Kalamazoo Seventh- day Adventist church leaders Dan Burch and Marjie Shade remember the storm that provided an opportunity to show kindness to a Mormon congregation that lost their building. [Photo Credit: Jeff Kroehler, 8th grader at Kalamazoo Junior Academy]
It was more than four decades ago when a powerful tornado ripped through the small town of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Rated F3 on the Fujita scale, the tornado killed five people, injured 79, and had an estimated damage of about $50,000,000.
“I was 33 years old when the storm hit Kalamazoo. It was a scary time. The tornado went straight through downtown. I had family members who had to seek immediate shelter because it was unexpected,” said Marjie Shade, current secretary of the Kalamazoo Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Among the buildings damaged was a Mormon ward that lost its place of worship. The members of that ward sought refuge from neighboring churches that could withstand the brutal storm, but faced resistance from one after another. Finally, after a last desperate attempt, the Mormon congregation approached the Kalamazoo Seventh-day Adventist Church. To their surprise, the members of that church opened their doors and allowed the ward to worship in its building free of charge.
Fast forward 43 years later, and over 2,000 miles away, this act of kindness would pay it forward.
"A miracle happened," said Keith Hassinger, senior pastor of the Hawthorne Seventh-day Adventist Church. "My church was in desperate need of help, and we didn't have the money to resolve it," he continued.
Located in Southern California, the Hawthorne Church sits on five acres on the corner of Prairie and Marine Avenue, which include four large buildings: a sanctuary, gym, classrooms and chapel. In the center of the church is a beautiful grass area with a pathway and garden where members can enjoy the Sabbath. For years, the church suffered from termites deterring its building structure. Understanding the seriousness of the issue, the members of the Hawthorne church came together in June to fundraise to treat the buildings.
A benefit gala was held, tickets were sold, and people were invited. There was delicious food, a mariachi band that soothed guests throughout the night, and prayer. "We raised $16,000," said Hassinger. "The event was successful, but it wasn't enough."
Hawthorne's leadership team of Pastor Hassinger, Head Elder Setaleki Fehoko and Ministerial Director Joe Tonga, searched for companies that would meet the church's budget of $16,000.
Five termite and pest companies were called for estimates. Each revealed an average of $30,000 to treat the massive gym building properly. "We were discouraged by the numbers given," said Setaleki. "We were ready to throw in the towel and give up!"
Pastor Hassinger decided to call UniPest, a company he was familiar with and had used several times. Unipest agreed to give an estimate. After surveying the property, Cardon Ellis, the company's owner, explained how the charges work.
"The entire property would need to be covered and fumigated. The gas used to treat the space alone would cost $14,500. Pest companies usually double the price so that it pays for the gas and the labor," Ellis shared.
Understanding the process, the Hawthorne leadership team knew there was no way they could cover the cost. But Ellis was not done. Instead, Ellis told the team to let him talk to his father, Craig, with whom he shares company ownership, to see what they could do. After going back and speaking with Craig, the call came back with an answer they had least expected.
"We'll do it," said Ellis over the phone. "Really?" replied Hassinger. "Yes, I spoke with my dad, and when he found out you were a Seventh-day Adventist church, he was moved to help."
Ellis further explained that back then, his father, Craig, worked as a Zone Leader for the Mormon Ward in Kalamazoo, Michigan. On May 13, 1980, a violent tornado destroyed the church he was attending. Many days were spent looking for a place to worship, but they could not find one due to availability and pricing. Finally, after several denials, Craig distinctly remembers the warm-heartedness of the Kalamazoo Seventh-day Adventist Church opening its doors to their ward free of charge.
"They didn't even charge us a cleaning fee!" said Craig. "The LDS congregation was grateful for a long time and forged lasting relationships with their Adventist neighbors. The Mormon missionaries, at that time, had a joke they repeated for many years afterward, 'Our church is the truest church, but the Seventh-day Adventists are pretty close, so if you don't come with us, you should go with them.'" Craig smiled as he reminisced.
During that time, the Kalamazoo Seventh-day Adventist Church refused any payment. The bishop of the Mormon Ward insisted on paying a cleaning fee, but the church refused it. According to Craig, the church wanted to be sure they could get back onto their feet and would not accept payment until they received support from Mormon headquarters and surrounding congregations.
"This stuck with my father as a great act of kindness, and so when I approached him about your church, he was willing to do it at no cost," shared Ellis.
UniPest fumigated the entire property of the Hawthorne Seventh-day Adventist Church with almost no labor cost.
Dan Burch, current elder of the Kalamazoo Seventh-day Adventist church who served as the Pathfinder director during the storm, said that having something like this surface now is very interesting. “When we go back that far and see how blessed someone was, we praise God that we could help in a time of need,” he said. “It shows that God works through the ages; he's not just working today."
Felicia Tonga, assistant director of communication for the Lake Union Conference