The Rev. Harold Kurtz, an Idaho farm kid who became the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s pre-eminent evangelist to peoples without the gospel around the world, died of brain cancer Dec. 18 in Portland, Ore., surrounded by his family. He was 85.
Countless Presbyterians and others have heard Kurtz’s familiar refrain: “The gospel is out of control!” No one has been more responsible for bringing that catchphrase to reality all over the world. As a pastor, missionary for 22 years in Ethiopia and then as director of the Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship from 1983-2000 Kurtz led Presbyterians into evangelistic mission in places most had never heard of before.
“Much of our mission engagement in Central and Eastern Europe with Roma (gypsies) and with Siberian native peoples is because of the vision and the prod of this amazing man,” said Gary Payton, the PC(USA)’s regional liaison with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland.
“My first travels with Harold were to Salekhard, Russia on the Arctic Circle in November 1999,” Payton told the Presbyterian News Service. “Crunchy squeaky snow, reindeer burgers for breakfast, temperatures at -34 C and, stories for a lifetime,’ he continued. “I will always remember his presence at the evangelism conference we were attending — throngs of people asked for his blessing ... he was the oldest person present, and in my view, the wisest.”
Kurtz always attributed becoming a Christian to his mother, who with some other women established a Presbyterian mission Sunday School in his rural community. When World War II broke out he joined the Air Force and flew as a pilot in Europe.
After the war, he attended Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Presbyterian College in Monmouth, Ill. Influenced by the environment, he felt the call of God to go into ministry.
After seminary, he served a three-year pastorate in Portland, during which he felt the call to overseas mission. In 1955 he and his wife, Polly, were appointed to mission service in Ethiopia. Their first 10 years of were carried out from a small village high on a hill in the remote southwest corner of the country. With no roads available, Kurtz spent much time traveling by foot and pack getting acquainted with the different tribes of people, helping with medical service, establishing bush schools and sharing the Good News of Jesus.
In 1977, the Kurtzes were forced to leave Ethiopia due to a communist takeover of the country. Returning to Portland, Kurtz accepted a call as pastor of Kenton United Presbyterian Church, where he served for 10 years.
But overseas mission was by now embedded in his makeup. In 1982, along with his pastoral duties, he assumed responsibility as executive director of the newly-formed Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship. Through his efforts, the PC(USA) has become a world leader in the area of cross-cultural evangelism among unreached peoples.
After his “retirement” in 2000, Kurtz continued to consult with PFF, develop projects and speak and teach in churches and at mission conferences on international evangelism. Former PC(USA) Worldwide Ministries Division Director Marian McClure once told Kurtz, “There are not many people of whom it can be said that they changed the direction of a denomination. You are one of the few. You have changed the missional direction of the PC(USA).”
A memorial service will be held for Harold Kurtz Jan. 9, 2010, at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Ore.
Memorials may be sent to PFF at 7132 Portland Ave Suite 136, Richfield, Minn., 55423. They will be placed in a special fund to be used for frontier mission work in places to be decided in consultation with his family.