Book Review: Never Say Can’t

Some years ago I read a book called Never Say Can’t about a missionary who didn’t feel he had much natural ability but who determined that he would do whatever God called him to do and not make excuses, trusting God for the ability. In fact, he and his wife made a little ceremony of burying the word “can’t.” I couldn’t remember their names or the author’s, but I remembered that incident.

I was excited to find a used book by the same title and ordered it — but it’s not the same book. 🙂 It was an enjoyable read, though.

never-say-cant_.jpgThis Never Say Can’t by Jerry Ballard was about a missionary with the same motto, Thomas Willey, who ministered in Panama and Cuba. Rather than recapping the whole story, I want to just touch on a few things that stood out to me.

He had had to quit school,early to help take care of his family. Later when he felt called to preach he knew he needed to go to Bible college. He had been a hard worker and had saved money to go. But he was so out of touch academically that when the registrar asked him how many credits he had, he said, “How much do I need, sir? I have money in the bank and my credit is good as gold.” The ripple of laughter from the other students nearby caused him to realize he was missing something. Tom later wrote, “Who could forget the amazement on the dean’s face when he realized that he had an ignoramus on his hands, a young man past 20 who wanted to go to college yet couldn’t work fractions and had no knowledge of grammar or spelling.” The registrar asked to meet with him privately and told him he would have to take a lot of background courses in the academy before he could start college and that it would be a long, hard haul. Tom knew God had called him and settled in to work hard.

When Tom began missionary work with Indians in the jungles of Panama, “He knew civilization wasn’t their primary need. White man’s civilization without Christ would simply replace their primitive sins with more sophisticated ones. He only wanted to share his Savior.”

His first experience on the mission field came just after college, where the students had been experiencing a wonderful revival. He thought the mission field would be even more of a revival, but within just a few hours sensed “strange tensions” among the missionaries with whom he was assigned to work. He became a sounding board for both sides. “What shocked Tom was the inability of those involved to maintain spiritual victory over their emotions, to forgive in love and to forget.” After a few months “he became more sympathetic as he realized the strange drain which life in a continually threatening jungle environment could be to one’s spiritual resources. How easy it was to become so busy with mission affairs that prayer and Bible reading were neglected, and one became introverted and self-centered through the constant fight for survival.” After two years on that field he left 20 lbs. less, underweight, and “backslidden …himself due to his frustration in seeking to be a reconciling force among his co-workers.”

In the zealousness of youthful Christianity, when I first heard of missionaries having trouble getting along, I was similarly shocked. I thought surely any group of godly people shouldn’t have that problem. Well..after a little more maturity and experience, I’ve realized that any group of Christians can have trouble getting along. If that happens to us here, we shouldn’t be surprised it happens to people on the mission field, especially with the additional stresses they are under. That is an area we should pray for them more — grace and getting along with each other’s faults, foibles, differing ideas of how things should be done, etc.

Another area that stood out to me was the account of the rise of Communism in Cuba. Evidently Castro did not present himself as a Communist at first — there was none of the usual rhetoric or slogans. He was seen as a great liberator from an oppressive government. There is some disagreement as to whether he was really a Communist all along or whether he just chose that political line in order to “institutionalize his revolution.” The missionaries had been sympathetic to the revolutionaries, but had to make “late-hour course corrections to cope with another anti-Christian influence.” Though some of the soldiers themselves had originally seemed friendly to the missionaries, repression began.

Before repression became too bad however, Mr. Willey attended the trials of those deemed war criminals, then asked and was granted permission to visit those condemned to die before the firing squad. “The rebel authorities were impressed with Pop’s obvious concern for the spiritual needs of the condemned men.” Many of them had never heard the gospel. One told him, “Had we had this teaching, none of us would now be in this sad state. Please preach this in the streets, in the country, in the cities. This is the only hope for Cuba!”

Many believed. It was hard to see spiritual newborns put to death so soon after their conversion. “Pop,” as he was known, then took the dead men’s belongings to their families and was able to share the comfort of the gospel with them as well. Though God vitally used him in this way, the experience “took a heavy physical and emotional toll…He was never to be quite the same again.”

It wasn’t long before the missionaries had to leave Cuba. They found a ministry to exiled Cubans in Florida and in speaking to churches to stir up missionary interest. Eventually they ministered back in Panama.

Near the end of the book when the author recorded Tom’s death and the viewing and funeral, I thought he perfectly captured the mixed emotions one feels at the death of a Christian loved one: “Sorrowful because of earth’s loss. Joyful because of heaven’s gain. Awkward because of the paradox of extreme grief and extreme joy mingled in a single sensation.”

Even though this wasn’t the book I was originally looking for, I am glad I read of this servant of the Lord.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Never Say Can’t

  1. That was a great review! I’ll be looking for this book (and the other that you mentioned). I esp. like the quote that you gave us at the end of the review (. . . “paradox of extreme grief and extreme joy mingled in a single sensation.”) which accurately describes how I feel about the death of my mother-in-law earlier last year. It’s hard to explain to people – but that quote hits it!

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  4. Thanks for bring the book (Never Say Can’t) back. As his son (Tom Willey, Jr) and having lived through much of what is in the book I have had the privilege of see how God has continued to work through the years in Cuba in spite of Communism. In 2012 was able to attend the 70th Anniversary of that thriving church.. After Cuba (in 1961) my family and I went back to Panama God has blessed and next year (2015) the Mission Board will turn over full control to the Panamanian Church. For that story see I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH, The History of the Free Will Baptist Church of Panama (

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