Recognizing Rev. Garland Criswell

Here is an interview that was done by Barbara Mantz Drake in 2006 in recognition of the ordination of Garland E. Criswell.  Garland retires as the Pastor of Older Adult Ministries of FBC on September 30th.

More than 60 years ago, as Garland Criswell recalls it, he and others participating in one of the early youth conferences at Green Lake, Wis., headed up the tower for a prayer session. “It was kind of a spooky experience…We looked out on the lake, and the moon was shining into the lake, almost like a pathway up to the heavens. “Someone read the Isaiah passage – ‘Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?’ and I responded emotionally, in the sense that God was calling me. But I didn’t want to be a preacher. “Mission endeavor,” he says, “was my way of finding ministry.”

Garland Criswell was licensed to ministry in 1947, two years after graduating from high school in northwestern Indiana. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in social service from Indiana University, Garland was commissioned an American Baptist missionary to serve neighborhood mission centers. This Sunday First Baptist Church will ordain him to ministry.

Ordination, according to the Great Rivers Region, is “the process that a church enters to affirm the calling, giftedness and service of the candidate.” In Garland’s case, the procedure will give him no authority he presently lacks – his license entitles him to marry and baptize people, for example. Rather, it will recognize what he is and has been to this church since coming to Peoria nearly half a century ago. Ordination, says Tom Bayes, offers “a more complete recognition of the pastoral ministry Garland has been performing for years at First Baptist.” Presently that service includes ministry to older adults, the sick and homebound, and the grieving. Garland also is a familiar presence in the worship service. He works approximately 15 hours a week and takes no salary.

The man who didn’t want to be a preacher didn’t want to be an electrician either, though that’s what the Army had in mind for him when it drafted him in 1945. Garland says he was supposed to climb telephone poles and spread lines in postwar Europe. But (and this should surprise no one) he had some ideas of his own, and he spoke up. The recreation center at the California Army base to which he was assigned “was just lousy,” and he challenged his superiors to “let me take it on.” For the next six months, Garland located missing equipment, scrounged up ping pong tables, catalogued the library, etc. Whatever the Army intended, the training would serve him well in civilian life. By that time, he was convinced that mission work was his calling – but here in the United States.

“I was concerned about people who need a better understanding of life so it can be improved,” Garland says. “When we think of mission work, we think of foreign missionaries. I have tried to bring to our church a sense that not all missionaries are across the ocean. They’re right here in our backyard.”

In 1952, newly graduated and newly married to fellow Hoosier Joan, Garland was hired to supervise men’s and boys’ activities at a Christian center near Pittsburgh. Six years later Friendship House brought him to Peoria to begin the process of turning the immigrant-focused settlement house into a full-fledged social service agency.

Since Friendship House had only recently moved out of a Quonset hut, Criswell found himself doing some of the same sorts of things he’d done at that Army base – scrounging for tables and chairs, for example. Over the next 32 years, he built programs, recruited and trained a corps of 400 volunteers, hired and managed staff, worked with an ecumenical board representing five major denominations and oversaw the fund-raising effort that paid for the present building. But nothing counts for more than the agency’s effect on human lives, he says.

Though he’s been retired for more than 15 years, Garland says people still stop him and ask, ‘Are you Mr. Criswell?’ And when he says he is, they tell him that Friendship House “‘meant so much to me…It made my life so much better…It turned me around.’” That’s not easy to do, and the failures haunt him, but he still believes that people really want “a finer way in life…The trick is finding those buttons that turn them around.”

As for Garland’s buttons, there are many. In retirement he established the senior computer club at Friendship House, helped introduce Habitat for Humanity to Peoria, led the Heartland Coalition for the Homeless, moderated a TV program and pursued his interest in photography. He once had a collection of more than 250 cameras.

“There’s a lot of joy in life,” he says. “Part of it comes from understanding who your God is and what he can bring to you.”