During my senior year in college I served my first appointment as supply minister for the sixty members of the Wapella Methodist Church. It started out as a summer job, and extended month by month as the District Superintendent said that he could not find a permanent replacement. Wapella had been part of a five point “larger parish,” but they grew tired of sharing a minister with so many other congregations. They wanted a minister of their own. They welcomed me enthusiastically, at least until I stated why I opposed the war in Vietnam, and they even tolerated that as long as they could keep me. At the end of seven months I had to end my service to them, giving the superintendent and the congregation a month’s notice. I had college work to complete, and I had trouble keeping my car running the eighty mile round trip two or three times a week. The superintendent said he would find someone else to serve them temporarily, but he didn’t for several weeks. They continued to meet for worship anyway.
Three months later a tornado tore through the town one late afternoon, and several college friends joined me in returning to what was left of Wapella. A friend drove, since my car was not working. We arrived after dark, and learned that the first task was to locate people across the countryside. Since I knew where people lived, and telephone lines were down, we drove out to see whether people were safe and sheltered. Heavy rains continued, and at one point we found ourselves driving on seemingly flat land with water above the floor boards of the car, so we didn’t get to all of the people we wanted to check. By the end of the night, one way or another, everyone was accounted for, and few injuries were reported.
Daylight showed the carnage of the disaster. We returned to be part of the clean-up crew and the job appeared to be insurmountable with the remains of houses and buildings scattered over a wide area. I saw few of my former parishioners, as those who lost their homes had sought refuge elsewhere and had little left to salvage. We put in a day’s work, but many more would be required before the town would be ready to start rebuilding.
At one point in the day we looked at the church. The large stained glass windows were gone. The tornado had lifted and moved the structure a few feet, and it sat at a crazy angle on the foundation. It was a total loss. Later I learned that the congregation had used their insurance money to buy a house as a meeting place. They were determined to continue as long as they could in spite of all the difficulties they faced. Neither my poor service nor an “act of God” would close them down.
All in all it was a revealing but not an encouraging beginning to my service as a pastor.