An Interview with Bill Norton


On Tuesday, RFTG published a review of Bill Norton’s new book Sojourn on the Veld (Insight Press, 2022). RFTG Editor Zach Kendrick was given the opportunity to ask Bill a few questions about the book, life, and ministry. What follows are the author’s responses to questions submitted by the editor.

Bill Norton is retired from a career in engineering. He holds degrees from Auburn University, UAB, and Vanderbilt University. Bill and his wife, Lori, and their children have made international connections a family tradition. His family sponsors an Auburn scholarship to encourage students to study abroad. Bill and his wife are members at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, AL. He is also a contributor for RFTG.


Your memoir chronicles your experience as a CRU missionary four decades ago, why did you decide to write a book about that experience at this point in your life?

Africa molded me from a raw zealot into a disciple of Jesus. My experience was so meaningful that recording it has always been on my mind—I even mentioned it in my African diary. In the context of a loving brotherhood, I learned lessons in faith that I can’t imagine finding any other way. Add to these riches the fascination of working and ministering in a foreign culture and my term with Campus Crusade (now called CRU) took on a supernatural value. 

The desire to write a book receded for a time due to the demands of career and raising kids but returned as an obsession in my retirement. So, the answer to the question “why write it now” is that it was a deeply moving, foundational experience that I wanted to record for posterity when the time and energy became available. 

I think I should add a footnote on purpose. A recording for posterity was all well and good, but during the writing of the book a new objective emerged: maybe it could be helpful to others considering missions, wrestling with their call, or thinking through Christian race relations. I am hopeful the work will get into the hands of persons—particularly younger persons—with those types of needs. 

So, writing the book became something of a mission itself. And that led to the realization that the project was a calling. It was something God wanted me to do.  

What aspects did you enjoy about the book writing process? What aspects of the writing process did you find less enjoyable?

I enjoyed the detective work it takes to write a story four decades after the events. I had plenty of source material—journals, ministry reports, books, and letters. My teammates’ memories were a resource for fact checking (though we sometimes didn’t remember events the same way!). My job as a memoir writer was to filter all the material into an accurate and coherent story. Further, I enjoyed the research to revisit more deeply the history and culture of South Africa, a land I still love. And I greatly enjoyed taking apart my spiritual growth, that is, the real change in character, to find the scriptural underpinnings. 

I also enjoyed wordsmithing through endless drafts. Really, no kidding, I did. (I know some readers will be rolling their eyes about now.) But to have a phrase turn just so, with just the right nuance, and connected to the whole in a subtle and meaningful way, was an enjoyable challenge.

The part of writing I didn’t like was dealing with negative feedback (surprise, surprise). Sometime in my Campus Crusade experience, I learned that Bill Bright, (Crusade’s founder) lived by the expression “weigh your critics.” This was hard to do. But I think I grew during the writing of the book to be able to evaluate and then incorporate the corrections that I could only obtain through criticism. 

During your time as a missionary, you were in South Africa during apartheid. How do you think being raised in the American South prepared you for that experience?

I was blessed to grow up in a home with no racial prejudice. My mom once remarked about a row of dilapidated sharecropper houses that “they should pay them to live there.” My father sold church pews and treated black and white church customers with equal respect. In contrast, some of my extended family were not so neutral about race. 

Beyond my home life, I was never in a school system that was part of a busing program. I have no memory of the “whites only” signs which were once prevalent in the South. While in school I had no friends that were black. In fact, I had very little contact with persons of a different race growing up.

So, when I was assigned to live with a black family in California as part of my Crusade cross-cultural training, my Southern upbringing gave me no negative stereotypes to deal with. I experienced differences in lifestyle, but they were not so much negative as just plain different. I learned more about black culture in California than I did growing up in the South and without the bias I might have picked up in the South. The training, as intended, was a good stepping stone to the much larger cultural differences in Africa.

In apartheid South Africa, I saw much more racism than I ever saw in the South. The racism of 1978 apartheid was not nuanced, whispered, or implied. It was an unabashed, full-throated, institutionalized racial discrimination that affected every part of life.   

What was your favorite aspect about the work you did in South Africa? What was the most difficult aspect of your experience?

I enjoyed roles where I could organize and manage and see a tangible improvement. This was true for my engineering role in the Department of Works and in my ministry role as Here’s Life media coordinator. For me, making some aspect of an organization work better was inherently satisfying. In the book, I attribute this to the spiritual gift of administration, and it has remained a constant throughout my career. 

Another pleasing aspect of the work in South Africa was the people I worked alongside. My Crusade teammates were exceptionally committed to serving Jesus in every part of their lives which was a strong encouragement for me to do likewise. And the South Africans of both races that we had the honor of working with were welcoming and accepting. They demonstrated to me that all men, of whatever race or culture, have similar aspirations, loves, hopes, and fears. 

The most difficult part of my experience was the differences I had with members of my team or my work colleagues. I could be overly sensitive and reactionary. And then conviction would come and prompt me to difficult apologies. Of course, being effective in working through differences was an essential part of being effective as a missionary or a secular manager. God set me in a close fellowship to encourage growth in this area of weakness.

A major theme in your book is the idea of calling. Why do you think that calling is such an important part of the Christian life?

A sense of purpose gives life nobility. Without purpose, life is drudgery or banality. The word “calling” is bandied about widely because every man is created with an urgent need for purpose. We each want life to mean something. Yet a calling implies a caller. And the caller must be one outside the self and elevated above self so that the call has authority. Does everyone who claims a calling realize they are validating the existence of a divine being? I think not.

Christians, however, are rightly positioned to claim a calling because they have God guiding their lives. God promises to respond to a seeking Christian with guidance. And a guided Christian has a calling whether he describes it with the word “calling” or not. A sense of call, of purpose, directs the Christian’s priorities. A sense of call helps the Christian persevere in trial and take hope in discouragement. He can take heart in the fact that he is where he is for a reason.

Finally, a calling removes the frantic attempt to find purpose in worldliness. A Christian’s call, which is essentially God’s guidance in his life, separates him from those who claim a calling but do not know the Divine One who calls men. 

For all of these reasons, a Christian’s call—his sense of being guided, led, or entrusted with a task—is very important. 

Do you view your own personal calling differently now than you did during your experience as a missionary?

Yes, I see my call to the mission field differently now than I did at the time. In the book, I compare day-to-day life as sitting too close to a movie screen. You can’t take it all in and you can easily miss the story line. But forty years allows one to draw back from the screen and this perspective, along with accompanying maturity, allows the story line to emerge.

I see now all the circumstances that had to fit together for me to do this mission: family, money, training, health, et al. At the time, I took these provisions as from God but did not think they were something particularly unusual. Indeed, the interlocking coincidences and timing were not unusual: they were impossible. Further, I can see now the divine provision of a team that provided the acceptance and wisdom that I needed so badly in my misplaced zealotry. 

Underlying all aspects of my call is the strange fact that I wanted to do this. By most accounts I am of a retiring, nerdy disposition. But this radical desire had been planted in my heart and the courage to actually do it had been fixed in my character. These traits, which at the time seemed so natural, were certainly supernatural. 

With these perspectives, I can now see the screen of life’s events with broader clarity. I was most assuredly called from above to leave home and go to Africa.

Just as now I am called to write and promote this book.

How did your experience with CRU prepare you for your calling in the workplace later in life?

The experience in Africa gave a practicality to my Christianity that I did not have before. That’s a strange word to apply to your faith, unless you understand that being a zealot is inherently impractical in the marketplace. That is, such a faith cannot appeal to others effectively. After serving on staff, I was not near so rigid and legalistic. Did I have lower standards, less concern for sanctification? No. But I was more forgiving and understanding, not so pious, and less dogmatic. My faith was, well, more practical.

Developing a practical Christianity was important because a call to the market place is one of influence. I could assert God’s answers in the right places and demonstrate a Christian can be a valuable employee. I’d receive a lot of acclamation in some circles if I were able to say we had a “Here’s Life” evangelistic campaign in the office. But I do not think God called me to do that because it would have been impractical (read ineffective). 

I sponsored and led a number of small groups along the way and I witnessed to many coworkers. So besides influence, I had an overt witness. Everyone at my workplace knew I was “religious.” I am comforted by the comment a colleague made as I left the company: I had been his/her mentor, though I knew it not, and that many others would say the same. This was the practical outworking of my faith, and I attribute that in part to lessons I was taught in Africa. 

Based on your experience how would you encourage those who may not feel called to pastoral ministry or missions, but are struggling with how the Lord can use them for the sake of the gospel in the workplace? 

I would say to such a believer, “Oh dear brother, God can use you anywhere, even in the pits of hell.” And, at times, secular work will seem like said pits of hell. As tough as being a pastor or missionary is, no one should underrate the temptations and frustrations of carrying the light of Jesus in the workplace. I’ve done both so I know.

But you my friend the plumber, nurse, manager, or garbageman, you may be the only person of faith your hardened, discouraged, cynical, flippant work mate or customer will ever meet. After all, we do not always get to pick our work mates which leaves an opening for God to do so and place someone in your world who needs what you have. If nothing else, the day-to-day decisions we make in our work as messengers of light push back the effects of the Fall and confound and defeat the enemy. 

I’ll make a strong statement: it is vital to the fulfillment of the Great Commission that secular workers carry light into the workplace.

Pastor Dave Guzik has an insight directed to the misconception that occupational ministry is the only way to serve the Lord. He says, “God forbid that we should buy into that kind of thinking. Wherever God has placed you there is a kingdom calling within it.” God is omnipotent, right? If you find yourself in secular work, don’t dismiss the fact that you are there on purpose: God’s purpose. Your workplace is no accident. We are to seek out our particular calling wherever we find ourselves.

Your missions experience came not long after you finished college. Do you think that younger Christians should consider doing missionary work, at least short term, while they don’t have as many responsibilities that come later in life?

Yes, I do. The period between college—or very early in the career as it was for me—and heavier life responsibilities is a unique time. As I detailed in the book, I made a list that helped me realize how free I was to pursue a call to foreign mission at that time of life. In effect, I invested that freedom in the Lord, and he blessed that decision.

Even a partial list of the benefits reveals the life changing significance. During that short two year mission I was able to first recognize and use my spiritual gifts. I developed a less dogmatic and more practical Christian witness. In the tribulations of Africa, I traded “the end of my rope for the God of hope.” If you can see past that trite wording, you see a deeper faith at work. I gained a sense that I was loved by God and that he would provide, though I confess this is a lesson I have had to relearn (and relearn). I came to appreciate the need for brotherhood, and developed friendships that have lasted a lifetime. And I gained a more complete understanding of race relations as I worked alongside Africans that I respected and admired in the midst of apartheid. 

Being on Crusade staff was by itself a rewarding experience. I was on staff to be a disciple maker, but in the process I was discipled myself. And I learned a framework for personal ministry that is so Biblical that its relevance is undiminished by time. I still use the current version of the four laws booklet to share Christ today.   

So, I recommend mission work in the post college period. To be absolutely clear, it was a sacrifice because I pushed off career and family for three years. And it had its own trials and tribulations, but it was worth it.

In saying one should consider circumstances as part of a calling, no one should take circumstances alone as a calling. Not everyone is called to missions just because they find themselves at loose ends after college. Looking to circumstances alone for a calling is like using a rabbit’s foot. There is more to a calling than circumstances (read the book). 

But, ok, you are considering mission work. I have a caveat: go for a meaningful length of time. In a two week mission trip, for example, you will only get a taste. You do not feel the full press of culture stress, homesickness, and team dynamics in a short period. You are really not fully invested. And, you may even be a burden to your host mission group. Getting this taste can be beneficial, but be aware of the limitations.

How do you hope to see this book impact the lives of those who read it. 

I hope readers of the book see the movement of God in this old forgotten story. I hope they see that there is grandeur in what we so often take as just ordinary day-to-day living. I hope they see the kindness of God overlooking our faults and failures and using us anyway. I hope they see how exquisite is God’s timing and how complete is his provision. I hope they see the members of the body working together as a whole. I hope they realize anew just how much we the brethren need each other. I hope and pray the readers find these or other insights and live more devotedly for the Lord because they read this book.

Do you have a future books in progress currently?

I am doing the research for a laymen’s commentary on Proverbs. It would be a view of how the book’s teaching applies in the workplace. I have also thought of a focused piece on Proverbs 31 for young men on dating (that may be going where angels fear to tread). I have a few other projects in the wishful thinking stage:

  • I have considered a project about apartheid and the lessons the period and policy teach about race relations today. It would be redeeming to take that dark time and use it somehow for good.
  • I have a notion of a really “out there” work on what I call “The Theory of Delta.” It would combine the second law of thermodynamics with economics and life observations to explain how differences spur change.
  • I have a whimsical fiction idea called “A Crocodile in Irish Waters” and one of a redemption story based on a large corporation.
  • I have considered a more complete work on the subject of calling. It is a crowded field, but again, maybe there is room for comments from a layman.
  • I have also considered a work on “Turning Seventy” which would explain what to expect and hopefully how to age more gracefully. Since I don’t know that I have so aged, it would include comments by those who have.

Many thanks to Reading for the Glory for the opportunity to respond to the great questions of this interview.

Editor’s Note: RFTG would like to thank the author for generously taking the time to provide thoughtful answers to these questions.

Like the content you see on Reading For The Glory? Please subscribe by providing your email at the bottom of this page. We invite you to consider supporting the ongoing ministry of RFTG. To donate click here.

To learn more about the good news of Jesus Christ, please click here.

Website Powered by