The Home Missionary Who Never Retired
In 1940, in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, a young missionary faced perhaps the toughest decision of his life. War was imminent and the consular authorities had advised him to leave China. The Committee on Foreign Missions of the newly formed Orthodox Presbyterian Church had left it up to him: he could either continue his work among the Manchurian Chinese or evacuate the country with his wife and children. At the urging of the local Chinese, who feared that the presence of foreigners would draw unwanted attention from the Japanese, he decided to leave Manchuria.
A new chapter in the life of Henry Coray began when he returned to the United States. He continued to do missionary work, but this time in California, where he would plant churches for the next twenty-six years.
Today, at age 95, Henry Coray lives with his wife, Betty, in a retirement home in Goleta, California. When we visited him to ask about his home missions experience, we found him busy at his desk, writing his latest novel (he has written several novels already). On a small table across the room stood a framed, black-and-white picture of Henry and his wife in Chinese dress, taken in Manchuria more than sixty years ago.
A group of families in Long Beach, California, contacted Mr. Coray shortly after he had settled his family in southern California. These people were ready to leave the increasingly liberal PCUSA and form a new church in the OPC. Mr. Coray agreed to become their organizing pastor.
First OPC (which later changed its name to Faith OPC) first met in a storefront on the outskirts of Long Beach. Before long, they moved to another storefront in North Long Beach, a more unchurched area. But growth was slow during those early years. "People find it easier to go to a church that's already established," Mr. Coray says, referring to the storefront.
Mr. Coray worked hard, reaching out to the community. He pounded the pavement from house to house, knocking on doors and inviting people to church. Although most of the time he was turned away, one couple invited him inside to talk. They were grieving over their son, a pilot who had been shot down during the war. "During the war, people were more receptive [to the gospel] than in peacetime," Coray explains. The couple was also distressed because friends had told them that God was punishing them by taking their son away. Mr. Coray invited them to church, and they attended faithfully for many years.
First OPC reached a turning point in 1942, when they heard of a vacant lot in central Long Beach. Since that part of town was relatively unchurched, it was an ideal place to evangelize. One member provided the money to make a down payment on their first building. "I often wondered why some other church hadn't bought that vacant lot," Mr. Coray reflects. "In the providence of God, it started with that."
Their most successful outreach was to the family, the friends, and the coworkers of church members. First OPC had a Friday evening picnic at a local park to which non-Christians were invited to come. "It was good because people from outside got the impression that you didn't have to be long-faced to be a Christian," Coray says. "We had a lot of fun."
There was a new theater across the street from the church. Once Mr. Coray obtained permission from the owner to meet there for an Easter sunrise service. First OPC advertised the service in the newspaper, and on Easter morning the theater was filled with people. "That was a good lever," Coray remembers. "From then on we became better known in the town."
La Mirada and Garden Grove
By 1951, First OPC was growing rapidly and had to make plans to enlarge its existing building. That year Mr. Coray heard of another church-planting opportunity in the nearby city of Whittier, where several interested families resided. Assisted by fellow OP pastor James Moore, Mr. Coray began holding a midweek Bible study in Whittier, while still pastoring at Long Beach. On the first night of the study, two people camea former Mormon and a former Roman Catholic! Even though they didn't attend very long, the Bible study attracted many other interested people.
It wasn't long before they were ready to meet for worship services. Mr. Coray credits the summer Family Conference for getting people excited about joining the OPC. "Several families went to the family conference and got acquainted [with other families]. They came back and said, 'We have got to have a church!' " By 1958, Calvary OPC in La Mirada was organized.
Meanwhile, the growth with which God was blessing First OPC in Long Beach was overflowing into another community. In 1951, the same year that the Whittier group started, some Long Beach members began meeting together for worship in Garden Grove. They formed the nucleus that became organized just four years later as Garden Grove OPC (now called Westminster OPC, after moving to nearby Westminster, California).
After fourteen years of pastoring First OPC in Long Beach, Henry Coray felt his work there was done. The presbytery wanted him to plant another church and let him decide on a new location. He knew of a former Long Beach member who had moved to northern California and was willing to assist in a church-planting endeavor in Sunnyvale. So, in 1955, Mr. Coray moved his family north and began a Bible study in this former member's home.
Sunnyvale was a relatively unchurched area. A number of people who were dissatisfied with the PCUSA formed the nucleus of First OPC. The group progressed rapidly. They were able to rent a women's club hall to meet for worship and soon made plans to erect a church building. The architect who designed the church offered his services for free.
The Sunnyvale church grew to nearly one hundred people. Mr. Coray credits their growth largely to the church members who witnessed to neighbors and lived a godly life before them. "I had some really zealous members," he recalls. However, he does tell a story about two people who came to the church after watching television!
A childhood friend of Mr. Coray's, whom he had led to Christ years before, was featured on a popular network television show called This Is Your Life. During the show, the featured guest would be surprised by people who had played significant roles in his life. Mr. Coray appeared on the show as one of those surprise people and was introduced by host Ralph Edwards as the pastor of a church in Sunnyvale. It happened that two sisters who were looking for a church in Sunnyvale were watching the program that day. They immediately contacted First OPC and have been worshiping there ever since.
By the time Mr. Coray left First OPC in Sunnyvale, he had spent twenty-six years doing home missions work in California. The OP churches in Long Beach, La Mirada, Garden Grove (now Westminster), and Sunnyvale are still thriving today. Although Mr. Coray is now retired from being a home missionary in an official capacity, his continual zeal for evangelism demonstrates that he really has not retired from home missions work at all.
He continues to share the gospel with people at his retirement home and leads private Bible studies for anyone who is interested. "People who go to church year after year after year may not have the slightest idea what the Bible teaches," he observes.
He often encounters apathy toward the gospel among his neighbors. "Most people say, 'I'm doing the best I can.' I hear that all the time." He once read the Ten Commandments to a man who claimed he had never broken any of them. "Have you ever lied?" Coray asked him. "No," the man insisted. Coray replied, "You just lied when you said you never lied!"
The retirement home has a Sunday evening chapel service attended by about twenty people. Mr. Coray used to preach there once a month. "I'd look forward to it," he says. He had to stop preaching, however, when he and his wife both contracted pneumonia recently and needed to be hospitalized for a time.
At the close of our visit with Mr. Coray, as we waited for the elevator to take us down, he greeted one of the residents passing by. "Some people here suffer terribly as a result of things they have done in the past," he explained. "They have a lot on their conscience, and can break down crying. I've got to talk with themshare Christ with them."
For Henry Coray, the work of evangelism and home missions is a way of life.
Mrs. Irons is the wife of the organizing pastor of Redeemer OP Chapel in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, Calif. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 1999.