Faith and fate lead minister, wife to life of happiness in Vicksburg

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, September 1, 2012

There’s a tag on the front of Francis Vriesen’s pickup that proclaims “GOD Provided.” There’s a story there. In fact, the life of the Christian minister and of his wife, Joan, is full of stories.

Francis and Joan came to Warren County in 1967 when he was called to pastor Wayside Baptist Church. He was from New York, she from Arkansas. They met on a blind date when he was stationed at Fort Chaffee, Ark.

Love at first sight?

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“No,” Joan said, the date was arranged by mutual friends who thought they’d make a good couple. They told him she looked like Lana Turner, and to her they said he was “very handsome” until the day of the date when the description was changed to “short, fat and bald.”

“I told them I was going to look out the window and, ‘If he looks like that I’m going to have the worst headache of my life, go to my room and never come out.’”

Of course, it was a prank, for when Francis arrived, she found him to be “tall, lean and lanky. He had this red Plymouth convertible with a black top. Very cool. I fell in love with the car.”

That first date was unique in several ways, and perhaps it lay the groundwork for the future: it was a Saturday night and they went to a revival at the Baptist church. She was Southern Baptist, he was Roman Catholic. They were both “dyed-in-the-wool,” she said.

After several dates, she told him there was no point in continuing the relationship. It was just not going to work out because of their differences. He hesitated and wanted to talk about things. She suggested he study the Bible and see what it said about what each believed.

Though he had been an altar boy and respected the Bible, he didn’t own one, “but being Dutch, I knew I was right,” he said. “When I went to that Baptist church to a revival meeting I was a square peg in a round hole.”

Francis went to Atlanta to a welding school, and Joan gave him a Catholic Bible, “But it made no sense to me because I was not spiritual.”

In time, however, after much study and prayer, he was baptized into the Baptist faith.

They married, and he thought the military would send him to Europe. Instead, it was Alaska.

There, under the guidance of a Baptist minister from Mississippi, he felt the call to the ministry.

The next stop after being discharged was Mississippi College, where Joan enrolled in business and education and he in ministerial studies and Bible.

“I remember the day we got to Mississippi College,” she said. “I had two ear infections, and it was 105 degrees. We had left comfortable Fairbanks, and I couldn’t believe we had come to a place as hot as this.”

Yet, they fell in love with the state, especially Vicksburg, though Joan admits the first time she came here, she said, “That’s one place I’ll never live.” She soon learned to love it.

Before coming to Warren County Francis pastored rural churches in Madison County and near Thomastown.

While Francis was pastoring, Joan was teaching. Remembering her days as a youngster in Arkansas, she said she would line up her six younger brothers on the back steps of their home and teach.

“I was really called to be a teacher,” she said. She began the vocational program of office training here at Cooper and Temple, setting up her classroom like an office. The students’ jobs were rotated so that they could learn how to run an office. She taught how to operate business machines and also grooming, dress, applying for a job, building a program “that just sold itself. That was in the early days of integration, and I was able to place students in jobs where they could excel. I even wrote a textbook, which is totally obsolete today.” Later she taught seventh grade at a private school and then helped found the Christian Center for Educational Excellence.

After Francis’ tenure at Wayside ended, he founded Faith Christian Church in Vicksburg. He later went to work at LeTourneau, and after several years the church closed after several key families transferred to other cities.

It was during his time at Faith Church that something happened that made an impact on Francis’ life. A nationally known Christian teacher came to conduct a seminar, and one night when Francis was talking with the man’s wife she asked if he believed in prophecy. Well, yes, he said, citing biblical authority. She then told Francis that God had told her that he would have a worldwide teaching ministry.

Francis told Joan and basically forgot about it until about 1980 when the LeTourneau sent him on a welding job to Italy. It was a ball and socket replacement task, his first trip to Europe, “back when they always lost your luggage.”

He spent a week in Trieste, and then made a second trip to Southern Italy, at which time he made friends with an English chef, a man who had catered luncheons for Queen Elizabeth.

“I felt impressed to talk to him about salvation,” Francis said. “I never thought of the prophecy because it had been given two or three years earlier, and I couldn’t see any connection between it and the work that I was doing. Not yet at that time.”

After his testimony and work with the Englishman, he said, “From that time on I was aware that every time I was asked to go and repair a ball and socket on a drilling rig that God had me to come in contact with someone — every time.

“I went around the world, and as we crossed the international dateline it dawned on me, and I said, ‘God, I have just fulfilled that prophecy,’ then I said, ‘What do you want me to do now?’ And I just kept going, trips to the Gulf, overseas, a second trip around the world.”

A highlight was on a rig off the Ivory Coast where he taught Bible classes each evening, but when the crew was rotated for a time, he had no students, only his helper, a Muslim, and one night Francis asked him to pray, and it was a sincere, heartfelt prayer “like I had never heard before. It was at the Muslim’s request that Francis sent him a Bible.

Francis’ ministry isn’t just on a worldwide basis, for he had plenty to do in his home community. Though he hasn’t pastored a church in quite a few years, he’s still a pastor to many friends and neighbors who often ask him to conduct weddings and funerals.

Funerals are the most difficult, he said, especially when it is for a child. For a wedding he always counsels with the couple and sometimes has refused to officiate “because my obligation first of all is to God. There is no pat service. It’s written in the Bible, and some don’t like to hear what’s in the Bible. I pray earnestly about it. Prayer takes precedent.’

Life hasn’t always been roses by any means. In the last two years, Joan has lost her parents, and the Vriesens have lost a son. A wreck demolished Joan’s car and severely injured her, causing her to have to give up her child care business.

“You choose to be happy, to be positive,” she said, noting that despite tribulations, God is always there to help.

She can smile when she looks back at the years when Francis was away from home because that was “invaribly when we had a freeze, pipes broke, there was no water and no power. I even had to break the ice so the horses could drink.”

And talk about a cold house! It has taken a lot of work, and Francis has insulated it a little at a time, “but what a blessing,” he said, and Joan added, “We are the original recyclers, before it was cool,” making use of many items others would have discarded. Both agree that the house “has taught us a lot about relying on God.”

But back to the tag on their pickup: it was just a few years ago and their 1967 Plymouth wagon had seen better days, so Francis did what he usually does. He turned to God.

“God, you know what I need. Whatever you want to have, I’ll be satisfied with it. I let it go at that,” he said.

A few months later he was sent on a job to Trinidad, and after he was paid, had given his tithe and a love offering, “God told me to take the remaining money to buy a vehicle. Blackburn Motors had just what I wanted — a no-frills used truck, but the cost was more than I had.” He figured at this time in life (he’s 81) this would be the last vehicle he would need. He and the salesman couldn’t come to an agreement, but three weeks later, he got a call. They would accept his offer.

Looking back on life, Francis and Joan are positive that “things don’t just happen. God has intervened. He has His plans.”

For the Vriesens, the tag on their truck is more than a mere slogan.

Gordon Cotton is a historian and author who lives in Vicksburg.