PINE BLUFF, Ark. – During a recent World Changers missions project in Pine Bluff, Carl Keener was reunited with a cousin he had not seen in 30 years. To many, this may seem like a chance encounter, but Keener knows it was so much more than that. This seemingly random event was part of a plan that God had orchestrated over many years and involved a series of second chances.
Keener and his cousin Mike grew up as friends and spent a lot of time together as children. When Keener was eight years old, he attended a church service where he heard how he could escape an eternity in Hell. He went down front during the invitation, said a prayer and was later baptized.
A few years after Keener was baptized, Mike was in a serious accident and was hospitalized. Keener’s parents were going to the hospital to visit, but he was not allowed to go because he was in school at the time. He knew that his cousin was not a believer, so he talked his parents into taking him out of school by promising to witness to Mike at the hospital. His mom said she would make sure that he got some private time alone in the room to share Jesus with his cousin.
Keener remembers that day with a sense of deep regret. “So, we’re in the hospital room by ourselves, he and I, and I blew it. I didn’t say anything about the Lord. I didn’t witness to him. I just chickened out,” Keener said. “That experience has bothered me all of my life.”
Several years passed and the two boys grew up and grew apart. Keener said he was 26 years old the last time he remembers seeing his cousin.
Fast forward 25 years, and Keener was actively involved at First Baptist Church (FBC) in Royal. At age 51, he was operating the sound board for a revival service at the church. He recounts how the preacher asked everyone to think seriously about the question of where they would spend eternity if they were to die in a car accident on the way home. Keener was troubled by the question but didn’t know why.
He continued to ponder the question at home later that night. He says he realized that he would spend eternity in Hell because he did not really know Jesus as Lord and Savior. Even though he had been baptized at an early age, Keener says he knew that he had just been going through the motions all these years and he needed to be saved.
This realization hit him so hard that he was afraid to leave the house the next night to attend the revival out of fear that he might get in an accident on the way and die without knowing Jesus. While kneeling to pray during the invitation, Keener repented of his sins and asked God to save him. At that moment, he says that he felt a literal jolt of energy flowing through his body and he knew that God had forgiven him and that he now belonged to Him for real this time. He couldn’t wait to rush down front and share his decision with his pastor and with the congregation.
Four years later, Keener was approached by Thomas Little, youth and education pastor at FBC Royal, about serving as a construction supervisor for World Changers in Pine Bluff that summer. Not knowing what to expect, Keener said yes and spent the week serving alongside students from across the country as they painted houses and served the needy in the community.
In July of this year (2023), Keener returned for a second year as a supervisor for the Pine Bluff World Changers project. He was assigned to work with crews at an old school building that was being restored to become a homeless shelter. He was tasked with leading the students and adults to prep and paint several classrooms and hallways, including doors and trim. It was during this time that he had his unexpected reunion.
A construction crew from Little Rock was working on the other side of the building at the same time the students were painting. At one point, a question came up. Carl went to talk to the contractors. He walked into a room where several guys were working. As he’s talking to the contractor, Keener said one of the men came over and called him by name. “He said, you don’t recognize me, do you? And I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t.’ He said, ‘I’m your cousin. I’m your cousin Mike.’”
Keener said they talked for a just a few minutes that day, but their conversations continued throughout the week. “Whenever I would catch him out sitting, having his break, I’d go out, take him a water or snack, and we’d talk for a few minutes and then he’d have to get back to work,” Keener said.
Then on Thursday Keener had an opportunity to spend a little more time with Mike. He shared his testimony and told him about how he had regretted not sharing the Gospel with him all those years ago in the hospital. “I said, look at this. Here we are. I’m in Pine Bluff. You’re in Pine Bluff. I live in Hot Springs. You live in Little Rock and yet here we are. I believe the Lord’s brought us together for a reason.” So, Keener witnessed to Mike and explained how He needed the Lord and encouraged him to get involved in a local church.
Keener said that even though Mike didn’t make a decision at the time, “I believe I did what I was supposed to do, and I hope and pray that somebody comes along and grows the seed.”
“I’m just grateful for a second chance,” Keener said. “I’ve had many second chances, but this was really special. The guilt I had all those years was gone, and that burden has finally been lifted.”