“Thank You.”

These two simple words were on my mind as I drove to the Somers’ family home in western Illinois. Being a parsonage, the home not only belonged to the church Al has been serving for eight years, but it spoke of the vocation that had been his calling all of his adult life, and into which he was born during the ministry of his pastor/father.

I knew these two words were terribly inadequate for my task, since what I had to be grateful for and what Al had to do with it encompassed so much about my life that has been good. I also know how much I wanted to say these words now, because Al wouldn’t be here much longer.

Al and Judy were no strangers to adversity and illness. Ministry in hard places and times had been their lot for much of their service. In the midst of these circumstances, they still found many joys and friends along the way. Eight years ago, a diagnosis of incurable leukemia and a painful departure from a long term ministry was coupled with one of their best blessings—a call to serve a church that seemed ideally suited to grow under Al’s pastoral care. The leukemia was controlled, and care seemed to flow as much into Al and Judy’s lives from their congregation as did their care toward the flock.

Then came the news of colon cancer, and the growing realization that it was not going to be overcome as the leukemia had been. Having been told his remaining time would be measured in days and not months, I began to lay plans to pay one final visit to someone who had shaped my life and ministry as much as anyone I have known. I got there just in time.

Al became my youth pastor when I was in 8th grade, and for two years he led our church’s youth ministry. It was one of those churches, that as I look back, put the “fun” in “fundamental,” and Al’s arrival was followed months later by one pastor’s departure, and the arrival of another who didn’t believe in youth pastors. Al soldiered on as best he could, and faithfully led our teens. More than that, he took a personal interest in me that included discipleship training. He was the first to challenge me toward regular Bible study and prayer, and show me ways both to do so and to benefit from the exercise. When the Lord moved him on, we stayed in touch through occasional letters (I was the more frequent writer, but to be fair, he did have a new church to serve). I never had another youth pastor like him, but the seeds he planted took root, and my sense of calling to ministry became clear.

Our correspondence continued through my college years, and took a new turn when one letter offered the possibility of coming to assist him in the church to which he had been called less than a year before. A visit to the church ensued, and my life’s direction changed much more than just geographically.

From the first day as Al’s assistant at First Baptist Church of San Bernardino, I was introduced to ministry through a true apprenticeship. I read Scripture for the first time in a funeral my first week on the job. The first person I baptized was Al—he made me get in the tank and practice on him so I wouldn’t lose anybody when the real thing came along. Back then he had three messages to prepare each week, so he usually asked me to do one. Perhaps his boldest move was to decide that we would preach through books together, with one of us taking a passage, then the other picking up the next week where the first left off. I was going to seminary at the time, and found that Al’s practical training was enriching my class work immeasurably. Few others came into Sermon Preparation class with the experience Al had provided me, and few had the chance to field test what they were learning in school in ministry that was given through Al’s generous investment in me.

What made this even more powerful was the way he and Judy welcomed me into their lives and family. Sunday dinner was always at their house, as well as at least one other meal each week. I got to be more than just a babysitter for their kids—they treated me like a beloved uncle, and I had the joy of entering into their lives—attending soccer games, having them stay at my place, and giving them rides everywhere. When my interest in my wife first developed and deepened, but my demonstrations of my affection were not moving fast enough to seal the deal, it was Judy who told me that I needed to sit with Kathy in church NOW. So I did. Of course, she clued Kathy in on this, to make sure there was room next to her in the pew!

Al married us, and he and Judy sang in the service. Their family continued to be a blessing to us, and when God called us away to my first senior pastorate, Al was instrumental in helping that process, too. As our ministry saw God’s blessing, I was conscious of the fact that much of what I did, I did because Al taught me how to do it. When I did a funeral and people remarked on its poignancy, I knew that it was because Al taught me how to make it personal. When a wedding couple rejoiced in the service they had, it was due in large part to Al’s training in how to put a wedding together

Until his pastorate at Checkrow, Al’s ministry had usually been in difficult environments. Yet he worked faithfully where God had placed him. After my departure from San Bernardino, Al repeated this apprenticing process in two more men’s lives. For a time, all three of us had more visible fruit in ministry than Al was experiencing. Yet all of us would have to confess that the fruit we saw was not just ours, but Al’s. His commitment to multiplying what God had done in him can be seen in thriving churches and ministries in California, the Midwest, and even overseas, who have never met him.

So I was able to arrive and speak one more time to this man who had given me so much. Judy, Steve, Elizabeth, and I sat around his bed and shared some precious memories and some laughter over the past. He was weak, but he was clear headed, and once again, he blessed me—literally, with a prayer committing me to continuing in God’s service. I prayed for him, too, thanking God through my tears for Al’s life of faithfulness, and asking God to welcome him home soon if a miracle healing was not in store. I told Al that I loved him and didn’t know how to say “thank you” for so much to one man in one moment. From a human perspective, he taught me about ministry, he was the reason I met my wife and have my family, and he showed me in practical terms how to walk with God.

I left, and the next day Al was no longer able to speak. He fell asleep Sunday night, August 31; and at 1:00 the next morning, Judy woke up and found that Al had left for Heaven.

I love Al and Judy Somers and their family, and my appreciation for his legacy of faithfulness will continue, in part through me. It is my prayer that I will be found to have been similarly faithful when I join him in the Savior’s presence.

Published in: on September 3, 2008 at 6:44 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. When my husband and I visited Checkrow Community Church on 9/21, we were shocked to learn that Pastor Al had died. We had been worshiping with the Checkrow church a couple of times a year when we were visiting the area from Chicago. The first time we were there, we recognized Pastor Al as an exemplary Christian man and pastor, and his congregation as a close-knit, fruitful group of brothers and sisters. We hadn’t known Pastor Al was ill; his passing made us want to know more about him. Thanks for sharing the impact he had on your life. The fruit of his faithfulness will go on and on, time without end. Lord bless you! Sara v.

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