The Navigator collegiate ministry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison has thrived for 50 years and has been a training ground from which hundreds of Navigator missionaries have gone across the world.
Mary (Seedoff) Dawson, however, remembers when she first set foot on the University of Wisconsin campus in 1962 as a young believer—and there wasn’t a single Navigator around. In fact, it was hard to find any other Christians at all on campus.
“I started college at Illinois State University in Normal,” she explained. “I grew up in church, and had a genuine faith in Christ, but I knew nothing about how to make that faith a reality in my life. I then met my (future) husband, Dave, who was involved with The Navigators and he invited me to a few events.”
Mary began to grow in her faith and learn what it meant to live as a disciple of Christ. But her father wasn’t happy about it. “My parents were devoutly religious, but were very suspicious of The Navigators,” she said, “so they took action.”
They transferred Mary from Illinois State to the University of Wisconsin — known for its secular character—but Mary didn’t know about the change until she was ready to head back to college.
“It was unnerving and it certainly wasn’t something I embraced,” Mary admitted. “Navigators were having an incredible impact on my life. I was reading the Bible and learning about discipleship. Now I was headed to a place where I knew nobody and had no support. All I had was what I had learned from The Navigators.”
That, as it turns out, was pretty significant. “I knew to ask God for one person I could disciple,” she said. A short while later, she became friends with another coed, named Marty, a Christian who hungered for discipleship. Then Mary led her dorm mate, Connie, to faith in Christ. Soon, there were other women she influenced for Christ, who, in turn, influenced others.
The Navigators wouldn’t have an official presence on the campus for several years, but that didn’t matter to Mary. “There were Navigators who visited and encouraged me,” she says. “Jack Mayhall taught me how to do in-depth Bible study. Jim Downing talked about Joshua 1:8 and the importance of memorizing Scripture.”
“God had changed my life, and I knew helping others in the same way was what He wanted me to do,” she adds. Mary and some of her college classmates began to pray for a Navigator to come to Madison, and the next year God provided Larry and Pat Whitehouse as the answer to their prayers.
Today, Mary works as a professional songwriter, music publisher and songwriting teacher in the Dallas area. Her songs have been recorded by LeAnn Rimes and Cynthia Clawson. Her husband, Dave, has been a Navigator representative for 58 years.
“Every Thanksgiving I make a list of the people who’ve impacted my life, and it always includes Navigators—Jack Mayhall, Skip and Buzzie Gray, Larry and Pat Whitehouse, and Jim Downing—who helped me in Madison.”
Fifty years later, Mary knows that her parents were only trying to protect her when they sent her to Madison. But God used that experience in an unexpected way. He planted her in surprisingly fertile soil where she flourished and became “one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (Matthew 13:23).