The Chaplain of Bourbon Street

The Prodigal Father

Rhonda H. Kelley

Most Christians are very familiar with the parable of the prodigal son recorded in Luke 15:11-32. In fact, many Christian families have had a prodigal experience—a child who has left the Lord for sinful living. There is great pain and hurt when loved ones turn their backs on God and family I know that pain personally. My family knows that hurt. Children aren't the
only prodigals. We had a prodigal father.

A Godly Father
In 1958, my father, Bob Harrington, was dramatically converted. Three days later he preached his first sermon. Soon after that, he answered God's call into the ministry. He enrolled in seminary and became an itinerant evangelist.
God blessed my father's ministry in the French Quarter of New Orleans. He was even proclaimed by the mayor of New Orleans to be "the Chaplain of Bourbon Street". During the late 1960s and 1970s, the ministry of Bob Harrington expanded nationally and internationally through area-wide crusades and a weekly television program. His message, "It's Fun Being Saved," brought hope to a hopeless world. In time, he became one of the best-known preachers in America .
Though I was only six-and-a-half years old, I remember very clearly the night Dad woke us up to tell us he had "found the Lord". I fondly remember our years at seminary and growing up in a Christian home. Our family traveled extensively with my dad and met many great Christian leaders. I had a wonderful childhood and lived a fairy-tale existence. You can imagine my surprise when my loving father turned his back on God, my mother, and our family. Our godly father became a prodigal.

A Prodigal Father
In 1976 my dad was at the height of his ministry. I had married and returned to New Orleans. My husband, Chuck, and several other family members were working for my dad's ministry on Bourbon Street. Though my dad's professional life was flourishing, his personal life was faltering. Eventually, Chuck became aware of immorality in my dad's life and had to confront his mentor in ministry. It was very tragic when my dad declared he liked his life just the way it was. He then left us for prodigal living.
Dad returned to our home only briefly to get his things. That was a heartbreaking experience for me. I sat on the front steps of our home and watched my dad walk out of my life and away from the Lord. For the next 19 years, my dad was not the man I had known all my life. His sinfulness had made him a different person. I know firsthand how the father in Luke 15 must have felt. It is a helpless feeling when a loved one turns his back on God and chooses to ruin his life. The prodigal typically turns a deaf ear and refuses godly counsel.
People respond in various ways when someone disappoints them. My dad's rebellion against God strengthened my faith and my marriage. It drew my husband and me closer. Through deep hurt, my mother depended on God. Initially my sister turned to the world, but she soon became disillusioned and returned to the Lord.
During the 19 years that my dad was away from the Lord, it was not always easy to forgive. It was not easy to love. In the same way God forgives unconditionally, He expected me to forgive. In the same way God loves unselfishly~ He expected me to love. I forgave my dad, not because he deserved it, but because God commanded it. Later, I learned my forgiveness and love influenced my dad back to God. God's faithfulness gave me the hope and strength to refuse to give up.

A Restored Father
After 19 years of prodigal living, my dad returned to the Lord. His pride became his fall. His material possessions no longer satisfied and his earthly pleasures led to a spiritual famine. In hopeless desperation, he returned to New Orleans to seek forgiveness. His heavenly Father forgave him and celebrated his return. Then my dad sought the forgiveness of others. He was forgiven by his family and friends. Though he continues to suffer the consequences of his sin, he has been forgiven. It has been such a joy for me to assure my dad of my forgiveness and to resume a relationship with him.
Human nature might question the sincerity of a prodigal's return. I knew the Lord would offer my father forgiveness, but could I? I offered unconditional love and forgiveness to my dad even though I could never love what be did.
I have learned so many profound life lessons through this experience. First, I learned personally that forgiveness is from God. I learned that if my love is not returned, I am not excused from continuing to love. I learned firsthand that God can redeem even the most sinful life. Though I wouldn't have chosen the pain of my dad's rebellion, God redeemed it in my life. He administered grace and comfort to me in a way that is indescribable.
My dad learned some profound lessons, too. He has led four Lives—he was lost, he was saved, he left the Lord, and he was restored. He has experienced the joy of a restored relationship with the Lord and his family. God is using him in ministry with the message, "Loving the Left Back Right." That is a message that all of us should proclaim.
Today I am so grateful that my father who was dead in sin is alive again. He was lost, and now he is found. The prodigal father has returned, and this daughter has killed a fatted calf. Let us remember to forgive the one we love who leaves the Lord and celebrate when that child of God returns home!

Rhonda Harrington Kelley is an author, speaker, teacher, and television/radio host. She is married to Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

As published in "The Minister's Family", Spring 1999.  A publication of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.