The Summer That Almost Destroyed My Family
The summer of 1976 started off great. I had just finished sixth grade and celebrated my 12th birthday in early June. Then I received the sudden news that my father was leaving our family. I didn’t want him to leave but he said he needed to go to Alaska to earn some money. That kinda made sense but I would later learn there was much more to the story. Much more.
Let’s back up a few years earlier. My dad was a highly respected and successful counselor at the Boys Ranch facility working in the Santa Clara juvenile justice system. He also owned five rental properties in Silicon Valley. He was quite proud of his white Mercedes convertible. Our family had recently expanded to five children: Bonny, Barry, Betty, Becky, and now Bobby. Life was good. My father was happy. Then God called my father into the ministry.
United Baptist Church was a growing church on the eastside of San Jose, CA. Except for their Youth Department which couldn’t find a reliable leader. Pastor Larry Chappel was a dynamic communicator with big dreams and goals for himself and for our church. Pastor Chappel asked my dad to pray about becoming his next Youth Director. (The term Youth Pastor was not in vogue yet.) My father had
accepted Christ six years prior but had no formal church ministry training. After praying about it, my father accepted the call to ministry knowing he would be taking a pretty big pay cut. He would soon trade in his Mercedes for a bright yellow 1967 El Camino. Over the next few years, my dad would quietly sell several rental properties in order to provide for his family.
Within two years, the youth group exploded from 50 students to nearly 200. My father was incredibly authentic, humble, and had a genuine love for teenagers. He also grew a talented and fun youth staff and began hosting Bay Area youth rallies with other church youth
groups. They were legendary. He created a singing group called the Alviso Boys that would lip-sync hilarious songs that brought the house down. Former students would talk about their experience in my dad’s youth group 40 years later. It was that impactful and life-changing.
Then in 1975, the church came to a crashing halt. Pastor Chappell suddenly resigned, leaving the church with unanswered questions and in massive financial debt. Just prior to his departure, he selected a young pastor, Ted Duncan, to be the next Senior Pastor. Another pastor on staff was upset because he thought he should have been chosen. So he left to start another church in the valley. Half the church left with him. Pastor Duncan was in a no-win situation. The church was financially in major debt and half the church just left. United Baptist was on the threshold of closing its doors. An emergency church staff meeting was called. Out of the large staff, only three would retain their jobs. My dad was one of the three remaining but with a caveat – in addition to his full-time Youth Director responsibilities, he had to assume the full-time High School Principal position as well.
Without hesitation or complaint, my father dove right in to help the church and his good friend, Ted Duncan. He would later pay for this dearly but that was my dad; loyal, hard-working, a positive spirit, and a team player. Given the financial crisis the church was facing, my father quietly sold another rental property to make ends meet at home.
Over time, the decision to fill two full-time positions came with a tremendous cost financially, emotionally, maritally, physically, and spiritually. I remember one incident after church one Sunday night. It revealed a crack in my father’s armor that I had never seen before. My dad and I were in the parking lot and someone from the church innocently said to him, “I just don’t know how you are making it.” My dad played it off well. When we got into the El Camino I could tell my father was visibly upset. Then he said, “Sometimes I just want to tell them, we are NOT making it!” This sixth-grade boy had no way of understanding the tremendous financial pressure he was facing. The pressure was building up inside of him like a volcano. Years later I would learn he had run out of rental properties to sell. Several months later, my father would no longer be able to hold it together.
One Sunday in late May or early June of 1976, after working all week for the Christian School and had just finished teaching in the Youth Group, my father went into Pastor Duncan’s office to drop something off on his desk. As he did, my dad saw the new leadership flow chart for the church. My dad’s name had been replaced as the High School Principal. Another man in the church had been inserted into his spot. This man had recently befriended my father but behind the scenes was angling for the Principal position.
On paper, the flow chart made a lot of sense. This man had a background in education and my dad working two jobs was unwise and unsustainable. Pastor Duncan wasn’t trying to hurt my dad or being deceitful behind his back. He was doing his job. I’m confident this new plan for the new school year was going to be discussed with my father at some point in time. But when he was surprised to see his name removed, something inside of him broke. The dam of emotions along with physical fatigue and financial strain could no longer be held together. My rational father made several quick and irrational decisions. The next morning, he
immediately emptied everything from his office into the back of the El Camino, threw it all into the trash dumpster behind the church building. He then resigned on the spot and drove home mad, hurt, exhausted, and empty; disillusioned by the church he had given so much of his heart and soul to.
A week later, while my father loaded his El Camino for his trip to Alaska, I decided to use one of my new birthday gifts: a vinyl label maker. (Yes, that was a thing that year.) One by one, I made a label of the names of each of us five kids and affixed them on the metal dashboard, just left of the steering wheel. I had no idea how God would greatly use those simple labels in the weeks and months ahead.
So off he drove. My father left us emotionally drained, physically spent, maritally distant, spiritually empty, and financially broke. As soon as he left, my mother went upstairs to her room and cried hard into a pillow so that us kids would not hear her agony. Years later, she told us, “In one day, I felt like I lost my marriage, my church, and my friends.”
60 hours and 3,124 miles later, my father drove into Anchorage, Alaska. He kept getting interesting looks and then multiple offers from people to buy his El Camino. The Alcan Highway had not been fully paved yet so an older vehicle like his was a rare find. They could not believe he actually drove his medium-size truck all the way to Alaska! With his canopy on the truck bed, my dad darkened the windows, threw in a single mattress, and made his El Camino his motel.
While my father’s physical muscles got strong tossing 20 pound King Salmon while working long hours at the fish cannery, he was dying inside. The combination of burnout, depression, disillusionment, and hurt is a serious combination. So serious, that it led my father down a very dark, and dangerous path and began working on a plan that would have devastated or even destroyed our family. Here was his plan: to crash his El Camino off of a cliff, thus faking his death. My mom would receive his life insurance money to take care of her and the children. My dad would then change his name, move to Australia, and start his life all over.
This dark path would haunt my father for some time. But each time he saw the vinyl labels of his children’s names it would bring him out of the darkness. He began to struggle with the thought of not walking his oldest daughter, Bonny, down the aisle on her wedding day. He knew he was not well. He knew he needed help.
Thankfully, God drew my father to the Anchorage Baptist Temple and he reached out to Pastor Jerry Prevo for help. This 31-year-old pastor was an oasis in my father’s desert. Pastor Prevo listened, cared, loved, counseled, and prayed for my father. As a result, my father’s fiery plan to start his life over without my mom and his children dissipated. My dad began attending church services again and the worship and word of God began to heal him from the inside out.
After sending money to my mother to pay the bills, my father reached out to her with a request. He told her he needed her with him. He shared how they needed to work on healing their marriage. He asked her to make arrangements to come up to Alaska to be with him. She did. She drove all five of us kids down to southern California to stay with our Uncle Ron and Aunt Alicia, where we stayed for eight weeks.
Before flying to Anchorage, my mother came to the church office to meet with Pastor Duncan. She wanted him to know that she held no ill will towards him at all. He wept at his desk because of how much pain his friend was going through. I am proud of my mother for doing this. Pastor Duncan and my parents’ friendship endured. As a result, my relationship with “my pastor” has been a sweet friendship over all these years as well.
I cannot fathom what my life and the lives of my siblings would have looked like if Satan had been successful in the schemes he was trying to sell my father. Our lives would have been shattered. My dad would have never been there for two more siblings, Brendie and Bradley, to join our family. I would have never gone to Liberty University and never met my wife, Candy, there. I truly believe there is no way I would have ever entered the ministry as a pastor, now 37 years of ministry, if I would have eventually found out what the ministry did to my father.
But God. But God had other plans for my father. But God had Pastor Prevo to be the right help with the right counsel at the right time. But God had plans for my dad to one day re-enter the ministry at our home church. But God had plans for me to graduate from Liberty University, marry Candy, and for us to have three beautiful girls. But God had all three of my girls attend Liberty also and two of them found their husbands there. But God.
I have never met Jerry Prevo. But, interestingly enough, several years ago God called Dr. Prevo out of retirement to become the President of Liberty University, my alma mater. After years of mission drift, God is greatly using Dr. Jerry Prevo to help Liberty get back on the right path. In a different but similar way, he helped guide my father back on the right path 46 years earlier.
Humanly speaking, I have wondered what would have happened if my dad had never been in a dire position to sell those rental properties. Each of them would be worth well over $1 million today! But God had other plans. Cancer took my father to heaven in 1990 at the age of 51. He didn’t leave his family with much financial wealth. However, he left a godly legacy with all of his children. He would be thrilled to know that all seven of his grown children are faithful followers of Jesus Christ and all are raising a godly heritage as he did. This legacy is more valuable than any Silicon Valley real estate and will last forever in God’s economy.
Yes, God is indeed sovereign. His unseen Hand continued crafting His plan for our father. For HIs purposes, He chose to rescue our family from the cliff of devastation. He then healed, restored, and returned our father to his family. To God be the glory!