By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist
Sammy Gilbreath remembers the moment he realized the plan was going really, really wrong.
It was the moment he jumped out of the airplane.
In the days leading up to that jump, Gilbreath — director of evangelism for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM) — had been working on plans for the Alabama Baptist Youth Evangelism Conference and trying to come up with something that would get people’s attention.
‘He was excited’
“In past years, I had ridden into events on my Harley or rappelled out of the ceiling in a ninja suit, and that year I thought how neat it would be to skydive in,” he said.
It was 2004, and the Montgomery Biscuits baseball team had just opened its new Riverwalk Stadium. Gilbreath had been anticipating its opening. He thought it would be a great venue for a youth outreach event, and he was excited.
But somebody else in his life hadn’t been quite as acutely aware of the Biscuits’ new home — somebody important.
“The pilot was just told we were going to jump over the baseball park. When we jumped out of the plane, I realized we were over the wrong baseball field,” Gilbreath said. “We had jumped over Paterson Field in downtown Montgomery, and when I jumped out and popped my chute, I’m looking at an empty baseball stadium.”
So Gilbreath — on his first-ever skydive with just a few minutes of instructions and buckle-checking — did what he felt was the only option. He left the two professional parachutists who were supposed to drop straight down into the stadium with him. He pulled the air out of his parachute and shot like a torpedo in the direction of Riverwalk Stadium, more than a mile away.
An ‘uh oh’ moment
“My wife, Carol, was the only one who saw us and knew something was wrong about where we had jumped,” Gilbreath said.
She sat in Riverwalk Stadium and thought “uh oh” as she watched the small dots in the sky, her husband — the fastest dot of all. There he was tucked into a nosedive sailing over municipal buildings, hotels, Waffle House and Dreamland BBQ.
He dodged the huge light pole coming into centerfield as Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” played over the loudspeakers.
And he stuck the landing right on the “X” at second base — exactly as planned.
“Nobody else in the stadium knew anything had gone wrong — we didn’t say anything about it,” Gilbreath said. “It was just meant to be an opportunity to get people’s attention and share the gospel.”
They did share, and people did pay attention. Hundreds of students committed their lives to Christ that night — the night Gilbreath secretly got a little more adventure than he bargained for.
Even bigger miracle
But that adventure wasn’t the end of his secrets — something else was going wrong in Gilbreath’s life that day.
He was wearing a heart monitor the day he dove, though he joked that he unhooked it for the jump “so it wouldn’t go off and scramble hospital staff all over Montgomery.”
And a few months later, Gilbreath would discover God had begun to weave an even bigger miracle when it came to staying alive. He had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition only 12 people in the world had at the time, and only four of those 12 had survived the blood clot that comes with their condition.
“I was carrying the largest blood clot in medical history,” Gilbreath said.
He went to the only doctor in the world who had experience treating it, and he was told he would probably die, and die quickly. His family gathered around him — as did SBOM staff — and everyone felt he should let doctors do what they could, pray for God to keep him alive and then keep living life to the full every day.
In other words, live like he was dying.
So he did. And 16 years later, he’s still doing it.
“I often get asked, ‘Sammy, do you believe God’s going to heal you?’ and I say no,” Gilbreath said. “I believe rather that He’s chosen to sustain me. If He sustains me with this condition, no doctor can take the credit. He and only He can take credit for that.”
In the years since his diagnosis, Gilbreath has ridden his Harleys and horses and shared the gospel on the road and through events.
“They’re just tools — whether I was riding or fishing, I wanted to be able to reach that culture for Christ,” he said. “Jesus was a master at addressing people with an understanding of their lifestyle.”
So as he’s gone about his life and work, Gilbreath has tried to follow Jesus’ methods. And he’s carried on the passion his dad taught him as a boy — a passion for talking to people about Jesus.
‘More caught than taught’
“My dad was an appliance salesman, and he was one of the greatest soul winners I’ve ever known,” Gilbreath said. “I would go on visits with him at 12 and 13, and I always knew when we went to the first house, I would entertain the dogs, cats or kids and let my dad share the gospel with the adults. And I always knew that at the second house, it would be my turn to share.”
His dad taught him to share his faith, but he also put him in a position where he caught a passion for outreach, Gilbreath said.
“That’s what evangelism is — it’s more caught than taught.”
And that’s what his vision has been for Alabama — that pastors, Sunday School teachers, associational missions directors and everybody else would get equipped to share but most of all catch a passion for sharing.
“It’s been an incredible journey the past 23 years with the State Board — the greatest ride of my life,” Gilbreath said.
This year’s evangelism conference will be his last as director of evangelism. At the end of the conference, he will pass the baton to Daniel Wilson, whom he’s been mentoring during the past several months.
But he won’t be gone. In his new role, he will lead the state’s event evangelism, focusing on events that aim to share the gospel and equip people around the state to share their faith too.
For instance, he’ll be leading efforts when the World Games come to Birmingham in 2021.
It’s a transition he’s excited about.
‘In great hands’
“I’m so thrilled about Daniel Wilson — the evangelism office will be in great hands,” Gilbreath said. “He’s a great preacher, he’s got great people skills and he’s a good organizer. I’m really excited about the future of evangelism.”
Rick Lance, SBOM executive director, said Gilbreath has built a strong legacy of evangelism work.
“Sammy Gilbreath has served Alabama Baptists in a stellar fashion for decades. His name is synonymous with evangelism among the Alabama Baptist family of faith,” Lance said. “Throughout Sammy’s entire ministry, he has been a faithful servant of the Lord. Despite serious health issues, Sammy has always kept the most positive attitude about his life and ministry. He has inspired countless numbers of ministers and other church leaders to do the work of an evangelist.”