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One Big Family

It's Sunday morning on I Street in this little farming community just southeast of Waterford. Families stroll down the middle of the road, giving way with friendly waves when a car nudges through their midst looking for a parking place.

The strollers don't worry about speeders because just about anyone driving through is headed for the same place: 105-year-old Hickman Community Church, where 200 to 300 hundred people mingle in the parking lot talking and laughing while they wait for services to begin.

What has made this tiny historic church so popular that its Sunday attendance often outnumbers the town's population of about 470?

The catalyst seems to be the Rev. Doug Porter, pastor and pal to about 500 regulars. He brings the same leadership qualities to ministry that helped him forge state champion wrestlers for seven years as a coach at Hughson High School. His office -- a guy's guy kind of place, paneled in dark wood, cluttered with stuff he's going to get to later -- is lined with wrestling trophies, photos and press clippings.

"I used to tell other pastors, "We may not be able to beat you in Bible trivia, but boy, you wouldn't wanta rumble with us,' " Porter said, laughing. Even though he's now a full-time pastor, he still coaches junior high wrestlers in Hickman.

Just as Porter brings his wrestling and coaching background to his pastoral role, he encourages his parishioners to parlay their life experiences into some form of ministry. "Lifestyle evangelism" he calls it.

"I've always tried to get everybody to look at, "What's your talent? What can you use?' Instead of walking around door-to-door, knocking on doors ... let people see it.

"St. Francis of Assisi put it like, "Share the gospel every day, and if necessary, use words.' "

KEY WORDS

When people do use words to describe what they like about the church, the same ones keep popping up: Love. Family. Acceptance. Accountability.

"If you had to say it in one word, it's "love,' " said Stacey Monaghan. "That comes because we trust each other; and that (trust) comes because we've bared our souls to one another. We consider this a family out here."

Family means you help each other out. So when almond rancher Curtis Larson was felled by a heart attack right at harvest time a few weeks ago, people in the church signed up by the dozens to help bring in the crop -- a task that won't be completed until October.

Family also means acceptance, perhaps one of the key reasons the church has attracted so many people. Ties and suits are rare -- make that non-existent. Porter said it would make people "nervous" if he walked around in a tie; he often comes to work in shorts. Worshippers arrive at church in jeans, boots, tennis shoes, casual dresses and shorts.

REGULAR PEOPLE

"It's just all regular people here," said Mary French. "No matter what your problem is, you're welcome. No matter how bad your life is, you're welcome."

"I've had a pretty rough life -- about as rough as you can get," said John Ravera. "But I feel like I fit in here."

"No one judges one another," said Roy Gregory, one of 150 men from the church who attended the Promise Keepers conference at the Oakland Coliseum in June. "It's a group of people who are concerned about one another. We recognize we all fall short of what God wants for our lives. But when you fall down, there's a lot of people there to pick you back up."

Family also means responsibility and accountability -- which is why, on this particular Sunday, Gregory was wearing a fairly silly looking straw hat with a fake daisy stuck in the brim.

"I'm in an accountability group, a group of men working at making things different in our relationships with our wives and children," Gregory explained. "We set self-imposed goals ... and one of the goals I set for myself was to spend more quality time with my daughter. And I didn't cut it. The other guys tried to let me off the hook because of extenuating circumstances, but I felt I set a goal for myself, so I gotta be accountable for it." The penalty for not meeting his commitment? Wearing a silly hat.

Even with the church's emphasis on building strong families, Porter says the congregation also ministers to "fragmented families" through a divorce-recovery ministry.

"We don't try to pretend that divorce is something outside this church," Porter said. He and his wife, Vicki -- now a teacher at Hickman Junior High School and president of Hughson High School board of trustees -- were themselves "inches from divorce" before they became Christians 16 years ago.

"Sixty percent of the people here (at the church) have been directly affected by divorce," Porter said. "We don't have an attitude that it's the unpardonable sin or (divorced people) are second-rate Christians."

The church believes in missions -- but most of the mission dollars stay at home, funding ministries such as a drug recovery house and a home for neglected kids. The church also "planted" another congregation, Dry Creek Evangelical Free Church, and has underwritten Bible school training for a couple of church members.

Porter said one of the most important lessons he's learned is that Christianity is a balance of truth and love.

"Too often we do one or the other," he said. Reverting to his coaching vernacular, as he often does, Porter likened ministry to a wrestling match.

"I can't go to a clinic held by (Olympic coach) Joe Seay for Olympic-caliber wrestlers and come back and show that stuff to my junior high kids. I have to modify it to make it work for a match.

"I remember coming out of seminary all these things they told you. But when you get out in the real world you've gotta modify those things to meet people's needs."

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