Ministry extends far beyond earthly life
By Helen (Hughes) Sears with Keith Bassham
Editors Note: The following was originally published in Our Baptist Heritage: The Lives of 32 Outstanding Bible-Believing Baptists, which was published by the Baptist Bible Tribune in 2000.
Theron Hughes worked hard for his father, J. W. C. Hughes, who had a successful farm, several hundred acres of land, cattle, and sawmills. He and his wife Thelma lived in a country house in the piney woods of East Texas, close to the town of Center. In this country house on the farm, ThelmaHughes gave birth to her fifth son, Robert Earl Hughes, on August 8, 1932. Robert, or Bob, as he was later known, had three older brothers, J. T., Jack, and Alton (Dalton, Alton’s twin, was stillborn). And after Bob’s birth, younger brothers Kenneth, Johnny, Billy, Richard, and a younger sister, Mary, added five more children to the family.
It was hard with such a huge family to make ends meet, and Theron took on other jobs to help support them. He was ingenious with things mechanical and could repair almost anything. He started a used furniture business. He would buy old refrigerators for almost nothing, repair them, and then sell them. All his sons inherited some of that talent. None of them had the privilege of going to college. Some didn’t even finish high school, yet they managed to do well in business of some sort.
The Hughes family touched by John Rawlings
In 1948, when Bob was 16 years old, John Rawlings, from nearby Tyler, Texas, held a tent revival in Center. From that meeting, a church was formed. Several of the Hughes family, including Bob’s mother, and later, his father, accepted Christ. Bob himself made a profession of faith, though he was not quite sure of his salvation.
A year later, just barely 17 years old, he convinced his parents to sign for him to go into the Air Force. After basic training, he was stationed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. He learned sheet metal mechanics and worked on airplanes.
The Texas church supported some missionaries in thePhilippines and they urged Bob to contact them. He began going to Manila where he visited Frank Hooge, Elmer Gullion, and Joe Vella. All of them had an indelible influence on Bob Hughes and he realized that he needed to be born again. He was not saved in any of their churches, but after one of his trips to Manila, under deep conviction, he took his small Bible and got on his knees all alone and asked the Lord to come into his heart.
Bob spent two years at ClarkAir Force Base. He began to grow and continued his trips to Manila to visit the missionaries. When he left the Islands, he left with a sense of the great need of the Filipino people, a burden so great that he decided to go to Baptist Bible College and prepare to be a missionary.
God chooses a mate for Bob
In the meantime, God was working on another part of Bob’s future. In 1951 Frank Hooge and his family returned to the United States for furlough. They showed their slides at a Mission Prayer Band meeting at Baptist Bible Collegein Springfield, Missouri. One of the slides included the face of Bob Hughes, and Hooge referred to him as “the service man who had been visiting me.” Helen Johnston, a BBC student, was at that Mission Prayer Band and her heart was touched by the need in the Philippines. Though she had paid little attention to the picture of Bob Hughes, she went back to her dorm and told the Lord, “I will go to the Philippines if I do not have to go alone.”
In January 1953 Bob Hughes was discharged from the Air Force and made his way to Baptist Bible College. When he arrived, he was looking for Fred and Effie Donnelson’s apartment and entered the girls’ dormitory. Helen Johnston was in the lobby of the dorm and she directed him to the Donnelson’s apartment. She still paid no attention to him, and continued practicing on the piano in the lobby.
Bob entered school that semester and was busy doing afternoon jobs around campus. He was well respected on campus but he did have a hard time with English grammar. Speech class was hard for him, but by the time English instructor Kevin McAndrews was finished with him, he became the class speaker at graduation.
Bob and Helen were eventually acquainted, and they married after Helen’s graduation in 1954. Alhough he was still a student, Bob was called to become the pastor of the Temple Baptist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. He and Helen made their way to Springdale every Friday after school and returned to Springfield on Sunday night after services. The church grew from about 20 in attendance to 120 in about a year and a half.
Begins missionary ministry
After Bob graduated in 1955, he and Helen were approved as missionaries to the Philippines. They raised their support in about nine months, and along with their three-month-old daughter Cindy, boarded a Dutch freighter for the three-week voyage to the Philippines.
Their first year was spent in Manila, overseeing a work for the furloughing Frank Hooge. Helen says that it was “an adjustment period,” but since the couple was young, they adjusted quickly. About a year later, another daughter, Karen, was born.
Fred Donnelson made a trip to the Far East about that time. He spent some time in the Philippines, travelling to several islands to the south. He came back to Manila and described the island of Cebu to them. After Hooge returned, Bob made a trip to Cebu City and surveyed the situation. He felt that was the place they were to go.
The Cebu City miracle begins
In 1957 the Hughes family packed everything, put their things on an inner-island ship and headed to Cebu. They settled in an old home in Mandawe, Cebu, just a short distance outside Cebu City. The rent was very cheap in those days and since they went with little support, they had to choose what they could afford.
In this old house they began their Bible study. Several people were saved, and in a few months they were able to move into the city of Cebu, where they rented a storefront building in the heart of town.
Cebu City was a college city, with about 20 colleges and universities. Young people came from other islands to receive their college education. Bob and Helen were very young, and they were able to identify with college students and young people. Some of the first people who were saved were college students. They stayed at the downtown location a short time; then a large house was available to rent. They lived upstairs and used the downstairs for the services of Bible Baptist Church of Cebu City.
Bob began a radio program called “What The Bible Says,” that reached Cebu and outlying islands and provinces. The church moved to another location, and afterward acquired land and began to erect a permanent building.
In 1969 the Hughes family took a furlough and the church called Dr. Armie Jesalva as the pastor. Dr. Jesalva, a physician whom God had called into the ministry, had been very active, teaching Sunday school and directing the choir. Bob never pastored the church after this, but headed the Bible college to train young men and women for the ministry.
Church expands and innovates
Church growth was rapid. G. B. Vick travelled to Cebu and conducted a crusade in the Cebu Coliseum. Several other missionaries assisted in the crusade and over 2,000 attended each night of the crusade, and many accepted Jesus Christ.
In the early 1970s the church acquired more property nearby and began yet another building that would seat over 3,000. It took a year to construct the building and Bob oversaw the whole process. He purchased every nail and bag of cement and whatever else was needed. He was trying to make the money stretch as far as possible and to be able to have the space needed for Sunday school classes and auditorium space. In 1973 the Bible Baptist Church building was dedicated with 5,963 people present. BBFI mission director Jack Bridges was the dedication speaker, and many were saved on that day.
The great attendance on dedication day created a new opportunity. Jeepneys, small vehicles converted to carry many people, had been used in a “jeepney ministry,” the Filipino equivalent to the church bus ministry in America. Children, 1,500 of whom were present for dedication day, were being brought in without their parents and this put undue pressure on the Sunday school teachers. The children were often unruly and some would just run out of the building and end up being lost.
John Honeycutt arrived in the Philippines about the time of the dedication. He and Bob worked out a plan to conduct extension classes in several areas of the city, essentially taking the Sunday school to the people themselves. The extension classes were a great success. Hundreds were reached with the gospel.
Later, after seeing the success of the Saturday extension classes, the leaders determined to provide classes during the week as well. At one point, over 18,000 people were hearing the gospel through the extensions. Today they continue, and some of those classes have become satellite churches throughout the city of Cebu.
Jack Van Impe came to Cebu in 1975 to preach in a city-wide crusade. Every night the church’s new auditorium was packed. Again, teams of people were organized to bring in bus loads of people to the services. During the crusade, there were several brown-outs and then in the last part of the meeting, a typhoon passed through the city. In spite of all these difficulties, hundreds received Jesus Christ.
That was the first time many people in the city of Cebu heard the gospel. Later, when the church members would visit in the homes, they often heard people say, “I attended the Jack Van Impe Crusade.” Years later, Bible Baptist Church members were still discovering people who attended the crusade and brought them to church.
Cancer forces return to States
In 1974 Bob was burdened to print Bibles for the people in the Philippines. The Bible was available in English, but not in the dialects and languages of the people he wanted to reach. He determined to print 1,000,000 copies of the New Testament, and he began working hard to raise the money for the printing of these Bibles.
In the midst of that hard work, in August 1975, Bob was having some physical problems. He had been suffering with symptoms for some time, but he neglected to have them checked. A test revealed a blockage in the colon. Surgery confirmed the diagnosis: Bob Hughes, the 43-year-old missionary, had cancer.
The news was difficult to bear. He, his wife and daughter Karen began preparations to return home for treatment. Cindy was already in the States attending Bible college. Bob preached his last sermon in the church, and the family made their way back to Texas, with the prayer that he could be healed of this disease and return to the Philippines.
They settled in Houston, Texas, near M. D. Anderson Hospital, for further evaluation. The physicians were not hopeful but they began treatments immediately. He felt better, good enough to travel and visit his supporting churches. He even taught some classes at Baptist Bible College in Springfield. He preached with passion and many young people responded to his invitation to join him in missionary work.
Eventually, though, his condition worsened. He was hospitalized in Dallas. Though he was determined to fight and live, and he had maintained his weight, he was experiencing pain. His pain became so severe that he had to receive morphine every four hours.
For five months, Helen, Cindy, Karen, and Bob’s brothers and sister kept bedside vigil. Bob was the kind of man who did all the business of the household, so much of the time Helen took his dictated notes on everything that would need to be done.
Finally, August 21, 1976, at 6 p.m., Bob Hughes was taken to heaven. He had been in a coma for two days, however, just before departing, he raised his hands three times and smiled — and then he was gone.
The Bob Hughes legacy
Bob Hughes accomplished in 20 years on the mission field what most people could do only if they had a lifetime. He was so motivated to do the Lord’s will and get the job accomplished that he would not stop. Even today his influence continues. In a memorial service held for Hughes at Baptist Bible College shortly after his death, a large number of students responded to an invitation to fill the gap and go to the mission field.
Note: The following paragraphs have been updated from the original published document in order to reflect current information.
That missionary motivation extended to his family as well. He never forced his children to serve God, but he motivated them to do God’s will in their lives. Both Cindy and Karen had a jeepney ministry and served faithfully, gathering children for Sunday school. When the new building was being constructed, Karen asked her father if she could have a large room for a church nursery. Nurseries were unheard of in the Philippines. She worked frantically and recruited her mother to help her get the beds built and uniforms made for the workers. Though she was only 16 years old then, she recruited several workers to start the nursery of Bible Baptist Church. She served there faithfully until Bob returned to the States for cancer treatments. Today she resides in Springfield, MO, and is active in her church.
Cindy had been in Bible college for a year when the Hughes family returned. She, too, had served in the Philippines. She married Eddie Lyons, and the couple were very effective missionaries in the Philippines until 2002, when Eddie was called to pastor High Street Baptist Church in Springfield, MO.
Armie Jesalva, with the help of Pastor Jun Lumagbas, continue to lead the Cebu Bible Baptist Church. Thousands attend the church weekly, and hundreds of Bible studies, church plants, and missions have sprung from the congregation in Cebu. When the church celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2007, all records for attendance and conversions were broken. More than 14,000 attended anniversary Sunday. A year later, on the 51st anniversary, more than 15,000 attended. The Bible college continues to train men and women for the ministry, both for the Philippines and throughout the world.
Two years after Bob passed away, Helen was married to Pastor Bill Sears, who was serving in Michigan at the time. In 1984 Bill Sears went home to be with his Lord. Afterward, Helen moved to Springfield, MO, where she continued to serve in ministry until her own death in 2003.
For a more detailed biography, Monroe Roark has written a book on the life of Bob Hughes, An Extraordinary Life, published by Keen Publications, and available at his website, www.wroark.com.