Across my four decades in the Genesee Valley I have been immeasurably blessed by the ministry of three godly senior pastors at the Houghton Wesleyan Church: Mark Abbott, Mike Walters, and most recenty Wes Oden. On the occasion of Wes and Cindy’s quarter century of ministry with us I’d like to pause and pay tribute to the third member of that trilogy. I’m a lover of written communication, but words fail me as I try to explain how deeply I appreciate, and have been blessed by, Pastor Wes Oden, and I know that I’m only one of hundreds that have been so deeply touched by his ministry, and yet one of Wes’s amazing gifts is that he often makes me feel as if I am his only congregant. Just as a loving parent makes each one feel that s/he is the favorite child, so it is so easy for me to imagine that Pastor Wes and I have a singularly unique and special relationship.
The bond I feel with the Pastor Wes was forged early as our children grew up in the church. One Sunday nearing the end of the sermon, Anthony proclaimed loudly “that guy will be done soon!” And another time Anthony whispered loudly to me in church, “that guy has a direction name!” Once when two-year old JonDavid somehow wandered out onto the platform mid-sermon (long story) Wes looked over at him as the congregation all laughed and said “Well, hello there!” with JonDavid beaming brightly at everyone in the congregation. Wes, who was speaking on “What mean these stones?” walked over and picked up JonDavid and wove his impromptu appearance so eloquently into his sermon: discussing how critical it is that we raise our children to know the meaning of the altar and the stones. Wes barely missed a beat, and afterwards several asked us how we had managed to stage that scene!
But it was another incident with our children that I remember most fondly. In those days, Nathan & Casda Danner and their four children and Olga and I with our three were always the last ones to leave after church. We visited while our children played happily together, usually in the fellowship hall. One memorable day–while there were still quite a few people in the sanctuary and we were standing in the back visiting–one of the doors at the front burst open – crashing into the wall and our seven whooping, laughing raucous children came racing into the church. Casda and I were mortified and apologized to Wes and everyone standing around and tried to shush the kids. Wes said, “No, no, please don’t quiet them. This is how children should feel about being at church. They should be joyful and happy to be here and feel like they are at home. I love the sound of their voices!” I still get tears in my eyes remembering his wise words.
In more recent years, when I have faced crises in my life, Wes has always been there to support me. In 2009 when I learned that my job at the college was being cut, I’d barely gotten the news myself and was sitting in my office, alone and stunned, when Wes appeared in the doorway and said “I’ve just heard, I don’t know what to say, but can I pray with you?” When I took my terrifying ambulance ride to Strong three years ago and learned that I had to have open-heart surgery, my cell phone rang in my hospital room, I looked down and of course it said “Wes Oden.” Like Radar O’Reilly, he has an uncanny ability to know when I need him and then rushes to my side. He and Cindy came to visit me in Roswell after my cancer surgery. More recently when I went through some unsettling experiences at my home in Fillmore, related to my “Black Lives Matter” sign, I got several messages from both Wes and Cindy offering their prayers, concern, and support for me. I never have to ask for prayer or support. Wes is already there before I even realize I need him.
It’s hard to imagine a nicer and more gentle spirit than Pastor Wes Oden, or someone more ideally suited to the pastorate. But Wes’s gifts to our community go beyond niceness. Last summer, as our nation was being ripped apart by the long overdue racial reckoning, I saw a tweet that said “If your church isn’t talking about racism this Sunday, you need a new church.” I somehow doubted that we would at our church because of the volatile topic and the conservative nature of this area. But then Wes beautifully preached the most caring, compassionate, timely and yet also BOLD sermon about a Christian response to racism. He perfectly named and honored the moment, not shying away from a volatile and controversial topic, and yet like everything else he does, he did so graciously, and grounded in his faith and wisdom.
I was working at the college the day the Odens were candidating at the church. A small but memorable incident was a harbinger for this past quarter century. I briefly met the Wes and Cindy early that morning when they came by the Student Life Office on a campus tour. I was one of literally hundreds of people they met that day. When I was going home from work that evening the Odens were arriving for a dinner meeting. I smiled as I passed them and Cindy said “Tim, it was so nice meeting you this morning, thank you making us feel welcome.” I am the WORST with names, and yet Cindy cared enough to memorize mine and has this amazing capacity to let those around her know how deeply she cares. That has been shown and proven time and time again across the past quarter century. It is also impossible to understate the myriad ways that Cindy’s quiet, loving graciousness has blessed our church through her ministry.
During our turbulent socio-political times, I have at times lost faith in the organized church, but our dear pastors remind me of what Christendom should and can be. Wes and Cindy, thank you, from the bottom of my heart; I am forever grateful that God brought you into our community, our church, and my life.