Randal Deese will never forget the date: December 22, 1974.
That’s when his life took a significant turn, a turn that ultimately led him to Perkins School of Theology, by way of many twists and turns.
Deese grew up in a dysfunctional family. He attended a Lutheran church, but only because his mother insisted. He began taking drugs at age 12: marijuana, meth, and LSD. He lied about his age and education and enlisted in the Coast Guard at age 15. While serving aboard a ship, he was rarely sober.
“I was a messed up young fellow,” he said.
One night, after a long night of partying, he started to think about how miserable his out-of-control life was making him. With no one else to talk to, he turned to a shipmate.
“He never preached at me or anything, but everybody on the ship called him the Jesus Freak,” he recalled. “I just poured out my whole life to him. The drugs, my lying to the military, everything. He looked at me and he said, ‘I can’t do anything for you. But I know somebody that can do something for you. Can we pray?'”
The conversation didn’t do much for Deese, but when the man woke him up and invited him to church a few hours later, Deese felt obligated and went along. At the church, which was packed, he found a warm welcome. The preacher concluded his sermon with an altar call, saying, “If you want to know God personally, all you need to come do is come up here and meet him.”
Deese said he heard two voices in his mind. One said, “Don’t go up there. You’re going to look like a fool.” The other said calmly, “Randy, if you go up to the front of this altar, you will never regret it.”
Deese walked up the aisle.
“I felt literally like tons of weight (due to guilt and shame) was falling off of me,” he said. The preacher cited 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and cleanses from all unrighteousness.” The words were seared into Deese’s heart, and his life changed at that moment.
“One day I was on drugs,” he said. “The next day I couldn’t put my Bible down.”
With only an eighth-grade education, Deese earned a GED, then acquired a Bachelor of Arts in pre-theological studies through cumulative studies at a local community college, a Pentecostal Bible college and a Lutheran seminary. Afterward, he received an M.Div. at Faith Evangelical Lutheran Seminary in Tacoma, Washington (now Faith International University.) He served as senior pastor in a nondenominational church for many years, then spent six years as a police chaplain. He served a total of 15 years in the military, including three years as a military chaplain, part of that time in Iraq.
“I was in a multi-functional medical battalion in Iraq,” he said. “Primarily, we were the psychiatric unit for the whole area of operations in Iraq. We ran the counseling clinics at different posts all across Iraq. I flew everywhere throughout Iraq to make sure everybody was spiritually okay, to encourage and strengthen and let people know that somebody’s thinking about them, even though they might be in a remote little place somewhere in Iraq.”
There were harrowing moments during his time in Iraq. Shortly after arriving at Joint Base Balad, he was instructed to run to the nearest bunkers immediately after hearing the sirens.
“The first night, the alarm went off, and mortars were coming in,” Deese said, “I realized I’d never make it to the bunkers.” They were landing before I could open the door to my room. “From then on, every time I heard the alarm, I’d say, ‘Lord, if it’s my time, it’s my time. I’m rolling over, I’m going to sleep.’ And that’s what I did the rest of the time I was in Iraq.” He refused to get stressed out about something he had no control over.
After leaving the chaplaincy in 2010, Deese was not planning on returning to ministry. Instead, he spent a decade working as a truck driver. Going back to school, he jokes, is his way of “rebooting” himself to return to ministry.
So how did Deese — an evangelical educated at a Pentecostal Bible college and a Lutheran seminary – end up at Perkins?
First, he felt that Perkins offered the most potential for personal growth among his choices in the North Texas area. Secondly, he hopes his academic work might promote Bible literacy and education among pastors who don’t have the benefit of a seminary education.
“I have a desire to reach out to the non-trained clergy within the charismatic Pentecostal and Evangelical streams,” he said. “Some of them don’t even have a high school education. I’d love to figure out a Bible college program of some kind that would reach into their churches. I haven’t formulated exactly how it would work, but basically, I’d like to help lift the standard up in the theological training area for many clergy. Some of these pastors might take a small correspondence course, depending on their affiliation, but other than that, there lots of untrained clergy out there.”
Returning to school at this stage in his life has been challenging. “I forgot how to write a paper,” he said. “How do you make citations now? How do you make a bibliography? Now we have computers, we have websites. There’s a lot to consider that I never had to consider back in 1986, the last time I was in school.”
Still, Deese finds his studies rewarding. He’s particularly interested in pneumatology, specifically, the study of baptism with the Holy Spirit. He hopes to pursue a doctorate ultimately.
When he’s not busy studying, Deese enjoys oil painting – landscapes are his favorite – and spending time with his family: his wife, three sons, two stepsons, a stepdaughter, 12 grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.
Prayer has been of primary importance throughout his journey, with its many unexpected turns. One Bible verse has helped him keep perspective for many years: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NRSVUE).