In Byron, CA

Chapter 6

Byron is still a small farming community in a bend in the road between Brentwood and Tracy off Highway 4 in Contra Costa County. A large subdivision was developed there called Discovery Bay, but that was long after I was gone. In fact, the Excelsior Baptist Church disappeared long ago, although the old building is yet standing that once housed the Excelsior School followed by the church.

Toward the end of my first year as a seminarian, I had a strong urge to pastor a church. Pastoring was what we “young lions” were constantly talking about. We were either going to be missionaries or pastors, one or the other for sure. I wanted to pastor.

The seminary often posted announcements of churches looking for a pastor. Someone called my attention to that, I made a call to Joe Smith, the area missionary for Contra Costa County, which was east of Marin, and he offered me the chance to preach at the Excelsior Baptist Church in Byron. Was I ever excited, and I went right to work on a sermon that I was sure would clinch the deal. I was right, and quickly they “called” me as pastor and gave me a salary of $20 per week.

I think my first day as pastor of the little church was in July of 1966. The congregation was tiny; I remember some of the folks there: Al and Ruby Belah and Hartman Shelton were the deacons. The Belahs had one daughter, and the Sheltons had two, Pam and Rhonda. (When Pam was a senior, she had no one to take her to the senior prom at Liberty High School in Brentwood, although she was a wonderful and attractive person. Hartman asked me to take his daughter to it, since I was only twenty-four.) I came to love this family, and they were faithful to me the whole time. There was also Ruby Bauguss, the Lansfords, and especially Lorraine and Myron Williams. They took special care of their seminary pastor, of which they had had quite a few. I got the chance to preach twice a week and did not have to attend even one business meeting, which is not a small thing.

On October 2, 1966, the church ordained me, and Bob Lewis, my pastor from First Baptist Church of Fairfield, California, preached the ordination sermon. My dad made the trip, but my mother did not. Although a staunch Methodist, my mother was never born again, and this is not a charge against her but something she proclaimed loud and long. I never did figure that out. A few weeks after David’s arrival in Mill Valley, he began to accompany me to Byron. My practice was to travel up on Saturdays and Sundays, 75 miles one-way, meaning 300- plus miles per weekend. My 1956 Ford sedan had already been driven too many miles, and it was forever breaking down. J.C. Penney & Co. allowed me weekends off, and I was incredibly busy with work and classes four days per week.[1] Seminary education was real graduate work. To be accepted as a student one had to have a BA degree from an accredited institution, and the professors loaded their students up with tons of reading and papers. As I think about it now, I had begun a pattern that would excessively take me away from my family. Here were doors opening up, which seemed to me to be by the Hand of God, yet in walking through them I was also harming my family. It is something I have had to live with and wrestle with, never coming to a clear understanding of it.

David and I began to see what inroads we could make in the Byron area. For one thing, we contacted the local juvenile hall. David had practically grown up in state institutions; California had, in a real sense, been his father and mother. He was quite comfortable visiting there, and before long the entire boys’ home was coming to church every other Sunday; the other Sunday they went to the local Methodist Church, the only other church in town.[2]

Oddly, this did not sit well with the deacons, maybe because it took my attention away from them, yet I still visited every single household in the church at least twice a month. Byron was and is so small, that I could park at the church site and walk to most every church member’s house.

The situation deteriorated further when David and I started walk­ing through the local migrant workers’ camp on Hwy 4 between Byron and Brentwood. One particular family of seven quickly responded to the Gospel. They lived in a one-room shack in the migrant settlement, and I baptized all of those over about age ten. Soon other Mexican people were coming as well, and the church got crowded. Soon after this the deacons cut my salary to $10 a week.

Perhaps they knew more than I did, because trouble followed almost immediately. One Saturday morning I arrived at the church building alone without David to find that almost all the windows had been broken. Tomatoes from the fields that surrounded the building on three sides had found their way into the chapel and schoolrooms. It was a huge mess. I put out a call for help, and soon most of the church members arrived to clean up the splattered tomatoes and bro­ken glass.

The next week David was with me, and as we entered the migrant workers’ housing area, two large German shepherd dogs rushed out to attack us. It was a fight for our lives; David and I fought them off, and soon the dogs were whimpering and whining, but David and I were a complete mess—dirty, bloody, and completely scratched up. None of the occupants of the camp, including those who had been attending church, emerged to help us, except one elderly man who told us that the priest at the Catholic Church in Brentwood had put the dogs on us.

We drove to the Excelsior Church, cleaned up, and then headed to Brentwood and the Catholic Church. Both David and I had grown up having to fight and stand up for ourselves. Parking in front of the church, we loudly called the priest out, and when he emerged we verbally let him have it, and in no uncertain terms. He knew we could have made a lot of trouble for him if we had gone to the police.

That was the last time we had any trouble, and the migrant workers continued to come to church while harvesting work was going on.

[1]  An M.Div. degree normally required four years but the government money lasted only three years, so I loaded up to take the maximum units in order to graduate in three years.

[2] As soon as the Methodist pastor heard that the boys were visiting the Baptist Church he demanded equal time and got it.

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