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Former pastor ‘searching for voice’ stolen by Parkinson’s disease

Steve La Farge of Ceres, a longtime pastor who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease seven years ago, on Wednesday stands by the car that is now his primary source of income. The diseases has “settled” in his voice, he said, making it impossible for him to preach. So he began driving for Uber and Lyft, and blogging about it.
Steve La Farge of Ceres, a longtime pastor who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease seven years ago, on Wednesday stands by the car that is now his primary source of income. The diseases has “settled” in his voice, he said, making it impossible for him to preach. So he began driving for Uber and Lyft, and blogging about it. aalfaro@modbee.com

Parkinson’s disease took away Steve La Farge’s calling and career – 35 years as a pastor – but it hasn’t robbed him of one of the things he loved most about being at the pulpit: sharing stories.

Today, his outlet for that is a blog titled “Searching for My Voice,” which he began in March. And a sharp left turn in occupations – La Farge now is a full-time driver for Uber and Lyft afternoons and nights after days spent job hunting – provides plenty of material.

His blog entries, 17 of them since March, run from laugh-out-loud funny to tear-inducing sad or heartwarming. Each drive can be an adventure, as he rarely knows anything about the people getting into his 2005 Toyota Camry.

He’s written about taking an “escort” to meet her client; about being the months-long regular driver of a single mother and stripper who worked in a Stockton club and the boyfriend (later fiancė) who helped her get out of the area and the business; and about posing as the dad of one of three girls to scare off a “tweaker” who hassled them during a midnight convenience-store run.

In a May entry titled “The Purse of Great Price,” La Farge tells of driving a woman on a roughly 90-mile round trip from Ceres to Lodi so she could sell a purse she’d posted on Craigslist. “The deal was made and my passenger got back in the car with a fist full of cash. She had sold the purse for $100, a price, which I gathered from the broad smile on her face, she was very satisfied with,” he wrote.

Problem is, she didn’t calculate what the trip would cost. “When the total fare appeared on my screen (I am not making this up), it read $99.76! You did not need to be a math wiz to see that her net profit for the sale of her purse, even if she received it as a gift or found it in a parking lot, was 24 cents.”

A flat voice is the kiss of death for a pastor.

Steve La Farge, on how Parkinson’s makes it difficult to be expressive

Sitting in the living room of his Ceres home Wednesday morning, 55-year-old La Farge exhibited hand tremors, one of the most common symptoms of Parkinson’s. But that’s not what led him to step down as pastor of Grace Community Christian Church in January. No, the tremors he could have dealt with.

The problem is what the disease, diagnosed about seven years ago, has done to his voice. As he began the morning’s conversation, his speech was a bit soft and rough, as allergies or a cold might affect someone. But heading into an hour of fairly steady talking, it was much weaker, to the point he wouldn’t be able to speak much the rest of the day.

“It turns out that Parkinson’s can look and act differently on every person,” La Farge wrote in his initial blog post in March, after saying his doctor called it a “boutique” disease. “It can basically do whatever it pleases to whatever part of your body it chooses. And my version has decided to settle in my voice.”

La Farge and his wife, Barb, moved to Ceres in 2008 after he was hired as pastor of Grace Community Christian. Before that, he was pastor of a church in Pasco, Wash., for 17 years.

Toward the end of his time in Pasco, the pastor developed a tremor and went to to see his doctor. “He diagnosed it as just that, a tremor, and gave me beta blockers. He said it wasn’t Parkinson’s.”

After the La Farges moved to Ceres and he’d been working a while, Steve noticed persistent arm stiffness and soreness. Because he used a computer and mouse frequently in writing sermons, he self-diagnosed as likely having carpal tunnel syndrome.

He went to a neurologist and underwent electric stimulation tests. La Farge was told it wasn’t carpal tunnel, but the doctor wanted to do more tests because he suspected it could be Parkinson’s. “I’d rather have had the carpal tunnel,” La Farge said dryly.

I think it helps us all to remember as Christians, no matter what we do in life, we need to always be sharing our faith with others, and Steve is able to do that every day through his work and blog.

Rick Story, Grace Community Christian Church elder

Once he realized his “version” of Parkinson’s was crippling his voice, La Farge suspected the writing was on the wall, as it were, for his time as a preacher. “I’m not a screamer in the pulpit,” he said, “but even with a microphone, you’re required to project your voice. I can go about 20 minutes or a half an hour and get hoarse.”

The church members are compassionate and bought him a new style of microphone and pumped up the sound system, hoping that would do the trick. But he knew some congregation members weren’t able to hear him well and were considering leaving the church. “I didn’t want to do anything to hurt the church’s ability to reach people,” he said, adding that it was his idea to step down, and that no one ever hinted he should.

To help the couple, the church even bumped up Barb La Farge’s part-time office job to full time when Steve left, he said.

Rick Story, an elder with Grace Community Christian Church, called La Farge “one of those rare preachers who can take a story either first-hand or straight out of the Bible and bring it to life and in a way that you really can relate to. ... Losing him to this illness has been a tough change for the church, but I believe God has a different ministry in mind for Steve, and he is able to share his work in his new ministry with others through his blog.”

In August, when he knew his days at the pulpit were coming to an end, La Farge started testing the waters of driving for Uber and Lyft. He’s been driving full-time since February, usually working 4 p.m. to midnight after days spent searching for a job. “One of my goals is to not have anybody throw up in my car,” he said, explaining that he quits at midnight to avoid the hard-core drinkers who are at bars right up till last call.

La Farge drives for the money, of course – it takes up a lot of the slack in the household income. “I know what I need to make – $700 to $1,000 every two weeks when that’s doable,” he said.

But driving also is his primary social interaction these days. “Job hunting is a pretty solitary, lonely pursuit, filling out job applications, submitting résumés.”

And fortunately, the Parkinson’s has had no effect on his cognition, he said, or his ability to drive. He has good reaction time, La Farge said, and a good driving record. The disease’s “effect is on dexterity,” he said. “It’s not big muscle movement like steering; it’s things like writing.” His handwriting is getting pinched and harder to read, he said.

So many people have told him he should write a book. I hope that someday will come true.

Barb La Farge, on her husband, Steve

La Farge started his “Searching for My Voice” blog as therapy. It was hard to shut off after years of preparing sermons. “I see it as a release valve for the ideas still swirling in my head,” he said.

The driving and the writing have dovetailed nicely. “It certainly is a source of interesting stories. I meet people in Uber driving who would never set foot in a church in a million years,” La Farge said.

Not that he greets passengers with “Hi, I’m Steve and I’m a former pastor.”

But some riders like to chat, and if they ask how long he’s been driving, if he’s moonlighting, etc., he shares that he was a pastor. That disclosure typically results in one of three scenarios (see blog excerpt).

He has never been susceptible to depression, La Farge said, but the toll of Parkinson’s and the difficulty of the job hunt sometimes put him in a funk. “It’s getting harder to bounce back. ... It’s been so surprising how hard the job market is. My expectation was that I would find something without any trouble at all, like at Amazon – anything.”

Barb La Farge noted that a 35-year career as a pastor doesn’t easily transfer into other professions. “That’s been hard, going to interview after interview,” she said. “I think a lot of it was the way he was raised. His parents really instilled in him a strong work ethic. So as man of the house, it’s been hard on him.”

Said her husband, “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t cause me to question sometimes, to ask, ‘What’s going on, Lord?’ Not that I expect him to owe me anything.” But he said he finds himself asking, “What’s the lesson I’m supposed to learn? I’m still going through that every day.”

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327

From “Searching for My Voice”

In this excerpt from his second blog post, Steve La Farge tells what happens when passengers learn their driver is a former pastor:

One of the decisions I made when I started ubering was to be honest with people if it came up in conversation what I do or did before Uber. It comes up often, so I simply say “for the past 35 years I have been a Pastor.” At that point one of three thing happens: The ride continues in awkward silence. Even if I try to jumpstart the conversation, my declaration is a buzzkill. Or when I identify myself as a Pastor, the person(s) become apologetic because I just picked them up at a nightclub or, they have been using profanity, or from her phone conversation it’s obvious that she is a prostitute. There is no small amount of stammering and backpedaling. One guy called me “Father” for the rest of the trip.

The third response – and it doesn’t happen every day, or even every week – is that I feel as though I am entering into a Divine appointment with a complete stranger. They have a tough question to ask, or a relationship that is strained or a need that is weighing them down. They might have just come from the hospital after unhooking their mother from life support after a severe stroke left her mind and body ravaged. And in those rare moments, when we get to where they are going, I ask if I could pray for them. So far no one has said no.

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