At this point in many people’s career at PUC, they embark on a mission trip, a trip where they generally go overseas and serve as teachers or missionaries of some sort for a year in the middle of their college career. I was seeing many of my friend and acquaintances heading off to exotic locations in various places in Asia, Australia, the South Pacific, Europe, Africa and apparently every point in the world. I had always wanted to make this part of my plan, to have the experience, to put it on the resume and to align my college graduation with Shannon since she was a year behind me. However, when it came to decide, I had really grown closer and closer to Shannon and I didn’t want to be too far away from her and an opportunity present itself I had to embrace: to be the assistant pastor at South Bay Adventist Church, the church that Steve Moran attended and that I knew several people from. It was in Southern California, only a few hours drive from Shannon and PUC.
They flew me down to preach a sermon and a few days later offered me the position and I was headed towards one of the happiest years of my life. The people at South Bay were so incredibly reasonable, with only a small percentage spending too much time majoring on minors. The best part was that though there were a wide variety of opinions in the church they really came across to me as a community. Sure, there was the typical church gossip and some people who were intensely caddy and angry but as a group, they were a positive group whose vibe to me reflected what Jesus was all about. With how little they cared about things like jewelry and dress and the fact that they regularly had things like drums in the worship service (a great controversy within the Adventist tradition), it certainly did not reflect the church I grew up in. But this was where I was comfortable and where I saw God the most clearly.
The pastor, Jon Jenson, was a man who concerned himself with keeping that positive energy going at the church. He was there during critical times for his members, consistently showing up at things like hospitals and court dates and emergencies. He was happy and tried to communicate that liveliness into very hopeful and cheerful sermons and praise services, always trying to keep the name of God lifted high. At times he tried to keep it so high that it could be interpreted as fluffy. He also spent so much time working on the church services and things like powerpoint presentations that sometimes he missed connecting with people but overall the church liked him.
He was not particularly geared for evangelism though he was open to it.There were a couple of people who we gave Bible studies while I was there to. One of them I ended up doing a solo job on because they mostly spoke Spanish. I went there week after week (they were the parents of one of the church members) but never did get them to come to church regularly or to get baptized. The other couple had sick child and we spent much time studying with them and visiting them in the hospital. They were a part of the congregation for a while but eventually faded out as well. The only people who were baptized that year were teenagers who had grown up in the church who I helped study with but no one from outside of the wall.
I was allowed to speak about once a month at the church and it’s the church where I ever felt most comfortable speaking. They didn’t have a set pulpit and it was more of an auditorium than a standard church. I would tell stories and walk out into the audience and often brought humor at my self expense (One church member, Carl Voigt, said that I was the preacher he was most afraid of because when I walked out he said he couldn’t get away with falling asleep) . Jon and I had very different styles, his sermons were more self improvement types with references to popular culture with Bible verses spread throughout a powerpoint presentation. Mine were more trying to find new ways to tell very old Biblical stories with all non Biblical references connection to my life or people’s lives in the audience. He tried to get me to put it all in power point presentation or reference the modern culture more and I did add some powerpoint but overall I was more comfortable just talking.
The church also had a very active youth group led by Steve Moran. I lived in his house and he helped both my faith and my perspective on it grow. I thought he was wrong on a thousand things but we argued them and while I think he made more progress on me than I did on him, we both listened in our own way (though it’s arguable we were only listening until given a chance to make our own point). He had a group discussion every Friday night called teen rap where a dozen to twenty teenagers gathered around and discussed various Biblical or ethical discussions. He was teaching teenagers to think for themselves and showing that faith and reason could dance with each other even if it was sometimes an awkward dance. (To his credit, he had made this a very successful enterprise; the adults tried a similar Bible study the year I was there and it collapsed almost more quickly than it was put together). Ironically or appropriately enough, the people most likely to skip it on any given week were his own children. I believe that now many of those kids from teen rap are still church members but his are not. I lived in their home for a year and Steve and Pat were great parents to both Paul and Rebecca but somehow they were not able to pass on their faith to them. It’s odd how we sometimes connect least with those we care about most.
However, the biggest lesson I learned that year was from the adults at that church. One of the things that Jon was fairly neglectful of was visiting his congregation on any kind of regular basis. He was happy to interact with them at church and church social events like weddings, potlucks, and beach events but there were rare times where he saw them one on one. Being both a psychology and a theology major, this is where I saw my opening as a place to learn.
One by one, I started visiting all of the different church members in their homes or jobs. Fascinating would be a very adequate description of what I found in all of these people. There were people like Carl who had come from Australia to be the chair of the business department at the University of Southern California; Quiet Ncube, a South Africa refuge who was now an oncologist at UCLA’s hospital; Forrest and Penny, a quiet couple who had been married 50 years or so; the Sunicos and the Chows, people who were incredibly helpful to the church but were also working quietly at raising very quality kids. There were louder personalities like Susan Vlach, Stephen Stokes who had enough mischievousness to question much but enough wisdom to play the game very well. There were people like Patty Kelly whose sincere enthusiasm for life spilled well into her faith. Susan, Steve and Carl all had quiet but strong presences in their spouses who sometimes were clearly the ones running the show in the background. But all of these people were bound by a belief which they celebrated in a building once a week. Faith was real with all of these people and they let time and money and social lives revolve around this connection that Jesus was authentic and that He was returning to save his people very soon. I may never have listened to people more in my life than I did that year as I kept hearing what people had to say. Their journey through life, through faith, to God, to each other was nothing less than miraculous and I was proud to witness the miracles that were their lives.
I was 20 years old then and my faith had peaked; I was completely in love with God and the best thing in life was being in His service with His people. I hadn’t resolved the questions from psychology or from people like Sophia but the reality was that it was like loving my mother or my friends or my girlfriend. It’s naïve to assume that they don’t have faults but the positive emotions you have for them outweigh all those faults. We look away or don’t notice because we’re generally so happy when we’re with them. There is no time in my life I miss more.