This is a talk I gave in May, 2006, at Monte Vista Chapel in Turlock.
by Bob Rasmussen
It was in May of 1966 that a new church began in this town.
Everyone I knew was gathering out in an alfalfa field. And I of course, always in the midst of the action, was home…swollen in the neck like a puff adder; I had a raging case of the mumps.
Nothing could pull my mother from the side of any of her kids when they were sick. She nursed me though a feverish firestorm of malaria in Nigeria. But on that day in May when I lay sick in bed, my mother, ever caring, was right there…out in the alfalfa field at the corner of Monte Vista and Berkeley; for even she couldn’t miss the birth of something so important as a tender, excited church!
And that is a bit of the story I have been asked to tell…
Chapter 1: Simpler Times
The early days bristled with excitement. It was enough just to be together. Following the inaugural gathering on Warner Johnson’s field, someone found a building available in town to use as a temporary church for those early months; it was the Assyrian American Hall, over by what would become Donneley Park. We would come in and pick up Saturday night’s martini glasses and mop up the spills on the floor. That’s when I deduced that a “highball” wasn’t a bad pitch.
The place wasn’t outfitted with classrooms, so we would gather under trees for Sunday School. On cold or rainy days, we’d pile into cars. Stan Johnson, Pete Lindquist, Larry Sanders and that gang met in Mr. Duarte’s car to stay out of the rain. We steamed up the windows talking about Moses, Jesus and how avoid girls. That’s how young we were.
Chapter 2: “How Great Thou Art” and other musical highlights
Our first song leader was a big, smiling Swede named Joel Nicholausen. I always figured he was a full time, 7 day a week song leader, because he was such a natural. He would hold the songbook in his left hand and lean out over the platform with a jerky right-handed gesture and a huge beaming smile that made you either sing louder or chuckle about all the fun Joel seemed to be having with all 10 verses of “How Thou Art.”
The two solo heavyweights in those days were Wally Lindquist and Betty Bessera. No one has ever wafted to the heights Betty did when she’d sing “He Could Have Called Ten Thousand Angels.” When she sang it, you knew Jesus could have done just that.
Then there was Wally Lindquist. Wally’s winsome tenor voice always made the point in just the spirit it needed to be sung. But God took Him home way too early and that duty fell to Gordy Fredeen, who also rang true.
Speaking of music, the king of instruments—that’s the trumpet—used to reign supreme around here. I missed more high Cs on the platforms around this place than I care to remember. Doris Anderson, my father-in-law Dick Perrin, and a slew of other music aficionados passed through these walls and let the glory of brass ring out.
Chapter 3: The Quiet Men Who Were My Heroes
Young boys watch and learn. I observed that great men who build a church are usually serving behind the scenes. Men like Kenny Larson, who after retiring from his job as a postal worker, gave himself selflessly to cleaning anything that needed it. It was from him I learned how to clean a dirty restroom to the glory of God.
Gene Schultz, planted most of the towering trees that now shade our cars, mowed these lawns, weeded the flowerbeds, and performed a thousand thankless tasks with never a complaint; he showed his love for Jesus by adorning these grounds in a beautiful way.
Oscar Jerner was a huge man with an even bigger heart. In Oscar I saw the joy of telling anyone that Jesus came and died for their sins.
Roy and Margaret Nordell showed me hospitality and big-hearted generosity.
Oscar & Dorothy Lindberg lived a prayerful reverence, and faithful friendship to which I still aspire.
From Hube and Ping Nielsen I learned you don’t have to like everything to still be supportive.
I watched one of my age mates blossom from a great basketball player at Turlock High School into a fervent evangelist. Bill Larson still sets an example for me to talk boldly of Christ.
There was a Wednesday morning men’s prayer meeting in those days. Not a lot of talk…a brief passage of Scripture, then the guys peeled off into small groups, kneeled around chairs and interceded like this church couldn’t do it unless God showed up.
Chapter 4: Troubled times
There are always hard patches in the life of a church—times when misunderstandings come along, when it is easier to complain than extend grace. Monte Vista has had its share of those rocky pathways, and I think on a few occasions have been targeted by Satan’s most deceptive ways.
As a formative Christian, I learned much from observing these times, by watching how ugly the sinful nature can be in normally godly men. I learned not to trust appearances, for some men are smaller in character than they seem, while others prove larger than they looked at first.
There was a particularly rough season when, from where I stood, one man and only one stayed objective and sought peace from the middle ground. Bob Johns wasn’t a tall man by stature, but I saw a giant of character in his heart.
There was also a time when it seems an angel may have stood in this sanctuary. Our body was called upon to extend forgiveness to a brother caught in terrible sin. A moderating pastor asked if we could forgive and for a few moments there was silence. Then from the back spoke a man who was unknown to us, exhorting us to of course forgive; which we did, and restored a broken man to the path of obedience, a path he has continued to walk to this day.
A while back, a young dad sought me out and asked me over breakfast if he should leave the church. He wasn’t sure he liked the direction it was going or the food that was being served up. I told him he was a free agent and he should go where he could fellowship without a bitter spirit. But I also said that a church is like a family. When a family goes through good times, it gives you strength—makes you smile. But no family always has it good; there are low times when relationships are tough or ministries frankly stink; but you don’t resign from your family, because there are things you need to learn from those hardships. Well, he listened intently over scrambled eggs, but ended up moving on anyway. I don’t blame him, but here’s the thing…God is committed to teaching us perseverance; so why are we surprised when He tries to teach it to us in church?
Chapter 5: My Folks
Unless I’m missing someone, this church has had five pastors, and every one of them left a positive fingerprint on my life.
The first one was my father. My dad has always been a mild-mannered man. But it wasn’t but a few months after our family moved down to the flatlands of central California that dad realized change was brewing. I would never favor a church starting out from a parting of the ways between Christians, but then sometimes events take their own course and it’s only for a pastor to recognize that if he doesn’t take the lead his successor will have to. And so a new church met out in the farm on this corner. Presently, that growing field has become a harvest field of souls, with newcomers moving in on all sides, all having a muted cry inside for a touch of something true and lasting.
It’s easy to overlook my mother’s role in the early days of this church because hers were quiet contributions. If anyone could urge a church into maturity by sheer force of will and prayer it was her. She prayed for every meeting, hoped for every sermon, cared about every member, and looked for every visitor to return. She hosted staff and missionaries, set out coffee pots well before choir practice, and prayed youth groups safely home from mountaintops.
My father was at his best when teaching the Word of God from chapter one verse one until the numbers ran out. That was his way, his passion, and frankly, his gift to this young church for the 17 years he stood at this pulpit. Awhile back I heard Jolyn DeGrazia say that all she learned about the Bible she learned from my dad. I’m sure that’s an overstatement, but I know there are a few people who thank God for the Biblical foundation they got from Dad’s teaching. And just as important is when a man or woman reminds me that it was my parent’s steady influence that caused them to enter the ministry or head out to the mission field.
Chapter 6: Pastors
As I started to say, all five pastors encouraged me on my way.
Blaine Bishop followed my father with a ministry of calming nerves, soothing ruffled feathers, comforting with down-home wisdom laced with bequiling humor. Folks here loved Dr Bishop. I remember coming up from LA to visit him, needing the encouragement of a favorable response to our call to go to Africa as missionaries. Pastor Bishop heard our story and said he was sure the church could do something for us. And he was right.
Pastor Dick Hatfield was pastor here while we got ready to leave for Kenya. I remember we needed to raise $10,000 for a vehicle, and we wanted to get their before the school year was to begin for our daughters Lauren and Heather. I was amazed when Pastor Hatfield put it all on the line one Sunday night, asking the church to give the entire amount in one single offering! That man showed me faith and courage, and I still take strength from the fact that God answered that prayer and that this church family rose to such an important occasion for those young missionaries.
We were living in Kenya when we received news that Dr. Roy Price had been asked to serve as Monte Vista’s next senior pastor. I recall taking one of his sermon tapes on the bus with me as we traveled to a ministry trip. I remember distinctly his talking about his own struggle with burn-out in the ministry, how he sought the help he needed and slowly got back to wholeness. I thought to myself, and later commented from this podium, that I consider it an honor to learn from a man with that kind of transparency. It was that genuineness that ministered deeply to us when, having returned from Africa, my wife Lyn was stricken with leukemia. Pastor Roy and the elders came to our home to pray for her healing—I was so glad to have a pastor that believed in miracles, offered by one who had shed his own tears.
When I think of Pastor Ken VanVleit I think of graciousness. He has invited me to preach more times than I could accept, and has always taken time for a burrito to talk over ministry and family matters. He is my friend, a missions-minded leader, and just about the most multi-talented pastor I know. He is the man for this season, in the life of this growing church, in this changing town.
Chapter 7: A Personal Word
If I were to try telling my life story without mentioning Monte Vista Chapel, I would have to omit many of the important events and people who have shaped me.
It was down the aisle of Warner Johnson hall that I walked down the aisle with my young beautiful bride Lyn to begin an adventure I never could have imagined.
Down to my left, I knelt as a young seminary graduate, and received from this body the ordination to the ministry.
Here to my right, Lyn and I knelt and had precious hands laid on us, commissioning us to Africa as missionaries.
My daughter Heather was baptized in the waters behind me.
From this fellowship my daughter Lauren ventured to foreign countries.
So intertwined is my life with this church, I sometimes find myself thinking that I own a piece of it. Then I remember that only Jesus builds the church, and He merely allows us the privilege of enjoying a season of its history.
When I think of those who took the risk to begin this church, my hat is off to them. But this was never their church, any more than it belongs to those who pour their lives into it now.
And that is perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned by being a part of this family. Monte Vista Chapel has been a great church for so many of us not merely because heroes, and even angels, have passed through these halls. Nor has it known success merely because of good teaching, generous giving, or talented staff. The only thread of reason I see is God’s pleasure in weaving together a few hearts to take a faith adventure. And as we stand at this marker labeled 40 years, that surely is the only way we will ascend the winding path ahead.
With all sincerity, thank you for all you have meant to me and my family.