OCONTO FALLS, Wis. (BP)–There’s a pattern to the sound — hum, pause, hum, pause — as though a giant bee were loose in the hallway. Inside the Washington Middle School choral room in Oconto Falls, Wis., the folding chairs are filling with a jeans-and-flannel crowd who have come on foot through fading light and lengthening shadows. It’s Sunday evening, almost 6:30, almost dark.
Garfield the cat grins at the crowd from a poster placed above the piano for school classes. “If you can believe it, you can achieve it,” he tells them in foot-high letters.
Steve Kolf believes it. “I don’t care if we have 15 or 50,” he says. “It will be something to celebrate, another evangelical church in a town where people said it would never happen. I want to stress a personal relationship with Christ and translate that into what our church can do for the community. If we do that, I believe numbers will take care of themselves.”
Five months earlier, Kolf sat on the lawn of his father’s home in Green Bay, 35 miles south of Oconto Falls. Relatives and friends had come to help him move. Clothes, a computer, Bibles and boxes of college textbooks were lifted onto the bed of his brother-in-law’s pickup truck. Kolf rose slowly, stabbed at the ground with his aluminum canes and staggered toward his car 20 yards away.
Earlier in his 37 years, he had left home twice: once to begin college, once to join an abbey. Both times, he was back within several months. He has never lived alone. Because he has cerebral palsy, many people have told him he cannot, or should not.
But this time will be different, he believes. “I’m so sure this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” he said prior to moving. “I don’t even have butterflies. I know my personal walk with God will have to get closer.” He also knew that when he went to bed that night his friends and his greatest supporter, his father, would be miles away.
“When everybody leaves, it will be me and the Lord,” Kolf said.
Back in the choral room, Kolf is working off nervous energy, riding his electric three-wheeled scooter, stopping to greet by name friends coming through the school’s wide double doors on this fall evening. In only five months in Oconto Falls, Kolf has met these people and hundreds more.
He’s had plenty of opportunities. Kolf eats out a lot, mostly in Oconto Falls cafes, where breakfast specials are $1.99 and lunch and dinner are barely a dollar more. Over numerous meals and cups of black coffee he meets people who ask, “Why did you move up here alone?” and then say, “To start a church? You’ve got to be kidding.”
Humming around town on his scooter that gets 20 miles per battery charge, he is beeped at, waved at, called to, as though his scooter had a bumper sticker that read, “Honk if you know Pastor Steve,” which is how he refers to himself.
“I’m not threatening,” Kolf says. “I’m unique enough that people stop me and start a conversation.
“I was afraid people would look at the disability and not at me,” he says. “Having CP and having been on several telethons, I didn’t want to be anybody’s poster boy. I’ve been in places where people have a tendency to pat you on the head and not allow you to grow. But it’s natural for people to open a door and say hello. It’s been a help.”
When Kolf tells people he has moved to Oconto Falls to start a Baptist church, the reaction often is akin to “More power to you.”
That’s because in Wisconsin, Catholic and Lutheran churches occupy prime physical and metaphysical real estate. “Don’t be discouraged if no one shows up,” one Protestant pastor in town told him.
Kolf never questioned his call to Oconto Falls, a farming town of 2,700 and one of 400-plus counties in the United States without an evangelical church. In Green Bay, he had been working with the parks and recreation department in a job he liked and with friends he loved. “I enjoyed my life so much,” he says, “there is only one way I would give it up and move here — because I know the Lord wanted me to.”
If the Lord made it possible, he didn’t make it easy. Three weeks after moving to Oconto Falls in May 1996, Kolf was called back to Green Bay where his father was having heart bypass surgery. The Oconto Falls school board at first refused to rent meeting space for the proposed church, prompting Kolf to a Christian legal defense organization for help. “I’ve dealt with naysayers all my life,” Kolf says. But, as problems multiplied, he found himself asking, “God, was I not supposed to come?”
Kolf’s mother had wanted him to become a priest, and he tried to give her that, even after she died of cancer. After attending college, he entered an abbey to be in a Christian community and find God. He returned from both experiences shaken and confused.
“I spent the next few years bouncing between psychiatric hospitals and home,” Kolf says of three years of counseling and antidepressants. Then, he says, it was as though God was saying, “You’re trying to reach me, but I’m reaching you.”
“I was in a hospital bed in a psychiatric ward contemplating suicide when a nurse who could have gotten fired for it told me about a life worth living.” After accepting Christ, Kolf stopped his counseling sessions and quit taking his medication. He witnessed to his father, who began to study the Bible and made a profession of faith. “I’ve been 64 years a Catholic and two years a Christian,” Kolf’s father says of his conversion. “Now I’m pumped up about evangelism. It’s because of Steve that I am where I am.”
In Wisconsin, where five of nine people are unchurched and six of nine do not claim a personal relationship with Christ, Kolf assumes those he meets will not be evangelical Christians. “The whole world does not have to be Southern Baptist,” he says. “The question is, ‘How is your relationship with God?'”
“Tres en Dios” — a Southern Baptist, a Moravian and an Episcopalian — have come from Green Bay to provide music for the evening. The group’s music stirs a good scuffing of the tile floor from tapping leather soles, among them Lynda Foust’s. For Foust and her family, this service is the culmination of years of prayer.
Foust, her husband and four children moved to Oconto Falls six years ago. They were looking for “a church that makes those who don’t have a church feel welcome.” She wanted her family to have Christian support in life’s daily struggles. “It’s like those geese,” she says, “you need to honk for each other.”
She saw an ad for a summer Kids Club that Kolf was leading with the help of volunteers from York Baptist Association in South Carolina. The outreach drew 21 children. The Fousts became part of a core group that nurtured Disciple Baptist Church into existence. Following principles from church-planting workshops, Kolf had been looking for a person of peace, a person who had prayed for and prepared for a new church in town. Foust was that person, he believes. The Fousts also offered Kolf something his father had prayed for: a family in town he could talk to.
It’s time for the announcements, and Kolf stands with his crutches behind the heavy wooden pulpit brought in for the evening. He speaks softly, deliberately, telling them this church will be affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Then, he adds, “It’s God’s church first, the people’s church second, and I’m just here to serve.”
The offering goes by almost unnoticed. “If you are already a member of a church, you need to support it,” Kolf tells the congregation. “If you have been ministered to here and want to put something in the offering plate, the baskets will be by the door as you leave.”
The idea about how to handle the offering came from the core group, Kolf says. They wanted to make it as non-threatening as possible, letting God do the convicting and not trying to tell people what they should or should not do.
Kolf follows that line of thinking in his sermon, which will be short, he tells the congregation, because he will speak while standing via his crutches. His shoulders are tensed, all his weight is on his forearms. He begins his sermon by saying the church must be Christ’s arms and legs in the community. Disciple Baptist Church will be a place where you can come as you are, he says. The emphasis will not be on what people can or cannot do. “I will give you biblical guidelines so you can ask, ‘Where is my relationship with the Lord?’ You judge that. I have no right to. Once people give their lives to the Lord, he will do the changing.”
Disciple Baptist is the only Southern Baptist church in Oconto County, Wis., and one of seven starts under way in the Bay Lakes Baptist Association, which includes 28 counties and 1.6 million people. As a missionary, Kolf receives a stipend from the Home Mission Board and the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention to help support his work. Disciple Baptist has a sponsoring church, Christ Fellowship Baptist in Green Bay, but with only 30 members of its own, it provides no financial help. That’s not uncommon, says Dennis Hansen, Bay Lakes associational missionary. The first church in the association to start a mission had five members, Hansen recalls. The mission now runs 60, while the sponsoring church has quadrupled its membership to 20.
“This is the first time,” Hansen’s wife, Marcia, says of Steve “that we have had a pastor who was born here, raised here, called here, is earning his college degree here and is staying here to start a church.” Recognizing the cultural barriers that often hinder church planting, the Minnesota-Wisconsin convention hopes to have indigenous leadership in 75 percent of its churches by 2010.
Rose Kalbes and her fiance, Maynard Benson, are Catholics, but they are coming to Disciple Baptist’s first service because Steve, a friend who lives in a small apartment down the hall, invited them and because he’s not anti-Catholic. He’s just for everyone having a personal relationship with Christ, so what could be wrong with that?
And so here they are, Kalbes and Benson, tapping their feet to the music of Tres en Dios, who are singing a song about Noah set to the theme from TV’s “Gilligan’s Island.” This is not at all what they thought church was going to be like. And a row behind them is Kevin, a senior at Oconto Falls High School who is a waiter at one of the cafes where Kolf eats regularly. And next to Kevin are several friends he invited. “What better way to get teenagers to come,” Kolf says, “than to have teenagers invite them?”
In just over an hour the service concludes and Kolf is back on his scooter talking to people as they move into the next room for refreshments provided by the core group. Someone did a head count: 65 people total, 50 from Oconto Falls. Four of those attending tonight made professions of faith.
All of this makes Kolf happy, yet, he says, he is realistic. “The acid test is who is going to be there next week. People will watch us to see what’s happening.”