Byron is still a small farming community, a bend in the road, off Highway 4 in Contra Costa County between Brentwood and Tracy. A large development went in called Discovery Bay, but that was long after I was gone. In fact, the Excelsior Baptist Church long ago disappeared, though the old building that once housed the Excelsior School and then the church is yet standing.
Toward the end of my first year as a seminarian I had a strong urge to pastor a church. Pastoring was what we, the 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.
In a way I do not recall I put out word that I was looking for a church and received a call from Joe Smith, the area missionary, who 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 cinch the deal. I was right, and quickly they “called” me as pastor and gave me a salary of $20 per week. On October 2, 1966 the church ordained me, and my old pastor, Bob Lewis, then pastor of First Baptist Church of Fairfield, California, preached the ordination sermon. My dad made the trip but my mother did not. My mother, though a staunch Methodist, never was born again, and this is not a charge against her but something she proclaimed loud and long. I never did figure that out.
After a few weeks David Hoyt 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. I had arranged for weekends off from JC Penney & Co. between Mondays and Fridays. As I think about it now, I had begun a pattern that would essentially take me away from my family way too much. Here were doors opening up to me, 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 about which I have never come to any clear understanding.
David and I began seeing what we could do in the Byron area. For one thing we made contact with the local juvenile hall. David had tantamount to grown up in state institutions; California had, in a real sense, been his father and mother. He was quite at home 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.
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.
The situation deteriorated when David and I started walking though the local migrant workers’ camp on Hwy 4 between Byron and Brentwood. One particular family quickly responded to the Gospel, a family of seven, who lived in a one room shack in the migrant settlement, and I baptized all of them. 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 school rooms. It was a huge mess. I put out a call for help and soon most of the church members were on hand cleaning up the splattered tomatoes.
The next week, a time when David was with me, we entered the migrant workers’ housing area when two large German Shepherd dogs rushed out to attack us. It was a fight for life; David and I defended ourselves and fought them off, and after a while the dogs were whimpering and whining. David and I were a complete mess: dirty, bloody, and plenty 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 church, cleaned up, 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 turned out to the last time we had any trouble, and the migrant workers continued to come to church while the harvesting was going on.