It was the fall of 1949 when I first heard the name of Jim Vaus. That September I had enrolled at Wheaton College at the recommendation of Billy Graham who had spoken at a youth rally in Canada that I was leading and told me about his alma mater.
One of the first Sundays at college I went with friends eagerly to hear Billy preach at the church he pastored in Western Springs, Illinois. That Sunday night he left for Los Angeles to begin the evangelistic campaign that would make him first a local, then a national, then an internationally-known evangelist.
The headlines of his extended preaching in Los Angeles excited me and the other young aspiring preachers at Wheaton. We were intrigued not just at the crowds, but the "name" figures who gave their lives to Christ then?the cowboy singer Stuart Hamblen, the Olympic runner and war hero Lou Zamperini, and, most unusual of all, a wiretapper for the gangster Mickey Cohen named Jim Vaus.
Jim was only the name of a kind of "celebrity" then. Later I came to know him as he became a man of God, a lover of young people, a devoted father, a man marked by God's grace.
Sometimes one who has been dramatically converted is described as a "trophy of grace." Does that conjure up the image of a glass-covered cabinet in heaven where Jesus proudly displays the "trophies" he has won? Hardly.
What matters to the Lord (and should to us) is when someone who has come to faith in Christ, famous or ordinary, becomes a "letter from Christ", to use Paul's metaphor?one in whom the marks of Christ are seen.
Jim Vaus, as I came to know him, was such a "letter."
He was a good-sized letter, a big, towering giant of a man who also exuded the loving gentleness of his Lord.
He was a fun-loving letter. My wife Jeanie and I learned how he loved practical jokes when at our wedding (where her brother Billy officiated) Jim hinted that as a reformed wiretapper he was going to use his skills to "bug" our honeymoon hotel!
Most of all, he was a God-loving and people-loving letter. After his conversion Jim became a kind of evangelical "celebrity", traveling from city to city to give his testimony. But that was not enough.
He became a letter from Christ to gang members in the heart of New York City, moving into the ghetto to reach hard-core youngsters, sharing with them in word and deed and presence the love of Christ that changed his life.
And Jim was a long-lasting letter to those in his family who knew him best. His son Will was also called to ministry, and it was my joy to have Will associated for a time with our own ministry of evangelism and leadership training. Will is a second-generation letter from Christ.
So Jim was, and is still in heaven, a letter worth God's writing. And this book is worth your reading. It is a story that needs to be told, remembered, and one that leads us to praise the God of grace who met Jim Vaus in that canvas cathedral in Los Angeles, and is still ready to enter and transform lives today.
Leighton Ford Ministries
Charlotte, North Carolina