A handful of man made an enormous difference in my life. Here I pay tribute to each one.
Roy Giovannetti. My Dad. Truck Driver. Bartender. Golf Pro. Taught me to play baseball and to always catch with two hands. Generous. Worked two jobs to support our family. One of the funniest men I’ve ever met. Laughs easily at himself. Wrestled with my brother and me on the floor. Made me go to church. Disciplined me, but never once raised his hand in anger. A good man, lives in Florida. I love you Dad.
Karl Schneider. My Sunday School teacher at Grace Gospel Church. Though the church dissolved a decade ago, the fruit remains. Karl was a second father to me. Drove 35 minutes one way to pick me up for church events. Taught me God’s Word faithfully. Involved in my life from age 8 into my 20’s. Urged me to pray, to be in God’s Word, and to please Jesus. Karl (now in heaven) was one of the most creative men I met. He invented the machines that made Milk Duds. He led worship from a guitar, and had all the kids in church bring their instruments (mine was a baritone ukelele and a piano). He taught us all how to play instruments. Karl wrote the guitar cords on overhead slides, and every week a makeshift band of kids (age 8 and up) played for Sunday School and again for evening service. He could whittle, and carved wooden chains and a perfectly round ball inside a wooden cube. He prayed for me with tears dripping off his cheek (I always felt guilty). He couldn’t talk about Jesus without tearing up. I spent many days with his family playing Uno and absorbing life. Karl was a mystic and I learned the mystical side of my faith from him. The single most spiritually attuned man I have ever met.
Tom Hendricks. My uncle. My AWANA leader as a kid. Uncle Tom taught me sports. He is a Chicago White Sox fan (baseball) and Black Hawks fan (Hockey). We made hockey nets out of 2×4’s and old blankets, and drove them to parks or alleys and played street hockey. We shagged flies. We played baseball. We went out for Vienna beef hot dogs (a big thing in Chicago… in California you can get them at Woody’s by Lowe’s) and Cokes (had to have crushed ice). Tom took me to different churches for evening service to hear great preachers, including Warren Wiersbe and Alan Redpath. Tom had Bible drills between my brother and me. He helped us memorize Scripture. He was like a big brother. Fun, always ready to play sports. He is a car addict. Taught me to fix cars. Changed gallons of oil with me. Rescued me countless times when my car broke down. Generous. Caring. Sensitive. Principled.
Vern Benner. Vern got me into ministry. He was the the AWANA commander at the birthplace of Awana, North Side Gospel Center (the “Center”). I was a 2o year old living on my own in a Chicago apartment, wanting to make my Awana clubs better. I visited Vern. He encouraged me. One day Vern called me and asked, “How would you like to quit your job [union produce clerk] and come and work with me?” I did. I started at $110 per week. Vern taught me how to lead, how to manage, how to make it fun, how to keep kids in control, how to make each child succeed. He made me believe that I was the best Bible teacher on earth. I would not be in ministry today without him. I cut my ministerial teeth for 8 years at the Center (which also owns Camp Awana). I rubbed shoulders with Lance Latham, the venerable founder of Awana. I learned the gospel of grace there. Read the link and you’ll understand where I’m coming from. Vern lives in the Chicago suburbs. I love you Vern and Ruth.
Marty Igyarto. While I was at the Center (in my twenties, alone, single, vulnerable) I generated some controversy. I kept tinkering with Awana, at the birthplace of Awana! I also introduced a new thing called “Christian Rock.” This opened up a lot of criticism for me. Marty befriended me. He took me out to lunch every Monday. It was a standing date. He treated. We just talked. He encouraged me. He told me not to listen to the critics. He was fun, smart, witty, pleasant. He provided a lot of stability for me. He led the singing in our Awana clubs, and we had a blast. I would not have lasted for 8 years in that church if Marty wasn’t there for me. Marty and Grace, I appreciate you guys!
Wayne Backing. Wayne was a giant of a man, almost 400 lbs. We became friends when he moved from Detroit to Chicago so he could pastor the church I grew up in (by this time I was pastoring my own church, which I planted). Wayne was hilarious. We had fun together. He was a woodworker, a cabinet maker by trade. He helped me build a custom kitchen in my home. He and his wife, Jan, opened their home to me. When I was lonely, I could drive over and hang out with the Backings. Wayne taught me how to baptize people without drowning them, and how to do a child dedication. He taught me how to laugh at my critics. He died recently, and I cried when I heard.
None of these men discipled me an any traditional way. We didn’t work through books together. We didn’t meet early. We really didn’t pray. We didn’t do Bible studies. There was no agenda. But each man molded me, and made me a better person and a stronger Christian, just in the course of being together, serving together, eating together, and playing together. Take even one of these men out of my life, and I would not be a pastor today. I would be less of a man today. They were my spiritual fathers. I pay tribute to them for mentoring me, and consider each one a gift of God’s grace.
“As iron sharpens iron, So a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” Proverbs 27:17, NKJV.