Vonette Bright, who co-founded Campus Crusade for Christ with her husband, Bill, in 1951, has died from complications of acute leukemia.
She was 89.
She was born Vonette Zachary on July 2, 1926, in Coweta, Oklahoma, the hometown she shared with her future husband. She first recalled meeting Bill at an ice-cream social when he was 11 and she was about 6.
"You could pick him out of the crowd, standing with one hand in his pocket, just very confident," she told CT in 1997. “There was no heart throb but I can tell you where he stood waiting for the school bus."
The two lost touch after Bill went off to California to seek his fortune. They reconnected in 1945, when he wrote to Vonette while he was a student at Fuller Seminary.
After a year of writing letters, they had their first date in 1946. After some stops and starts while she was a home economics student at Texas Women’s University, the two eventually became engaged.
One sticking point in their relationship: Although Vonette had grown up in church, she wasn’t serious about her faith. She felt Bill was too serious.
“I decided Bill had become a religious fanatic and that somehow he must be rescued from this fanaticism,” Vonette later wrote. “At the same time, Bill was beginning to think that perhaps I was not a Christian. He knew he could not marry me until there was a change in my spiritual life.”
Famed Sunday school teacher Henrietta Mears, one of Bill Bright’s mentors, told Bill to steer clear of Vonette. Mears told him he was “throwing his life away” by being involved with her, Bright told CT in 1997.
Things changed after a 1948 meeting at Forest Home, a retreat center founded by Mears.
“It was there that Henrietta Mears led me to the Lord," Vonette told CT in 1997.
The Brights married in December of 1948. Soon after the wedding, the Brights began to set a list of goals and priorities. Among those goals was a pledge to live holy lives and to become witnesses for Christ.
They eventually wrote up what they called a contract with the Lord, where they surrendered their hopes for material gain and pledged themselves to God’s kingdom. They lived out that pledge to forgo material gains even after Campus Crusade (known as Cru in the United States), which they founded in 1951, became known as the world’s largest Christian ministry.
For example, in 1997, CT reported that the Brights made a combined $48,000 in salary. Bill accepted no speaking fees and donated his book royalties. The couple didn’t even own a car.
They launched Campus Crusade at UCLA in 1951, with the idea that they could help “win the campus today, win the world tomorrow.” Today the organization reports having more than 25,000 staff members and 300,000 volunteers working in 173 countries.
Vonette’s ministry focused especially on prayer.
She organized a national prayer rally in preparation for Explo ’72, a national Campus Crusade conference that drew a reported 80,000 students to the Cotton Bowl in 1971. The prayer rally itself drew 7,000 women.
Bright would later host a series of events known as the Great Commission Prayer Crusade.
“The greatest contribution that I’ve made had to be this call to prayer when there were so few leaders mobilizing people to pray,” she told CT in 1997.
Vonette went on to serve on the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and as a chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force.
“Your single-minded focus on the power of intercessory prayer has been both an encouragement to my life and a model for the church,” Billy Graham told Vonette in a 2011 letter. “Heavenly records will one day reveal the full impact of your prayer life and the teaching ministry in the lives of countless persons who have come to faith in Christ.”
In addition to her work with Campus Crusade, Vonette authored more than a dozen books, appeared often on Christian radio programs, and founded Women Today International.
“We grieve for the loss of our leader, mentor, and friend,” said Cru president Steve Douglass in a tribute posted on the organization’s website. “But we do not grieve as the world grieves, as we know we will see her again.”
Author and speaker Beth Moore also paid tribute to Vonette.
“I can’t think of a single person on the planet that I respect more than Vonette Bright,” she said in statement posted on the Cru website. “She is 10 feet tall in my eyes. Like so many others, I have been profoundly impacted by her long obedience. She is a gift to our generation.”