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  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner

Clarence W. Jones and HCJB

At the beginning, missionary radio was not seen as a tool to be used independently of traditional missionary outreach. But though some missionaries were skeptical at first, they soon realized the value of having radio pave the way for them. “It has given traditional missionary effort a tremendous weapon and means to spread the gospel,” according to Abe Van Der Puy of World Radio Missionary Fellowship. “Until recently, in many parts of Latin America, missionaries had a very difficult time getting people to talk with them about the gospel. These people, however, have been willing to listen in the privacy of their own homes.… Many times when personal workers are dealing with individuals about the gospel, the person being dealt with will say, ‘Oh, that means you are like those of HCJB.’ ” In recent decades, with the increasing size of transmitters and the greater affordability of transistor radios, Christian broadcasts are reaching more people than ever. According to Barry Siedell, “There is virtually no square foot on earth that isn’t reached sometime during the day by a gospel radio broadcast.”

Like other specialized areas of missions, missionary radio had to fight its way into acceptance with the Christian public. Clarence W. Jones was a pioneer in this field who was not afraid to use the “tool of the devil.” People from his home church termed it “Jones’s folly.” Only a fool would go off to a foreign land to set up a radio station when there were only six receiving sets in the whole country. But Jones was convinced that missions had to be in the forefront of the field of communications if the world was to be evangelized.

Born in 1900 in Illinois, the son of Salvation Army officers, Jones played the trombone in the Salvation Army band from the age of twelve. In 1921 he graduated from Moody Bible Institute as class president and valedictorian, even though he had only completed two years of high school. During the years following his graduation, he worked with Paul Rader in his tent-meeting evangelism and later in his evangelistic ministry at the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle. Among other things, Jones played his trombone in a brass quartet and became program director for the Tabernacle’s radio broadcasting that began with the start of Chicago’s first commercial radio station.

In 1928, despite the skepticism of his friends and associates, Jones made an exploratory trip to South America, hoping to find an opening in Venezuela for radio ministry. As he traveled through the villages and towns, he was overwhelmed with the need for evangelism, as his diary indicates:

How endless the task of missions seems here in Venezuela at our present slow rate of response! This country is only a small portion of a whole great continent, with many places having no witness for missions. Missionary work could be supplemented and speeded up by the perfectly possible procedure of regular Spanish radio broadcasts. I am more and more impressed with the opportunity for evangelism in all Venezuela, and am spending much time in prayer these days, asking the Lord to do the great and mighty things.

But instead of “great and mighty things,” the Venezuelan government officials refused his request. Before returning home, he visited Columbia, Panama, and Cuba with similar requests, but the answer was the same. Back home, he was frustrated and embarrassed. All the time and money that had been invested in his exploratory trip had come to nothing. Even his wife was discouraged: “Her initial reckless zeal had worn off, and with two little ones to care for, she just did not want to go to ‘the foreign field.’ Not at all.” For Jones it was a depressing period in his life:

Then there was the day of such discouragement that Clarence, desperately needing some money for his family, unable to shake off the feelings of total inadequacy and failure, and chagrined that this obsession with South America had made him look like a fool, decided to chuck it all—his work at the Tabernacle, his call to the mission field, his family—and went down to enlist in the Navy. He was rejected for lack of 20/20 vision.

Jones’s dream of missionary radio might have faded away had it not been for a devoted couple that entered his life in the months that followed. Reuben and Grace Larson had been serving in Ecuador under the Christian and Missionary Alliance since 1924, and during their furlough in 1930 they visited the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle to present their work. To the Larsons, Jones’s trip to South America was not a fiasco; he had simply gone to the wrong countries. He had bypassed the beautiful land of Ecuador, not even seeking entrance until after he had met the Larsons, two individuals who would provide the key to missionary radio in South America.

Although Ecuadorian officials were at first skeptical about a Protestant radio station, Larson was persistent; and on August 15, 1930, he sent a cable to Jones, urging him to come as soon as possible, informing him that a twenty-five-year contract had been granted. “Clearly we saw the hand of God moving on the whole Congress of Ecuador,” he wrote, “causing them to allow, in this closed Catholic country, a ministry of gospel radio.” Jones, however, had not waited for Larson’s cable. So anxious was he to begin his work that he was already on his way to South America when the cable arrived.

The weeks following Jones’s arrival in Ecuador were discouraging ones. Hardly had the ink on their permit dried when the missionaries were told by engineers as well as by American State Department officials that Ecuador—particularly Quito—would never be suitable for radio transmission. The mountains and the close proximity to the equator would be insurmountable obstacles. But “unreasonable, illogical though it seemed,” in the words of Lois Neely, “Clarence was absolutely certain that Quito was God’s place for his voice to South America.” So he went ahead with plans, and in the year that followed, despite more disappointments, Radio Station HCJB (Heralding Christ Jesus’ Blessings) became a reality.

It was a historic day. The world’s first missionary radio program was broadcast live on Christmas Day 1931, coming from a 250-watt transmitter located in a sheep shed in Quito, Ecuador. With organ music in the background, Jones played his trombone and Larson preached in Spanish. All thirteen receiving sets in the country were tuned in, and the Voice of the Andes was on the air.

In the months that followed, the World Radio Missionary Fellowship was officially incorporated, and the daily broadcasts continued, though not without periods of crisis. As the Depression deepened back in the United States, contributions fell off. During the entire year of 1932 less than one thousand dollars was donated to the new mission. In 1933 the bank through which Jones and his associates had been receiving their monthly checks folded, and later the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle, the mainstay of the mission’s support, went bankrupt. The future of the fledgling radio station was in serious doubt. On his knees in a little tool shed, Jones pleaded with God for one whole day for direction: “Are we to carry on with HCJB, or pack it in and go home?”

That day was a “low spot” in Jones’s life, but he left the tool shed with the assurance that God would see him through the crisis, and that night there was a buoyant enthusiasm in his voice as he went on the air with the evening broadcast. Within days, through a financial loan from a friend and a mortgage on the transmitter, the immediate crisis was averted, and HCJB slowly climbed out of its economic peril.

One of the reasons for HCJB’s survival was the growing recognition it received from the government and the people of Ecuador. From the very beginning, Larson and Jones had cooperated fully with government officials, agreeing to make their programming not only religious but educational and cultural as well. When gospel programs were aired, they were always presented in a positive vein to avoid antagonizing the Roman Catholic Church. Patriotism was a key element of their philosophy; the president of Ecuador had an open invitation to use the broadcasting facilities and often did so, especially on holidays.

As word of the radio station spread, the number of receivers in Ecuador grew rapidly, and HCJB, according to Neely, “was cutting across every level of society, breaking down barriers to the gospel. Missionaries (many whom had in fact strongly opposed the idea of Christian radio) were finding that where previously they were persecuted and stoned on the streets, now they could minister openly. And even when they encountered a ‘Protestants Not Welcome’ sign on a door, inside they could hear La Voz de Los Andes, HCJB. Everyone seemed to be listening.”

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