Alva’s Dad, Curtis C. Sawyer, passed away on December 31, 1979, at the age of 86, the first of our parents to leave us. Dad and Mom lived in a retirement village in Fresno when Dad got seriously sick and was hospitalized. Alva went down to be with Mom so they could strengthen each other. Alva was at Dad’s bedside from mid-morning till the nurses prepared him for the night. Dad was lucid until the end, and these two old pals had a grand time, laughing and reminiscing while Alva administered TLC. Jesus joined them in their party several times, and both of them were well prepared when Dad peacefully took his leave. Au revoir, dear Dad!
As the eighties began, Alva and I were settled into our cozy little home on Chapel Hill Court (named after the Chapel in the Pines). Steve and Debbie lived next door. Jim and Carolyn Bailey lived across the street.
At the Chapel, Donna Higgins had been hired as Director of Christian Education, relieving Alva of Sunday School and Children’s Church responsibilities. The FGEA and Order of the Lamb had run their course, and Little Mothers meetings had ceased. What would she do with all this unexpected extra time? Not to worry-our kids and foster kids were producing grand children at an alarming rate, and Grandma was much in demand. Scrapbooking was emerging so Alva had her work cut out for her to produce gillions of Scrapbooks.
She was now able to attend adult services at the Chapel and took upon herself several new responsibilities:
- Chief greeter, hugging all comers, new and old, and learning all their names;
- Truant Officer, calling those who missed to see if they were sick or just goofing off;
- Offering two shoulders for hurting people to cry on;
- Just being merry sunshine to everyone;
- Monitoring my sermons, before and after delivery.
On weekdays, in addition to her Scrapbooking, Alva fielded a steady flow of phone calls from those seeking counseling, wanting to share a testimony, or just wanting to hear her happy voice. She was as busy as ever!
In mid 1982, our son-in-law, Emil Swift, and daughter Janet were called to Pastor an ailing church in Salyer, California, between Eureka and Weaverville. Before long Alva and I and the Chapel were all involved in helping this church to recover and prosper. The congregation there became sort of a second church family to us, and Alva became “Grandma” to the young women. Alva and I as a family and the Chapel as a sister church would be much involved the Covenant Life Fellowship, their new name, in the years that lay ahead.
I began to work Steve into the preaching responsibilities at the Chapel. His gift of evangelism became evident in his FGEA days, but he couldn’t stand to be just an evangelist (leading people to Christ in evangelistic meetings and then leaving them to go on to the next evangelistic meeting). He wanted to stay and shepherd the new sheep. It became clear that he would end up being the Pastor of some church. Preaching the occasional Sunday service would give him some practical experience in preparation for that day.
Charles Stock had gotten saved, was attending the Chapel, and was being mentored by Steve (who had led him to the Lord).
The Chapel was bursting at the seams, often with SRO . We tried having two morning services, but nobody liked that-they just pout up with it. We needed more space. I was studying our property, trying to figure out if and where we could put a a new sanctuary building that would seat seven or eight hundred people. With the cooperation of everyone involved in operating the Chapel, I finally roughed out a seemingly practical proposal.
I was in the twenty seventh year as Pastor of the Chapel, and feeling slightly diminished in the vision area. I would be 65 soon, eligible for Social Security. I prayed a lot and discussed the whole situation with Alva. With her concurrence, I suggested to the leadership that they find a new Senior Pastor, to begin serving around my birthday in April, 1984. I would co-Pastor with him for a year to help him get acclimated. At 65 I would go on Social Security but would remain as an Associate Pastor. They would pay me only the amount I could earn without reducing the SS payments.
The leadership agreed, picked Steve to succeed me (though I hadn’t even mentioned that possibility) and my son became my boss. Not really, until the year of transition ended. Steve began preaching more, and I preached less. We involved Charles Stock in the rotation also.
At the same time, the Chapel decided to build the proposed new sanctuary building. I would take my turn preaching, but have no other responsibilities in the Chapel operations. As Steve put it, “Dad, Charles and I will run the church, you just build the new building.” This was a great step of faith, as it was to be pay-as-you-go, and we didn’t have a cent in a building fund.
It took me several months to draw the working plans, and the rest of the year to get them approved by the Tuolumne County Building Department because of all the red tape involved (Zoning change, public hearings, planning department resistance, etc.). During this year the congregation began giving to the building fund, so by the time we started building there was a good sum available.
When we began building we worked steadily for two years (some weather delays) and had our first service in the new sanctuary on the first Sunday in January, 1987, debt free. Well over $400,000 had come in without any fund raisers, drives or pressure. Praise the Lord!
Steve had been Senior Pastor for three years in the Old Chapel and continued on for thirteen years in the new building. Charles Stock left about the time we began services in the New Chapel, so Steve took over Charles’ share of the preaching. I gradually phased out in the next months and pretty soon Steve was doing all the preaching. I filled in when he was on vacation or away for some special ministry. I remained on as “Consulting Pastor” and am still at it.
This freed Alva and me to be “loaned out” to other ministries the Chapel was related to, such as Lighthouse Ranch near Eureka, Covenant Life Fellowship in Willow Creek, Coulterville Christian Fellowship and Mother Lode Christian School. As usual, I was doing some kind of construction work and Alva was ministering to the hurting and encouraging the healthy.
Towards the end of the eighties Janet was experiencing swelling in some of her lymph nodes. Biopsies indicated that she had non-Hodgekins Lymphoma. Her Oncologist told her they could not begin treatment until the disease attacked some vital organ, and that she should just carry on as usual until that happened. She continued to work with Emil as he pastored the church in Willow Creek.
One of the last events of significance in the eighties occurred on a trip we made to Pasadena to visit my parents. We arrived at their house mid-morning, and to our amazement, my mother was still in her bathrobe, and looked terrible. I knew something was wrong as she would never willingly be caught in such disarray. I said, “Mother, is something wrong?” She replied weakly, “I feel terrible!” Daddy asked her if she wanted to go to the hospital and she nodded yes. That meant it must be serious, so we rushed her to Huntington Hospital. The Emergency Room doctor said she was suffering from congestive heart failure, and admitted her to the hospital. We called my brother, Owen, who also lived in Pasadena, and we all stayed by her bedside for a while till she went into a deep sleep from the medication she had been given, then we went home. The next morning we went to visit, and she was awake, but drowsy and very slow with her words. She fell asleep and we left. Owen worked nearby, and told us he would go by to check on Mother on the way home. She was resting quietly when he got off work, but that evening he phoned us-the hospital had just called, and Mother was gone. Owen and Joy drove over, and we cried and tried to console one another. Daddy seemed to take it most stoically, but I knew the pain in his heart-they were very close.
Daddy and Mother had outlived all their friends, and were sort of house-bound. Neither of them wanted a funeral service, and they had pre-paid the Neptune Society to spread their ashes at sea. So the last time any of us saw Mother was our last visit at the hospital. Daddy moved into an assisted care home and sold their house.
As we entered the last decade of the twentieth century, the Chapel family was prospering, already filling the new sanctuary to about 80% of its legal capacity of 700 people. Along with the new sanctuary were eight classrooms on the lower floor. We had plenty of room for every need. The old sanctuary was now the Children’s Church sanctuary. Every Chapel activity was smoothly operating with adequate space and equipment.
But all was not well. Steve had been having trouble with his eyes and other symptoms in his head. An MRI revealed what appeared to the local doctors to be an inoperable brain tumor. The scans were sent to the head neurosurgeon at UC Hospital in San Francisco for an expert opinion. He thought it was operable, and was willing to do the surgery himself.
This was a shock to us and the Chapel family, and of course everyone went to earnest prayer for Steve. Alva now had both of her youngest children on the endangered species list, but was trusting God for both of them.
Steve was scheduled for surgery and taken to San Francisco and admitted to the hospital. Alva and I got a room in the Hospital’s guest motel so we could be there for the surgery and initial recovery.
The surgery was performed. The surgeon said it was successful, that he had gotten all the tumor out, with minimal margin so as to not damage his short term memory. He prescribe extensive radiation treatments but no chemo. Steve seemed fine except for excruciating neck pain from his head being held in a clamp for hours. His care team (6 or 7 of us) massaged the pain away and about killed him off with TLC.
By the time he was released from the hospital Steve was doing well. He resumed his preaching, but was kept on low job responsibility for the months of radiation treatments. When his hair began to fall out he just put on a cowboy hat and went on preaching. When the treatments were over he resumed his full load as Pastor, his hair grew back and he retired the cowboy hat. After this harrowing experience, the Chapel enjoyed getting back to normal.
While things in Twain Harte were going well, 1992 was the year when the earthly journey of our two remaining parents ended. Mom Sawyer, happy and alert at the age of 94, had eaten her dinner and was about to eat her dessert when she fell forward embedding her face in the pie or whatever it was. A stroke took her without a sound. What a way to go! She had specified only a graveside service with me doing the honors. Overriding the sense of loss was our joy that Mom was now in a place that she would love even more than Hawaii! See you before long, Mom.
My brother, Owen, phoned me to tell me that Daddy had fallen and broken his hip. He was scheduled for surgery in late afternoon. I jumped in the car and headed for Pasadena. When I arrived at Huntington Hospital, Owen said they had just finished the surgery and Daddy was in the recovery room. The surgeon came in to brief us. He was amazed that at 97 Daddy had survived the surgery and that his bones were healthy and had accepted the replacement hip appliance perfectly. It was late, so we left. Next morning Daddy had not regained consciousness. Owen went to work, and I remained to “talk” with Daddy, though I guess he didn’t hear. He never regained consciousness, and passed away that evening. He had survived the surgery, but the trauma was too much for his old heart. As with Mother, he had no service and the Neptune Society took care of his earthly remains. It was hard on Alva, not having a chance to say goodbye, for she and Daddy were very close. I was hurting too, but was grateful that Daddy had been taken quickly without a long sickness.
We plugged away at our respective ministries for a year or so, enjoying what God was doing in the Chapel.
We were just getting used to this tranquility when Janet’s Lymphoma became active in 1993. Alva became Janet’s chief caregiver. There was no known treatment for her type of Lymphoma, but several prestigious hospitals were willing to experiment on her. For two years they tried every trick of the trade and then some on Janet. Alva drove Janet back and forth for treatments, or accompanied her as she was flown to appointments or returned home by private planes owned by friends. During hospital stays she was her constant bedside attendant. When on the road with Janet, Alva kept track of medications. When the only thing Janet could eat was a bean taco, Alva was off to Taco Bell to get it. This lasted for two full years, and was probably the most intense challenge to Alva’s durability that she ever experienced. Over and over she would be at the end of her rope, and wondering how she could go on, then the Holy Spirit would touch her and enable her to rise to the occasion.
Alva and Janet’s mother-daughter relationship was far closer than ever before, but Alva said it ripened into an incredible friendship.
Of course I was greatly affected also. Alva was subject to Janet’s needs. I was subject to Alva’s needs. Our family life together was hit and miss for two years. Palo Alto, location of Stanford Hospital, and Fremont, where I stayed when Alva had to stay at the hospital with Janet, became my least favorite places-and still are. But God was with us through it all.
Medical science did its best for Janet and she seemed to be on the mend after recovering from a bone marrow transplant. They released her to go home to Willow Creek. But after a few days she was hit by severe back pains, and was rushed back to Stanford. She had experienced a severe relapse, and there was nothing more they could do. They gave her plenty of pain medication, a friend came and flew her to Columbia Airport, and we put her into our living room on a hospital bed, waiting for the end. Janet had been an inspiration to everyone for two years, and was no different during these last days. We had a hilarious going away party one evening during this wait. A few days later, on December 31, 1994, Janet peacefully left for heaven. Her impact on the hospital staff at Stanford was evidenced by the presence of doctors and nurses at her memorial service at the Chapel.
Alva had to learn how to live a normal life after all this. But you can’t keep a good woman down, much less the Sublime gift of God, so she was soon happily ministering in the Chapel and the two of us were enjoying being at home together.
During the 1995-1998 period, the Chapel’s already busy ministry was impacted by two major events:
- The “Toronto Blessing” arrived and enhanced our lives and ministry;
- Rex Heath asked the Chapel to take over the Mother Lode Christian School. It was a strain on us, but in due time the MLCS corporation was able to take over full ownership and control. It is still operating as a K-8 school (no high school).
In late 1998 Steve began to suffer a recurrence of his brain tumor. Soon he was unable to function as our Pastor, and resigned. He asked Pastor Wayne to enlist various Pastors in the area to take turns filling our pulpit while we searched for his replacement. This lasted for a year until God sent Pastor Dennis Ortmann to us. Steve had talked to him on the phone and advised the Chapel leadership to have him come for a tryout. I brought Dennis to Steve’s house so they could meet in person. Before we left, Steve called me aside and said “He is God’s man!” While Steve was really sick, he still heard God’s voice without any difficulty.
Everyone was pleased with Dennis, his young wife Ali (Alexandra) and their 20 month old son, Jeremy. The Chapel leadership recommended to the congregation that Dennis be called to be our new Pastor. They enthusiastically voted to do so. It would take several months before they would arrive.
The morning of Valentine’s Day, 2000, Steve took a turn for the worse. He told Debbie, ”Look outside, for three angels have come to take me home.” She couldn’t see them, but he definitely could. She alerted the family, and Jake and Jodi started north from southern California where they were at college.
Steve was where he could see the angels, and he told Debbie they were getting closer all the time. Family members began arriving to say goodbye. By dark Steve was unconscious. We hoped he would last till Jake and Jodi arrived. Rachel Bruce got the word that Steve was bad, jumped in her car to come. On the way she saw a vision of Steve in his room, with an angel sitting in a corner, waiting. When she arrived, she went into the room and it was exactly as she had seen it, angel and all!
Just before midnight Jake and Jodi arrived, and went in to say goodbye to their Dad. They sensed that he heard them, but he could not speak and his eyes remained closed. After finishing their goodbyes, they came out to greet the rest of the family, and Rachel went in to maintain the vigil. I guess she wasn’t afraid of the angel.
I think Steve was holding on till Valentine’s Day was over so as not to put a pox on future celebrations. In any event, safely into February 15, 2000, Rachel came out and said they, Steve and the angel, were gone. Our two youngest children were now together in the presence of Jesus, while I, at 80, and Alva, at 75, were still rattling around. It seemed unfair that they had beat us to heaven!
It seemed like the whole county came out to Steve’s service. The various churches and their congregations had been drawn together, first by Steve’s sixteen years of loving interaction with them as Senior Pastor of the Chapel, and second by their love and prayers for him while he battled his brain tumor.
I took over the preaching duties until Pastor Dennis and family arrived. I endeavored to comfort our people over this seemingly devastating loss, which many found impossible to understand. As usual, the Scriptures proved to be the Balm of Gilead and helped us all to cope.