By Tom Campisi
George Verwer, founder of the global Christian mission agency Operation Mobilization, passed away at his home near London on April 14. Verwer, who grew up in Wyckoff, New Jersey, was 84.
Known for his world map jackets, boundless energy, and a burden to pray for the nations, Verwer’s leadership and vision helped Operation Mobilization (OM) grow exponentially over six decades. Today, OM has 5,000+ workers, representing more than 100 nationalities, serving around the world. OM ships have visited thousands of the world’s port cities, enabling over 20 million people to hear the good news of the gospel.
“George was passionate about Jesus, passionate for God’s word, and passionate for the lost,” said OM International Director Lawrence Tong. “I believe he was God’s man for the 20th century, who changed the course of modern missions.”
But before he led a “revolution of love” and embarked on a remarkable journey around the world, his life was impacted by a praying woman and a bus trip to hear Billy Graham preach in New York City.
When he was 14 years old, a Wyckoff neighbor, Dorothea Clapp, gave him a copy of the Gospel of John. According to OM, Mrs. Clapp prayed for 18 years for the students at George’s school, Ramsey High School, to become passionate Jesus-followers and take His message to the ends of the earth.
Three years later, in 1955, Verwer attended Word of Life’s 15th Anniversary Rally at Madison Square Garden. Local businessman Ed Galenkamp, Sr., a dairy farmer who served on the Word of Life board, chartered buses to take youth from North Jersey to the event. Billy Graham was the speaker. Verwer made a personal commitment to Christ, and his life was never the same.
Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, recently recalled that encounter and fondly remembered Verwer: “A giant in the world of evangelism has passed away. I’ve never known anyone who kept a schedule like him—he would preach the Gospel multiple times a day almost every day somewhere around the world. George was a fervent witness for Christ, and his passion for seeing souls saved never faded.”
Franklin Graham said Verwer’s conversion as a teen was a testament to the power of prayer: “George’s life was transformed after his neighbor, Dorothea Clapp put him on her prayer list, which she called her “Holy Ghost hit list.” George then surrendered his life to Christ at a meeting in Madison Square Garden where my father Billy Graham preached.”
A 2015 Gospel Coalition article detailed how Verwer used his student council position at Ramsey High School to distribute one thousand copies of the Gospel of John to fellow students. The article also noted how Verwer held a rally at Ramsey High School when he was home on Christmas break during his first year of college: “Amazingly, the public high school agreed, and the auditorium was packed with 600 students…When it came time to call his listeners to faith, George was amazed to see 125 students stand up, professing their desire to follow Christ.”
Operation Mobilisation started in 1957 when college friends Walter Borchard, Dale Rhoton and Verwer traveled to Mexico in a worn-out van to distribute Christian literature and Gospels. Over the next couple of years, they branched out into Europe and across the globe.
Verwer’s daring vision in the 1960s led to ships being used to transport and train international volunteers while carrying a cargo of literature and aid supplies. Fifty million people have climbed the gangways of OM’s four ships, and at least double that number have come into contact with the “good news” through outreaches and projects in port cities worldwide.
The North Jersey connection with Verwer continued when he founded OM. Galenkamp was one of OM’s original board members. His son-in-law, Gordon Stanley, also of Wyckoff, served on the OM USA board from 1977-2015. Stanley served as chairman of OM USA for many years and attended international board meetings at OM locations around the world.
“George was such a sincere, charismatic guy,” said Stanley, a former mayor of Wyckoff. “He lit the fuse and it just kept burning.”
“George changed the face of missions in his generation,” said Andrew Scott, president of OM USA. “When the mission agencies of the late fifties were looking for highly trained individuals with seminary degrees who would commit to going for a lifetime, George invited young people who simply loved Jesus to come for a summer. This was new. This was different. Thousands came.”
Scott said he was grateful for a man who saw things differently and had the courage to act.
“He invited a generation to be part of a Revolution of Love which impacted hundreds of millions. May we continue to live out love,” he said.
Verwer, who is survived by his wife, Drena, and their children Ben, Daniel, and Christa, once said, “Literal adherence to the principles laid down by Jesus Christ would, without a doubt, result in world-wide revolution. A revolution motivated by love; a revolution executed by love; and a revolution culminating in love.”
Lindsay Brown, who led the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students for 40 years, remembered Verwer as an outstanding missionary leader in a Christianity Today article.
“In terms of the sheer range of activities and the agencies and leaders it has spawned, I think OM is unparalleled,” Brown said. “And I think George is the preeminent North American missionary statesman of the last 60 years. He has had a remarkable ministry.”
When he considered the legacy of Verwer, Stanley recalled his unwavering commitment to Christ, his bold vision for a ship ministry, and how it all started during a Billy Graham message.
“The ‘Bethlehem’ of OM was Wyckoff, New Jersey,” Stanley said. “George was one of about ten kids from the (1955 NYC) bus trip that went forward to receive Christ that night. It’s amazing how it came full circle. He turned the world upside down.”
Operation Mobilization’s 2009 Video Tribute to George Verwer (Video credit: OM USA and Carsten Best)