does not become a Pastor of a Christian Church,
even a new one, overnight. Rather most such
promotions take years and in many cases are
unexpected. Such is the history of
Burt and Jo Ann Wilkins within the
Church. Neither one expected to become
Elders, let alone Pastors. The length
of their lifetimes precludes a presentation of
their entire background. So the focus of
this page is to offer you a slice of their
Pastor Burt: Pastor Burt has been active in the Christian Church since his late teens. While a college student, he served Bishop Swift in the Episcopal Church in Boca Raton, Florida as an alter boy. Then in his early twenties, Bishop Swift would often question and challenge him, "Why aren't you in seminary?" Although Burt loved the Lord, he found traditional Christian churches lacking. Burt, at that time, could not imagine dedicating his life to the Church. It was not till in his mid thirties, where he experienced modern Christianity today, the Spirit filled life, and the new birth.
Everyone's calling is unique, and so it with Burt. His was not a Church conversion, but one that began in anger, Friday, March 25th, 1983, at 10:30 AM Eastern time, at 30,000 feet over the Atlantic, aboard Soviet aircraft, a half hour from landing in Havana, Cuba on a journey from Toronto, Canada. His determination to server the Lord began when he was saved. This is the true story of Pastor Burt's conversion.
On that Friday in 1983, Burt was engaged in the act of smuggling Bibles into Cuba. His acceptance of the Lord actually took place in an airline lavatory. In accepting Jesus Christ as his personal savior, he made a bargain with God that if He would get him through this alive, Burt would serve the Lord the remaining days of his day. All that Burt has ever done since then within the Church has been to try and to keep his word to God our Father.
At the time Burt had been living in Ottawa, Canada. Burt had a computer business of his own. He held both Canadian and United States citizenship. Canadian winters are very cold. Canadians often joke that the country has only two seasons; winter and July and July was all too short. Temperatures can fall to minus 40 degrees and stay there for months. Much of the population flees Canada for southern vacations in either December or March. Canadians commonly flee to Miami, Mexico, or the Caribbean, anywhere to warm their bones. Compared to Jamaica, or any of the other islands, Cuba is a cheap vacation at half the price. At that time, two weeks in Cuba, with airfare, hotel at a quality beach resort, with two meals a day, buffet style, all you can eat was about $680 US currency per person.
Canada, unlike the United States, never severed diplomatic relations with Cuba when Fidel Castro came to power. Thus, Canadians had every right to go to Cuba for vacation. Suffering through the Canadian winter in December 1981 and again in December 1982, Burt went to sunny Varadaro, Cuba for the two weeks Christmas – New Years vacation at the beach.
The hotel (which had been a large Holiday Inn before the revolution) offered that Christmas eve an excursion to its guests to attend midnight mass at Varadaro’s only church. Although Burt had not been a Catholic, he decide that for Christmas he could certainly attend this celebration of our Lord’s birth. About a bus load of tourist that night were taken including Burt to a small Catholic Church. This stone church, probably hundreds of years old, was no larger than 40 feet square. The stone church had a dirt floor, and there were a number of holes in the roof. The windows had no glass, only bars, and there were only weather beaten wooden benches to sit on. There was no organ. A Cuban member of the congregation played the guitar and sung hymns in both Spanish and English. The priest came out and gave his sermon in both Spanish and English as well.
Before services, Burt had viewed a large but tattered Catholic Bible at the altar. It was falling apart. Pages were coming out of it. Consequently, he decided to stay after services out of curiosity simply to talk to the priest. He was curious to know what it was like being a priest in Communist Cuba. What he heard changed his life.
There was no freedom of religion in Communist Cuba, only persecution. The priest, an old white-haired gentle man, went by the name of Father John. Father John told Burt of his life and what he had faced. For example, you will recall where Paul reveals in his epistle that he maintained his trade as a tent maker, so that he would not be perceived as a financial burden on the brethren. The Communist had taken that account, twisted it, and used it as an excuse to pass a law in their legislature prohibiting any minister from receiving a salary from the Church. There are no professional paid priests or ministers in Cuba, and this of course hinders both the growth of the Church and many from the profession. Father John, in seeking to follow the Lord, had chosen to be a carpenter for his livelihood.
Secondly, Peter writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (Peter 3:15 NIV) The Communists had once again taken this verse under the guise of religious reform, twisted it, and passed a law in their legislature limiting Christians and ministers only to teach a Cuban on matters of the Bible were the Cuban to ask that Christian or minister a specific question on that specific subject. The penalty for breaking that law was a 20-year sentence in the sugar cane fields. Twice Father John had been arrested for breaking that law. Imagine not being able to advise even young people in proper Christian living unless they asked the right questions. John’s Communist oppressors kept him in the sugar cane fields for three years for his first sentence, and seven years for his second offense. He was not imprisoned for the entire 20 years either time because when in prison he simply went about teaching and converting both prisoners and guards. The Communists could only take so much of that.
When the Communists sentence you in Cuba to the sugar cane fields, it is not with the intent of converting you, but rather to kill you. Prisoners are given dull machetes to cut the cane, and neither boots nor gloves. When the prisoner strikes the sugar cane, the stalks are smashed and they splinter. Consequently the prisoner is cut by these splinters and bleeds every day. The heat, the humidity, and the bugs all tend to infect these wounds. Gangrene and infection were a common day occurrence among the prisoners. Cuba has socialized medicine, which means there are many doctors. But because the country is so poor there is little or no medicine. Enter into a Cuban clinic and one is likely only to find aspirin, not antibiotics. In the sugar cane fields there is not even aspirin, and so the people die. For ten years the Communists tried to kill this priest in their sugar cane fields.
The priest was now an old man, used up by his oppressors, but with a quiet gentle loving spirit, which was irrepressible. Those who are not Catholics priests have the luxury of a wife or husband to help sustain us through the trials of life, for it is written, “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18). But this man as a Catholic Priest had never had any such sustenance. He had only God and his faith in which to sustain him during his life.
The Communists had other rules. The importing of Bibles was illegal, and to give a sermon on Sunday a minister had to have the outline pre-approved by a government agency and pay a license fee. If the Priest could not convince the government to approve his sermon, then none was given.
We here in the West are so blessed. Here at least we can have all the Bibles we want, in a dozen different versions. We take God for granted. Our lives are so important; we have no time for God. The Bibles are there but few read them. We are so arrogant in our ways; we prohibit the Bible from our schools even as literature. We strike the Ten Commandments from our walls least any child would be instructed. Like the Communists or Hitler’s Germany, we promote a holocaust of murder on our children through abortions arguing that like the Jews the unborn are little more than a virus to be removed. As a civilization, how then are we better than the Communists or the worst of civilization?
Burt's spirit was troubled by Father John’s testimony. The more he thought of what Father John had said, the more his soul became angry. When he got back to Canada, Burt determined to put a dent in Castro’s Cuba and thought how to bring about some small insurrection. When one goes to Cuba, one has to go through immigration. Burt had noticed coming and going through Cuba immigration that their officials hand inspected every piece of tourist luggage looking for contraband (that if found they promptly would steal and take it home for their families) but that they never put there hands on a tourist. Here Burt saw Castro’s weakness, and he resolved to return in March three months later to exploit that weakness.
Back in Canada, Burt went to the local Christian bookstore in Ottawa. Burt asked for Spanish Bibles. The bookstore had none because in Canada the languages of use are French and English. Burt let the owners of the store know what he had seen and what he intended to do. They entered into Burt's plot and made the necessary calls to ordered 30 Spanish New Testaments with the Psalms included for about $2.25 a piece, all of them each half the size of pack of cigarettes.
Since Cuban immigration only examined the luggage after a tourist arrives in Cuba, Burt carried the 30 Bibles along with a role of duck tape into the Soviet Aeroflot aircraft in Toronto inside a shoebox as hand luggage and put the shoe box under his seat. Forty minutes from Cuba, Burt took the shoebox and retired to a lavatory at the back of the aircraft. There he stripped his clothes and began to duck tape open Spanish Bibles all over my body. He was reminded of the armor of God:
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” (Ephesians 6:10-18 NIV)
On his knees in an aircraft lavatory in preparation for battle, Burt claimed these verses. He asked God for forgiveness. He claimed the blood of Christ. He asked for His adoption and for His spirit. He told his heavenly Father that if He would get him through this alive that he would serve God the remainder of his life. Burt was bargaining with God. A stranger sight he could not have been. His armor was open Bibles taped about his arms, biceps, chest, back, thighs, and calves. Had the airline hostess walked in, she might well have thought she had just walked in on Clark Kent changing into his suit of steel. Who could imagine that the Kingdom could be advanced on duck tape?
Burt had entered the aircraft wearing his usual black business suit, with white shirt and tie. Now he put on his long black socks so they would at least cover the Bibles on his calves. He put his white tea shirt on so that the Bibles could not be seen through his white shirt. The black suit coat, tie, and pants covered a host of sins. Burt then return to his seat in the aircraft, and continued with prayer.
In Havana, his passage through custom’s inspection proved totally uneventful. The inspectors went through his luggage as expected but they never touched Burt. Burt was friendly, polite, essentially non-communicative but firm. After customs inspection, the planeload of people boarded large tourist busses, which commonly drove them along Cuba’s freeways the three hours to Varadero. The busses were not airs conditioned so Burt was fairly warm. Besides a driver, each bus had a hostess who served beer, lemonade, drinks, and peanuts. Burt sat almost in the very back of the bus hoping not to be noticed. The stewardess came upon me, “Mia amiego, you are to hot in that jacket. Here, let me help you take it off so you can relax.” The stewardess was trying to help Burt take off his jacket. “You are on vacation. Enjoy yourself. You are in Cuba.” Burt's heart pounded. Did she know? Had he been found out? Was he about to be arrested? His sunglasses hid the panic that he was sure within his eyes. Burt replied, “Thank you for your kindness, but I feel more myself wearing my suit coat. Could I have one of those lemonades?” The stewardess took her hands off Burt's suit coat, gave him the lemonade and went on her way. Burt had not been found out.
Sunday, in Cuba Burt went to church. He brought the shoebox with him now once again filled with Bibles. He waited till after services. The church only had a single service and there were no more than 30 people in attendance. Most were elderly, but there were some young people, and there were a few families. Burt saw Father John. He asked to see the priest alone on a private matter. Father John said he could talk to him about a half-hour after services.
two men met alone in the church later.
Burt sat on one of the benches with the
shoebox next to him.
The priest sat down beside him and
Burt replied, “These
are for you.”
The priest opened the shoebox.
His eyes widened and in a moment he fell to
his knees sobbing, “Thank
you Lord. Thank
you Lord. I have waited so long. Thank
Mia Amigo, what have you done?
What have you done?
Thirty years I have prayed for these.
Since the revolution I have waited for
At last I can teach the children.” Kneeling
in the dirt, he placed his hand upon Burt's knee
as Burt comforted him with his hands upon the
old priest's shoulders. The priest
don’t know what this means for our children.”
Three times more Burt journeyed to Cuba, each time with 30 Bibles duck taped to his body: December 1983, March 1984, and December 1984. When Burt came to Father John in his fourth and last trip as a Bible smuggler there was fear in the old priest’s eyes, “Mia amigo, you must leave. You must leave quickly. You must never return. You are in danger. The federalizes know of you. Two weeks ago they were here. They took me to prison. They questioned me. They asking of the white tourist who visits this church. They are looking for you now. If they catch you, they will kill you.” Burt comforted the old priest, “Did they take the Bibles?” He answered, “No, they did not take the Bibles. They will never take those Bibles! The Bibles are safe.” Burt handed him yet another shoebox of Bibles, “Well, then there is no problem. My mission here is done.” The two men said their good-byes. Burt has never returned to Cuba since.
These experiences changed Burt. God was no longer simply a casual matter in his life. Burt had given his word to his God those years ago that he would service Him for the remainder of His days. For it is written, “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." (Joshua 24:15 NKJV) The scripture requires of us a conscious and deliberate will by His disciples to serve. Whatever Burt has done has been to try and keep to this covenant that he made with His God on the way to Cuba those years ago.
Pastor Jo Ann: Do you have a guardian angel? Does God watch over you? Does he protect you? Does he guide your steps? Here is a miraculous story where all these things happened. The time is September 1998. Burt and Jo Ann were members serving in the Ministry of Helps at this time at Trinity Christian Center in Costa Mesa, California. This is the local church for the headquarters of TBN, the Trinity Christian Network. At the time, Burt was Senior Usher in the evenings at the "Praise the Lord" telecast.
Jo Ann set out on a Wednesday to attend the evening Bible study. In July of that year, Burt had purchased for Jo Ann a brand new 1998 Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer, black with gold trim, loaded, a real cream buff. Jo Ann had waited four years for her husband to buy her that new car and she loved that SUV. This night she choose to drive her new Ford Explorer the forty miles on 405 freeway from Los Angeles to Costa Mesa to the Bible study at TBN.
Jo Ann has high blood pressure, and diabetes. These two conditions caused her to develop seizures. When these seizures hit, Jo Ann blacks out, and forgets where or who she is. After the seizure hits, slowly over a period of an hour, she starts to remember who she is. The seizures are controlled by medication, but on this day Jo Ann forgot to take her seizure medication.
At 8 that night, Burt received a phone call from one of Jo Ann's four adult daughters, Stephanie. Stephanie reported, "Mom's been in an accident. The highway patrol said her car went off the 405 at Seal Beach. The car went airborne and landed off in the side of a hill." Burt asked, "Is she alive?" Stephanie answered, "Yes, I spoke to her. She is in the hospital." Burt asked, "Are any other cars involved?" Stephanie replied, "No. It appears she blacked out at 70 miles an hour in the middle of rush hour but hit nothing." Burt asked, "What's the state of the car?" Stephanie answered, "According to the highway patrol, it's totaled."
Burt proceeded to the hospital, and found Jo Ann admitted in one of the hospital rooms. He asked, "Jo Ann, are you OK?" Jo Ann replied, "Seems to be. I don't remember the accident. I was driving in the fast lane, and then I blacked out." Burt asked, "You're not hurt?" Jo Ann replied, "I don't seem to be. They want to keep me here three days for observation just to make sure." Burt asked, "What happened to your car?" Jo Ann replied, "The highway patrol came by and filed a report which they then delivered to me here at the hospital. Apparently once the ambulance arrived, the highway patrol left while the ambulance people got me out of the car and brought me here. According to the highway patrol report, the car's totaled." Burt asked, "Where's the car now?" Jo Ann replied, "According to the accident report, it's been towed to a wrecking yard." Burt's response was, "I do not want to see that car."
Burt left that night, but received a phone call from Jo Ann in the hospital the following morning, "The hospital wants to release me. They can find nothing wrong with me." Burt replied somewhat in amazement, "You drove 70 miles an hour off the 405, became airborne, plowed into the side of a hill, and there is nothing wrong with you?" Jo Ann replied, "As far as the doctors have been able to determine, there is no reason for the hospital to keep me any longer. I want to come home. Will you pick me up?" Burt replied, "Fine, I'm on my way."
On the way to pick up Jo Ann, Burt stopped at the accident scene on the 405 freeway going south immediately after the off ramp to route 22. There were clear tire marks where the Explorer had started to drift across the freeway. Miraculously, at a time when all the freeways lanes should have been packed, no other vehicles struck Jo Ann while she was driving in an unconscious state. Looking at the tire marks, Burt realized how blessed Jo Ann was to be even alive. Had the vehicle come off the highway ten feet earlier, it would have driven directly into a concrete pillar. In that case, Jo Ann would have died. Had the vehicle gone another twenty feet further down the freeway, Jo Ann's Explore would have slammed directly into a cement overpass. Again, she would have died. But inexplicitly her vehicle had gone between these two cement obstacles like one was threading a needle and instead become airborne, flew over a drainage ditch and into a thicket of tall iceberg plants otherwise covering the upside of a shallow hill. One could see where the iceberg plants had been plowed back thirty feet as the Ford Explorer had come down on top of them and through them till the vehicle came to rest in the side of a hill.
When Burt arrived at the hospital, Jo Ann greeted him and said, "My cars at this wrecking yard." Burt replied, "Don't get your hopes up. It is a miracle that you are alive. Had the car gone off the road ten feet earlier, you would have hit a concrete pillar. Had the car stayed on the highway another twenty feet, you would have slammed into a concrete overpass. According to the Highway Patrol report, the car is totaled. I know you love your SUV, but we can always replace it. The important thing is that God saved you."
Burt and Jo Ann arrived at the wrecking yard to look for her car. About a thousand feet off, they saw what looked like a Ford Explorer that could have been theirs. But it looked to be good to be a vehicle that was totaled. They proceeded toward the vehicle anyway. When they came to it, it actually looked like their car. Burt started walking around the car, checking each side, looking for the damage.
There was a big fellow working at the wrecking yard; about 300 pounds, with a belly hanging over his pants, long undershirt visible under his checked flannel J.C. Penny shirt - a real Joe six-packs who looked like if he did chew, he would certainly spit. Not knowing his name, let's call him Bubba. Burt turns to Bubba and asked, "Where's the damage to this vehicle?" Bubba replied, "Strangest thing I ever saw in my life. Thirty years I've been haling wrecks off the side of the 405 and never saw anything like this." Burt questioned, "What do you mean? This police report says this car is totaled. Where's the damage?" Bubba answered, "Can't say. Don't know. Never seen anything like it. We towed that vehicle in last night. The keys were in the ignition. We started it up, drove it off the truck, drove it around the lot. It works just fine. Can't find anything wrong with it. The police they don't know. They see a car like that way off in the bushes, that means to them its totaled. They write up their report, and then they leave. But we arrive, pulled it out, and there is not a scratch on it. Just incredible."
Jo Ann had caught up by then. She walked around her Ford Explorer herself. Then she started to smile, do a little dance, and said with an irrepressible smile, "This is God! God did this! He saved me! But No, that wasn't enough. Just to make sure I got the point, he saved my car as well. I was unconscious, and he caught both of us and set us down without a scratch. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Lord." Burt and Jo Ann drove their Ford Explorer home that day. Other than requiring a car wash, there was no damage to either it or Jo Ann whatsoever.
You see it was not God's plan that Jo Ann would die that day. By worldly standards, she should have died. An accident occurred, but God intervened. Not only did He preclude any other vehicles from getting hit, God sent angels to catch Jo Ann in the palm of their hands, and set her down without a scratch. He saved the Ford Explorer too, because that vehicle had God's work to do as well. When God called Jo Ann and asked her to start feeding the homeless in downtown LA, Jo Ann needed that vehicle to carry the food and the tables necessary for the beginning of God's new church. And for those reasons, both Jo Ann and her new SUV were both saved. Most would call all this a miracle, but for God it was just business as usual.
Copyright © 2001 [God's Church]