By Tant Williams, Jr.
After forty-one years in the Union (Republic) of South Africa, preacher W. Ray Votaw and his helpmate, Thena, have retired to the Gist community, deep in the heart of East Texas Pines, about thirty miles east of Beaumont. This is his native turf. His health is day-to-day, inasmuch as he has carotid and cardiovascular blockage plus asbestosis of the lungs. Physicians are working with him.
Following a hitch in the Navy during World War II, Ray completed two years of study at Freed Hardeman College. He preached a couple of years and then enrolled at Harding College. After being invited to preach in South Houston, Texas in 1952, he transferred to the University of Houston. In 1954 he made a decision to preach the Gospel in the Union of South Africa. Heartbroken brethren of the South Houston Church agreed to support him in East London, coastal city on the Indian Ocean. Ray and Thena, with two little girls, departed from the Hobby Airport, flew to New York, caught the Queen Mary, arrived in Southampton, caught “The Mail Boat” Pretoria Castle, arriving in Cape town August 2, 1954. (Ray has received wages from the South Houston Church for nearly forty-five years.)
The Votaws succeeded an anxiously departing evangelist. Ray coped with working among English-Indians, Coloreds and the Black Tribal-people. After a few years, the Votaws moved inland a thousand miles to Springs, Transvaal, near Johannesburg, where he would be more centrally located. Here he be-came more and more active among the indigenous blacks. Although Ray had studied both the Afrikaans and Xhosa languages for awhile at the East London Technical College, he had to depend on trusted translators from twelve different tribal language groups as he went far and near to teach them, living with them, learning their habits, likes and dislikes, developing a trust that would endear him in their hearts. He warned them of false teachers; they protected his physical presence from disenchanted tribesmen.
His home in Springs was always open to the blacks (and others) for teaching, exhortation, and fellowship. The months became years, and the years became decades. There were problems, he sought to guide them from the Americanization of the whites. So, “as shades of the African night descended upon their kraals, and the younger ones crowded about the aged as they sat before the campfires, the old ones would say, `He came only with the Bible, nothing else. He taught us from the Word of God, to tell of a Savior who could help us in our sinful condition. We learned to depend upon him for the truth because he spoke only words of truth. Now, the weight of the world has fallen upon him, his hair has whitened with the ages of his service. He must return to his homeland for his remaining years. We will miss him and his family.
As soon as he announced that he would be returning to the states because of ill health, there began a steady stream of visitors to his home to say their tearful goodbyes, and to wish him better health and a long life. It was a moving experience that the Votaws will long remember.
Ray Votaw has no doubts that the blacks will be all right in their various churches. He had taught them to he independent and do their own work, even when he was with them. He never sent “home” glowing reports of numbers, because there were none. They learned not to depend upon him, but conducted their own service. Sometimes these services might last all day into the night. Baptisms could occur without an invitation song; men might take a candidate to the river for immersion, even while Ray was speaking to them. They learned to do by doing in their own surroundings.
Ray and Thena had their sad moments of twisting anguish. Their youngest daughter died of cancer in a Beaumont hospital; two grandchildren were awarded to the divorced South African husband by the courts of that country. In another year Celeste, the oldest daughter died of a heart attack. His mother, one brother, three sisters, Thena’s mother and father died during this period of time. Now 8,000 miles separate them from the middle daughter, Sharon, the wife of preacher, Eric Reed, and mother of three, of Bellville, Cape, RSA.
How was his rapport or relationship with other preachers and teachers? He tangled often with those of the “institutional persuasion,” finally convinced two prominent figures of the errors of their stand, in addition to one state side preacher, who is now in RSA. With those who stood with him on the above question but had peculiar beliefs on indifferent matters, the full use of Romans 14 was needed to maintain good working relationships. He was considered a leader by all parties.
Amongst the blacks some physical problems sometimes developed, but as a usual rule the blacks took care of such to stave off a fighting confrontation. Outside of religious circles, more than once, brother Votaw had to defend himself against criminal elements, receiving a broken jaw and losing several teeth in one encounter. A strange set of circumstances singled him out by an international crime syndicate. Fearful for the lives of his family and having to be constantly on guard against all kinds of “entrapment,” he worked behind the scenes with just a couple of law officials who were themselves frightened for their lives. The suspected “hit man” was imprisoned in another country; this relieved some pressure. He ultimately fortified his domicile, electronically as well as with physical measures, using a faithful black brother as night watchman and at times as bodyguard for Thena.
Such was the experience of Evangelist W. Ray Votaw and his family in preaching and teaching the gospel of the New Testament in the country of South Africa. His plans are to continue to assist the brethren in any way possible to express his love for them. “Night fires are burning, and aged men are relating the history to young ones inside the kraal.”
Guardian of Truth XL: 7 p. 20-21
April 4, 1996