John Ridgway – The Influence of One Man

A Tribute by Robin Dennis

“The least one shall become a thousand and the smallest one a mighty nation” ~ Isaiah 60:22

I was working in Canberra at Parliament House and living in one of the many public servant hostels, Lawley House, which had two sections – the old and the new. Newcomers were accommodated in the old section. If one wanted to move to the new wing, one had the front office record a request in a book and wait for a vacancy. One day, I was called to the office and told that there was a room in the manager’s corridor. I was pleased to take that room because only people who were quiet were offered a room there.

John Ridgway in Canberra. Extract from Some Small Treasured Remembrances of a Lifetime: Canberra Navigators 1971 to 1994, compiled by Robin Dennis.

One day, Parliament was not sitting so I was in the hostel practicing the piano. Walking back to my room, I was surprised to see a person I did not recognise going into a room nearly opposite mine. I am a little hazy about what happened but John said that I helped him with his luggage and asked him whether he would like a cup of coffee. That would be most out of character because, at that time of my life, I did not speak to people I did not know. What I do remember is that John came to my room and we talked. I do remember very clearly a feeling of horror when he said that he was in the Army because I had a vision of noise and late parties; of getting home from work at 11pm or later with all the noise from that room and not being able to sleep. John should never have been given a room in that corridor. On arrival, people were placed in the old wing. However, I consoled myself with the thought that he would not last long as the manager would have him moved.

We continued to see each other over the next few days and weeks. John was not what I had expected. A man of quiet disposition but with a steely character. He told me that someone had said to him that he was a fanatic but he had replied that he was a wild-eyed fanatic. He offered to go to church with me. He said he knew I went to church because he had seen me on a Sunday night walking to the car park with my Bible in my hand. (Unbeknown to John, it was not a Bible but a Presbyterian hymn book with two black ribbons in it. I was a church organist.)

Photo credit: Daniel Morton, Unsplash

John would talk about Christian things and say, “As a Christian, you will know…”, and a voice inside me would say, “But you know you are not a Christian”. He was also able to speak with great authority about the Bible and even quote Scripture. I was so impressed with this that I asked him how he knew it so well. He told me about reading the Bible every morning and memorising Scripture. I said that I would like to do that so he showed me how to follow a plan to read my Bible each day and how to memorise. Some mornings after a very late night, I would go to the top of the hill where now there is that very large flagpole above the new Parliament House. There I would read my Bible, pray and memorise Scripture. I could see that there was something in John’s life that was different – and I wanted that.

In October 1971, John said that he was going to Sydney at the beginning of November for a meeting and asked whether I would like to go, too. I said that I had to play the organ on Sunday and so could not go. John asked me a second time and I made the same reply. John asked me a third time. I had been to Sydney once in my life and I thought this was a good opportunity to look around while John was at his meetings. I learnt from this to never accept the negative first answer. Ask again and then ask again.

On our arrival in Sydney, we went to a motel and I was introduced to a number of people. The first person, an Australian who was named Jack Griffin, handed me a card which had printed on it “Only one life, T’will soon be past; Only what’s done for Christ will last”. Then I was introduced to Joe Simmons from New Zealand who had a strong English accent; then Harvey Soderholm from Melbourne who spoke with an American accent; Merv Chan who was Asian in appearance had an Australian accent; Franklyn Elliott and Raymond Ewers, both Australian; Maureen Dawson from Sydney who spoke with an English accent. I was wondering with some concern what I had got myself into.

While the meeting was on, I went to the home of some of John’s friends. During the evening I was asked how long I had been a Christian. I gulped and said, “All my life” – and changed the subject. Up until that time I had been in a church nearly every Sunday from about two weeks of age. I have no recollection of ever hearing the gospel preached.

Later, when I returned to the motel, John suggested we go to a room where the Bible was being read. I grabbed my Bible, which I had purchased some months before. John 6 was being discussed and I was ignored, but when Harvey Soderholm read verse 44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”, he turned to me and asked me what that meant. I gave a number of answers until Harvey was satisfied with my reply. He then closed his Bible and said that it was time for bed. (Some years later, Harvey told me that he was showing two men there how to use a situation to witness. Those two men had fallen asleep.) That night, I could not sleep because I kept thinking about the John 6:44 verse. In the morning, on 6 November 1971, I knelt beside that bed in the motel room and committed my life to Christ. I knew I was a sinner and that Christ had died on the cross for my sins. John explained how I needed to repent and to have a personal relationship with Christ and I could do that by praying, which I was eager to do.

So began the Canberra Navigator ministry with people like Tony and Lyndall Purcell, Garry Allan, Rachelle Allan (Rachelle Bailey at that time), Alan Tan, Mike Swan and others. During university vacation, Ian McIntosh, whose parents lived in Canberra, was part of the ministry, too.

Extract from Some Small Treasured Remembrances of a Lifetime: Canberra Navigators 1971 to 1994, compiled by Robin Dennis.

Returning to Canberra, John started to teach me. He showed me many illustrations which I learnt and played back to him. He read the Bible with me and we studied it together. This took up much of John’s time but he made no complaints. I accompanied him to his parent’s home on more than one occasion and helped him with his correspondence. He took me to a conference at the Sydney Missionary and Bible College. He encouraged me to get to know the Bible. We would discuss what we had found in our Bible readings of a morning and we would check our memorised verses. It was at this time that John made the decision to change all his memory work from the AV version to the RSV. We spent hours and hours on this difficult task. Some years later, John admitted that it was so difficult to change his memory work from one version to another.

John continued to spend time with me, helping me to gradually mature in my Christian walk. By this time, John had moved from Lawley House to Burgmann College at the Australian National University. He encouraged me to find someone I could share with. I found such a person and John agreed to come over to Lawley House – this was on 19 June 1972 – and show me how to conduct an evangelistic Bible study. The night arrived, the person came to my room but John did not show. This concerned me. I stumbled through some of the Bible Study and finished early. Immediately, I drove to Burgmann College to see what had happened to John. I knocked on his door and, as he opened it, I saw sitting at the table a young man who committed his life to Christ that night. I realised from this the importance of being available and ready to lead a person to Christ. That young man, Mike Swan, became a great friend and encourager to me.

Robin with Harvey Soderholm (left) and John, and two others, on the way to Sydney from Canberra for a Navigator conference.

John encouraged me to find a life verse. Isaiah 60:22 became that verse. “The least one shall become a thousand and the smallest one a mighty nation.”

At the University of New South Wales, John had three desires: Have a sports car, have a beautiful girl and be the youngest student to obtain a PhD. Instead, he committed his life to Christ. It was the time of the Viet Nam War and National Service. John’s birthday marble came out in the draw and so he was called up. He was allowed to complete his PhD in Solid State Physics during which time he worked on some of the moon rocks brought back by the astronauts. When he commenced his national service, he was selected to go to Scheyville to complete officer training. While there, he was given special permission to rise very early each day, turn on his light and read his Bible and pray. I understand that his request caused some consternation. This was an example to me of the important part the Word of God should have in my life.

John Ridgway in Canberra. Extract from Some Small Treasured Remembrances of a Lifetime: Canberra Navigators 1971 to 1994, compiled by Robin Dennis.

John decided to leave the Army and go to the United States to work with Dr Waldron Scott at the Navigator’s headquarters in Colorado Springs. Later he became a lecturer at a university in India and commenced the Navigator work in that country. He met Ruth, I think in Singapore, while working in India.

A photograph taken by Harvey of Robin with John in the 70s.

Our paths crossed again over the years. John was always concerned about my walk with God, my progress, whether I was spending time with people, and my health.

John has written some books and papers but he told me that it was people who mattered, not programs. He leaves a legacy of people who came to know Christ because he cared for them – and me – and shared his life. We in turn are passing on what John taught us to others, who are passing that on to others. He fulfilled the Navigator motto: “To know Christ and to make Him known” and “To advance the Gospel of Jesus and His Kingdom into the nations through spiritual generations of labourers living and discipling among the lost”. I use the words of Paul in 2 Timothy 4:7, 8, applying them to John:

He has fought the good fight, he has finished the race, he has kept the faith. Now there is in store for him the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to him on that day.

Thank you, God, for John. And I thank John for sharing his life and love of Jesus Christ with me.

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