the new congregation had their own church building. The process would be repeated time and time again.
East Tennessee pastor Hal Kirk was among the volunteers who joined Munsey on his early trips. He remembers the experience vividly. “Although Howard was an excellent carpenter, it was difficult work. He brought his own tools and used whatever supplies he could find—a few warped two by fours for framing and concrete mixed right on the ground. The work wasn’t fancy. Sometimes a single bulb hanging from the ceiling was the only light in the church. Still, it was more than they had, and the Mexicans loved him for it.”
On his first trip, Howard’s lifelong friend Van Johnson remembers feeling guilty about the abject poverty they encountered. “I thought they needed food more than a building,” he recalls. “Howard set me straight right quick. He told me, ‘If we feed them, and they die lost, they will go to Hell. But if we tell them about Jesus, He will take care of them, even if they die of starvation.’”
Berea Ministries received a boost in 1980, when Howard’s son James and his wife Mitzi joined the ministry as full-time missionaries. Working together, they set a goal of building 10 new churches in 10 years. It only took six! The churches formed an association and united with the Texas Association of Free Will Baptists.
Howard’s burden grew along with his ministry. He began to ask God to let him see 50,000 Mexicans come to Christ before he died, and he poured his life, including the assets of his thriving log-home business, into reaching that goal. Before long, the name Howard Munsey became synonymous with missions work in Mexico.
Howard stayed busy at home as well, starting two churches and guiding two others into full-time pastorates. Leading an international ministry while maintaining a full-time pastorate was not easy, but Howard never expected it to be. He endured disappointments, setbacks, personality conflicts, and the deep grief caused by losing his son James to cancer in 2001. Through it all, he never wavered.
“Nowhere is it written that missions outreach was cheap,” he reflected in a 2007 letter to supporters. “It was not cheap for Jesus, who came all the way from Heaven and condescended to earth to die, rejected and refused on a old rugged cross. It cost William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Thomas Willey, Volena Wilson, and Laura Belle Barnard great sacrifice to reach the lost for Christ. And we will not escape with little effort of our own if we expect to do a credible work for God in our day.”
And what a work! When Howard traveled the rough road back to Tuxtepec in 2008, on his last trip to Mexico, 55 churches stood as a result of his efforts, along with churches in Chile and Costa Rica, a seminary in Reynosa, a Christian camp, and a children’s home in Oaxaca.
Did Preacher Munsey see 50,000 Mexicans come to Christ before his death in 2009? We may never know, but the words of his friend Charles Thigpen put his efforts in perspective. “No single person contributed more years of service, more financial support, or more hours of volunteer labor than this man.”
About the Writer: Eric Thomsen is managing editor of ONE Magazine. Learn more about Berea ministries: www.bereaministries.com.