In the midst of a tense corporate merger, more than 50 staff members joined a spontaneous prayer meeting in the company auditorium because Colin Watson told his CEO, “We need to pray about this.” Years later, retired CRCNA Executive Director Colin Watson shares how being attentive to God at work shapes his faith and guides the ways he serves in leadership. The following is a transcript of Colin's episode on Open to Wonder. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Listen to the episode online (and find Colin's recommend gospel music playlist) or on your favorite podcast app.
Chris: Colin Watson believes that God can use anything and anybody. During our conversation with Colin, we discovered how God has been using him as a friend to give a leg up to those who’ve been knocked down, as a business executive who once held a prayer meeting in the company auditorium, as the executive director of the CRCNA, a role which includes overseeing and integrating all the agencies and ministries of the denomination worldwide. We also learned which Bible verse served as a light bulb moment for him, who shaped his faith journey, and the faith practices he thinks the church needs to be paying attention to at this time. All that, and the name of the gospel singer Colin listens to like he’s at a rock concert, is coming up next.
Chris: Colin. We are so excited to have you in the conversation today.
Alright. The first question that we're wondering if you could respond to is this: If you were to name one or two people who helped shape your faith journey, who would they be? And how did they impact you?
Colin: Chris, thanks for the question, and I appreciate being with you this afternoon. I would say that my earliest recollection of individuals who helped shape me would of course include my dad. I remember my father reciting the 23rd Psalm. And I don't know exactly when I learned it, but it became part of the air that we breathed in the house. And it was always “The Lord is my shepherd,” that “God is always with me.”
I also recall when I was about 10-years-old and had just been confirmed as a part of the Anglican Church. But I didn't really understand what all of that meant until I went to a revival and heard a call to the Gospel from someone called Tom Skinner.
Now, Tom Skinner—you might recall that name going back a long time ago—was a former gang member in in New York City that God called to himself, and he had a radical conversion. And he became an itinerant preacher. As a matter of fact, he went around the world, preaching and teaching the word.
And I was actually in Guyana at the time. It was British Guiana, at the time. This was 1962. I was 10-years-old. Tom Skinner was 20. And I heard the Word of God clearly in a movie theater in Guyana and I will never forget that experience. So even though I grew up Anglican, I heard the Gospel loud as day from Tom.
Today I reflect back on that experience and realize that you're never too young to hear or do the Word. It doesn't matter how you start, because in Tom's case, his life could have gone horribly wrong, very early. And this call to preach, this call to let others know who you are and what God has done in your life is something that's real for all of us, right, regardless of age, regardless of race, regardless of culture, regardless of geography. All of that is important. And God can use anything and anybody.
And so that really are some early memories there. There are so many others later on in life. But let me just start there.
Chris: Thank you.
Karen: Colin, you just mentioned that you lived in Guyana. And you've talked before about the fact that you were born in a small town there, and that you immigrated to the United States at the age of 18. And so we're wondering about that. How has your experience as an immigrant impacted the formation of your faith?
Colin: Another excellent question. Thank you for that, Karen. You know I got here at the age of 18, and I mentioned that I came to faith when I was about 10-years-old. I wish I could tell you that I was faithful all the way through college, cause that certainly wasn't the case.
I mean, I was sidetracked by many, many things. And at age 18, when I came to the United States, it was basically just to go to University, to go to college. At the time there were no universities in Guyana. Well, there was one, but not offering the major I was interested in. And so when I got here, I had a very different perspective on what America was all about. I mean, I came here thinking I was just interested in the American dream, but God had other ideas.
I came here and what I experienced, frankly, was the duality of America. I saw two Americas. I moved here. I lived in the South Bronx for a while before going to school in upstate New York, and was immediately faced with some contradictions.
One immediate contradiction, as I recall, was on the college campus in Schenectady, New York, when I was looking for an apartment. I’d been here for a little while and I was looking for an apartment off campus. I got into a conversation with the landlady, who said, “Well, certainly I have an apartment available.”
And, you know, we agreed on the price and a time for me to come over and take a look at it, and I said, “Certainly, I'll be over.” And it was that afternoon, so I said “I'll see you in a few hours.” So I got there and rang the bell. She peaked out and said, “Can I help you?”
I said, Yes, I'm Colin Watson who called about the apartment, and she paused and said, “It's not available.”
So I remember that incident and others like it. And there were questions that I started asking myself, such as “What is it that I am experiencing here?”
After graduation, I moved to New Jersey, and that's a whole other story. But I moved and ended up living in Patterson, New Jersey, and to that I can attribute learning about another aspect of life in the United States for people who look like me. I got there because I was redlined into the district. But, by God's grace, he allowed me to see and befriend lots of folks that I otherwise would not have met.
That experience allowed me to be a part of Madison Avenue Christian Reformed Church, which otherwise I probably would not have been. And so, by being placed in that church, I was able to not only, as I said, gain some friendships there, but really experience, I think, what has become God's call in my life. It's a call to not only be present, but it's a call to try to make a difference in everything that I see around me. And of course my wife Frieda has been an integral part of all of that learning and experience and so forth.
Karen: And we should just mention, how long have you and Frieda been married?
Colin: 43 years.
Karen: So a significant partner in that.
Colin: Exactly. We’ve been together for a long time.
Karen: That's great, thank you.
Chris: You mentioned that you came here for, in some sense, to chase the American dream. And in some sense you realized that in terms of leadership in the business world. You've also been successful in leadership in denominational ministry, now. You have a deep love for the local church. You're committed to justice ministries, and the unity of God's people.
It shows up on the boards you’ve served on, things like that. I'm wondering: in all those places, there's a deep sense of God's presence and calling. Whether you're in the business world or the church world, or kind of wherever, there's still a sense of God's calling. In all of that, what are the faith practices that have been important for you as a leader? As you engage in a wide range of different leadership, opportunities and context.
Colin: Yeah, you know, I often reflect on the fact that my learning about God, learning about faith, learning about who Jesus is really began after I joined Madison Avenue Christian Reformed Church. It was there. Yes, I'd known the Bible and I'd read not all, but significant parts, mostly of the New Testament. But it really wasn't until I got to Madison Avenue that a real love of wanting to know God in a deeper way, and reading the entire Bible and so forth, became important.
I still remember my first Bible study was the book of Romans, and in particular Romans 8 sticks out in my mind. I remember it was so multi-layered—what I was seeing about who God was—and I mentioned a couple of things that I had already gone through, like “Why is the world like this?” kinds of questions. And then I got to Romans 8:28, and it says “In all things God works for good for those who love Him, who called according to his purpose.
And when I read that verse and we studied that verse, it was like a light bulb going off. It's like “It doesn't matter what you go through. God is able to use all of that.” And the question for me is, “Okay God, what is it? I know I just went through this really bad thing that I would rather have not gone through, but the Bible says you're able to use that for your purpose, so what is it?” And just keep searching for those kinds of questions. It has done an awful lot, I believe, for my temperament, because I keep looking for “Well, what is it? What can I learn from that?”
Of course, Romans 8 goes on a couple of verses later and talks about “you’re more than conquerors” and all those wonderful things, right? So I hang on to that promise as well.
So what I would say in terms of faith practices, really it's Bible study and understanding God's word and understanding God's will for me. And understanding that even what we do here is just a small piece of what God's plan is in eternity. And I landed in Madison Avenue CRC. And the great focus of that ministry was on service, right?
God has planted the church here in this community for a purpose. When all of the flight to the suburbs were going on, the church said “Nope. We're going to stay right here in this community for a purpose and engage.” And so there was a real ethic of service. And quite quickly, both Freida and I were asked to to play leadership roles.
So I would say three words. Overall, I would say pray, serve, and lead. The Bible says if your gift is leading, then by all means do it diligently. So we try to do that.
Chris: I love how you're weaving leaving together things that are not just focused on “How do I keep myself okay?” But even as you were talking, it had that service element, that going out and asking, “How do I be attentive to God at work in the world beyond me?”
And how you're even describing leadership or how you're describing what you were learning as you were serving.
Colin: Yeah. And I even think of—as I said, I spent almost 30 years in the business world.
Really just fulfilling the passions God gave me in terms of my background. I wanted to be a statistician. He allowed me to be that.
But even in the midst of that, there kept being opportunities for demonstrating God’s presence. I still remember there was a particularly difficult time in business. Our company was merging with another, and there was lots of senior leadership strife going on. And I remember saying to the CEO that “You know, what we really need to do is we need to pray about this. We've done all that we can. We should really pray about this and maybe we should call anyone who wants to join in prayer?
And he looked at me and said, “You know what, why don’t you do that?” I don't know if he thought I was gonna say, you know, just pretty quietly, or whatever. But I actually called a prayer meeting in the auditorium of the building. About 50 people showed up, including a few VPs!
So we actually had a prayer session. So that was pretty good, but interestingly enough, the thing that people feared was gonna happen. As I mentioned, there were folks battling to be the leader of the business. A few days later something happened. And the individual that they didn't want to lead actually became the leader. And someone came to me and said, “We prayed, but I guess that didn't work.” But I remember my response to that was saying, “Well, maybe maybe we just need to wait a little while longer.”
And sure enough, God showed up in a mighty way a few months later. So God is able to show up in ways that we really don't expect. And in locales that we don't anticipate him being.
Karen: Wow. That's a really powerful illustration of Romans 8. Thanks Colin.
So a moment ago you mentioned service in the same breath as leadership. And so one of the faith practices that we explore in the Faith Practices Project is service, and we describe it as: “Responding to God's love by learning to live like Jesus as we serve others through specific tangible actions that contribute to their dignity and their well-being.” And it feels to Chris and I and others who know you that the faith practice of service has been really just woven into your leadership and into your life. And so we're wondering: What have you learned about God and faith through serving others?
Colin: Yeah, you know it's something I think about as I participate in the American dream and climbing that corporate ladder. By the way, that's a metaphor I often use and it is not original to me. But we were talking about climbing the corporate ladder, and someone said to me, “Yep, you climbed it, and you got all the way to the top, and then you looked at the wall, and you said, Wait, I'm leaning against the wrong wall. So we need to shift the ladder to the other side.”
That's kind of an apt metaphor. But what I find is that it's not just the individuals you think are going to be good for you that are good for you.
So, for example, you know we had this thing in business that talked about making sure that your network included influential people and all of that. But what I have found is, I've learned the most from people who are most unlike me.
And I still remember both Frieda and I were involved in this thing in the eighties in Paterson called Jubilee Employment Service. Back then in the inner city, we had—well, unfortunately, it's a lot like what's going on today. We had a fair amount of unemployment, we had some drug abuse issues. We had high incarceration. Those kinds of things. And folks coming out of addiction or incarceration, obviously had very difficult times finding jobs.
So John Algera, who was our pastor at the time, and Freida and I and a few others arranged this ministry called Jubilee Employment, where we would actually work with employers who were willing to hire folks who had not so great records, but after having been vetted by us as a church.
And so, we actually had a deal where individuals would come in. They would be interviewed by my wife, who turned out to be the first director for Jubilee. We would train them in how to do interviews, and so forth, and of course, self-esteem kinds of conversations. And getting them to rely on the Holy Spirit of not so much so much on themselves, and so forth.
But what I remember from that is: I used to have a fear of dealing with individuals who might have come through the penal system. And as it turns out by going through Jubilee and other things like that, some of those guys turned out to be some of my best friends. And as I said, I learned a lot about life from them. So many times folks get knocked down, but I see lots of evidence of God working in individuals and giving them a leg up on what ordinarily would have just devastated them.
You've heard this metaphor and it says “It's when you hit bottom, and you're lying on your back at the the bottom of a ditch that you have to look up and see what God is able to do”—but yeah but I've seen enough of those stories to make me realize that there are no “throwaway” people, right? We all need each other, and we can learn an awful lot from each other.
Karen: Something that strikes you about what you just said about how, over the years, you've learned the most from the people who are the most unlike you. And I think sometimes, when we serve others, there's a danger that we do it with this sense of “Well, they will be learning from me through my active service to them.” I love that you have flipped that. It sounds like through serving, you also learned and grew in your faith.
Colin: I did start with that mindset that “I'm just gonna go help folks. And I'm gonna go teach them everything they need to do so they can be just like me.” Well, God had other ideas. We’re all different and you find God's grace in the most unusual places.
Karen: That’s so helpful.
Chris: Colin, your leadership role with the CRC in North America and in some of the other places that you’ve served whether on a board or some other capacities, you get a unique view of the church in North America. You're able to see the diversity that's there—the contextualization that happens. If you were to kind of sift through the stuff you've seen, what practice or practices do you think the church really needs to pay attention to at this time?
Colin: Great question. You know I think a lot of the time, we take ourselves a little bit too seriously, and we think we have all the answers, and we think that God has come down, God has given us the answer in God's book. And He has. That's true. But the fact that there are others who worship differently, or look differently, or might have a slightly different nuanced view of things, doesn't mean that they are less far from God than you are right?
We, I think, need a little bit of humility in the way we approach individuals. What if as we approached anyone, even if we're evangelizing or sharing the gospel, what if we had a heart that said yes, I wanna share with you what God has shown me and what he's done in my life? And then I also wanna listen to you, and hear what God has done in your life.
Now that person may or may not even be a regular church attender, but I think if you talk to enough of those folks you will hear some very humbling stories that can be mutually mutually beneficial. And I think we also need as a church to understand everyone's story, right? Because when we get to church on Sunday morning, and we worship together, and we are in the present, and we talk about the future together— I think that there is a lot of learning that we can have by reflecting on the past.
You know the story of the Sankofa bird, right? The bird is looking to the past as it moves towards the future. I think sometimes we have a tendency to discount the past. Because I like to listen, I like to reflect on what has God done in the past for me in my life. And that gives me strength for the future. And I think we need to do the same thing even as we listen to each other.
Now this gets to be a little interesting when we talk about our histories, because in my history I can talk about pain in my life. And it may sound as if—well, others may take it badly. “You're complaining about me.” “Well, no I'm telling you what God has done, in spite of you.”
So let's just take it as a God story. And if we keep telling each other God stories and stop looking at each other and looking for each other's faults, I think we're gonna be better off. And let's stop taking things so personally.
When we talk about you know what God has done through my ancestors, who were slaves, that doesn't mean that you have to take it as a put down. Okay, I'm sure you can talk about what God has done in your ancestors to bring you to a closer knowledge of him. So I would say: Sometimes we have to repent, not rationalize. We've got to engage, not try to escape. We've got to communicate, not condemn. We have so much to give to each other. But we have a culture that says “We just want to be me, myself, and I, and my family, and everyone else comes second.” But what if we flip that and said, “You know Jesus was right in what he said: the most important thing is to love God and the second thing is to love your neighbor. And so let's start there.”
And one of the things I found is by doing that it doesn't diminish me. It doesn't diminish anything I do. It is always a blessing as we live into that reality. Now, I wish I could tell you I do it perfectly. I don’t. I can have selfish thoughts, just like the rest of everybody else. But that's the reality I try to live in.
Karen: Oh, Colin, I needed to hear that today, and I'm sure there are others listening to this who needed to hear that too. So thank you for that.
One thing we're doing in this series on faith practices, as a way to end each conversation is, we're asking our guests: If you could leave listeners with one small step, one place that they could begin to become more intentional in their faith formation, what might that be?
Colin: Hmm, good question! I would say, don't be afraid to engage with each other. Find a person, or people, who may be different from you and just find ways to begin conversations. Now it might even be that you don't know what to talk about. Well, are there some areas of connection that you can share?
One thing that I like to do—and sometimes you know church friends, or whatever I just invite them into that space—is I love listening to gospel music. And mostly the contemporary folks. I can go crazy like I'm at a rock concert, when I'm in a room and Jonathan McReynolds is there singing. To me, that's better than a basketball game, you know.
But yeah— what if you were to invite people into that kind of space? You know, “Just come on, let's have a cup of coffee. Let's talk about stuff.” But when things get a little quiet, maybe you put on some music and say, let's talk about that? What does that mean to you? When Brian Courtney Wilson sings songs like God is Doing a Great Work—I mean that, that's some powerful stuff. And it's as catchy as any R&B. I love R&B too. But this stuff really gets to me.
So yeah, just find ways to engage. And maybe it is going to a game or whatever. But beyond that, just living life together, and then engaging with each others is helpful.
Karen: I feel like after that, we should have like Colin’s Spotify list linked in our show notes. Because I wanna check these people out.
Colin: I can give you a list.
Karen: Chris? I'm there. I'm down for that. Thank you. Thank you so much for spending this time with Chris and I, for sharing.I feel like there we have just scratched the surface of the stories that you could share with us in your experiences. And thank you for showing us just the way that you've lived, and the way that you've inhaled those experiences in your life and let them shape and form your faith, or let God use them to shape and form your faith. I think it’s a real encouragement to all of us listening. So, thank you.
Colin: Well, you know in my old age I'm still a work in progress. But that's the beauty of all of this right? We continue to be a work in progress as we allow God to work in our work in our lives. Thank you for this opportunity; it’s been good.
Karen: Thank you.