Middleton, Idaho, is a small town of roughly 2,000 residents located just one exit west of Caldwell on Interstate Highway 84. Several storefront churches line its main street, including the Adventist church situated across the street from the busiest place in town—the Texaco gas station and Taco Bell Express. This church's beginnings are as unlikely as its location.
Brothers-in-law Melvin Wageman, a general contractor, and Alvin Schnell, a dentist, of Caldwell, Idaho, are Adventist-layman’s Services and Industries (ASI) members. Leon Cornforth, a former Idaho ASI executive secretary, had encouraged Mel for years to join ASI, but Mel wasn’t all that interested. That changed when he became the Caldwell Church personal ministries leader. "I could see that being a member of ASI would enhance my ability to be better at evangelism, so we joined. Getting to know people just like us who are doing neat things with the Lord’s help made us realize we could do it, too.”
Alvin echoes that sentiment. “I joined ASI because of all the stories I heard of the fun people were having doing missionary work,” he explains. "We’ve been going to the Northwest chapter meetings every year since Leavenworth [Washington] in 1999, and we’ve gone to a couple of the national conventions. ASI meetings are like a breath of fresh air.”
An Idaho native, Mel started out as a farmer, but many years ago the Lord directed him into construction, which offered direct contact with more people to whom he could witness. “Reaching someone for Christ not only enriches their experience, but my own as well,” he says.
As personal ministries leader, Mel worked with Alvin on various seminars and outreach activities, including getting a low-power television station for Three Angels Broadcasting Network (3ABN) that can be seen from Boise to Caldwell and beyond.
Several months after the Caldwell Church had participated in the NET ’98 satellite series, Mel asked if the church was planning to participate in NET ’99. After some discussion, the board decided that the church would not participate, and Mel asked if he might use the church’s projection equipment to stage the series in Middleton. The board agreed and also financed the endeavor.
Grinning, Mel says, “I don’t know what got into me to do a thing like that. I realized when I walked out of there that we didn’t have a building or anything. On my way home I called Alvin on my cell phone and said, ‘Man, I got us in trouble.’ He asked, ‘What did you do?’ And I told him what I’d done. He said, ‘That’s great!’ and got all excited about it."
With only a few months until the beginning of the series, Alvin and his wife, Coral, began going door to door in Middleton as representatives of 3ABN, surveying who was receiving and/or watching the station and inviting people to attend the meetings. They were astonished at how many regularly watched or were aware of 3ABN. At each home, they left a copy of Peace Above the Storm with a Discover Bible study invitation card tucked inside.
They asked every church in the community about renting space to hold the satellite series to no avail. Church members asked Mel if he had found space, and he replied, "No, if the Lord wants these meetings to be held in Middleton, He’ll find us a place to meet.”
And He did. Just three days before they had to have the address for printed brochures, some of Alvin's patients offered the use of a storefront free of charge. The unoccupied building was full of cobwebs, spiders and partitions dividing the space. Alvin and Mel stopped by the place three times to peer through the windows, and just didn’t see how it could be used.
But the owners let them remove the partitions and, without being asked, people just started showing up to scrub grease off concrete floors and sweep away cobwebs. A fresh coat of white paint inside and out helped, but it still didn’t look like much. While he was painting, Mel prayed, “Is this really the place you want us in?” Even fixed up, it was still pretty rough.
But Mel discovered it wasn't the building that was important—the people were. “People come here and they never say anything about the building," he reports. "Instead, they talk about the spiritual atmosphere here."
The NET '99 meetings brought unexpected results. “We didn’t start out to plant a church here," Mel admits. "We were just going to have an evangelistic series. Then we started having Sabbath School for the folks that had come to the meetings. Pretty soon we added church to it, and then Coral and my wife, Evelyn, fixed a simple lunch for everyone who came. They stayed around and seemed reluctant to leave, they were enjoying themselves so much. Soon everyone started bringing food, and a weekly potluck became the routine.”
Then a Caldwell church member, Peggy Alexander, told them the Lord had impressed her to start a children’s ministry in Middleton. Though no children were attending the church, the mobile home next door on the property was made available as a space for a children’s Sabbath School. The next week, much to their surprise, families with children showed up at church, and a children’s division was formed. Mel just shakes his head and says, “Before we even ask, the Lord provides for our needs.”
Richard Dower and Nadine Platner Dower are the GLEANER editors and write from Vancouver, Washington.