Paying It Forward After 43 Years

Never underestimate the ripple effect of an act of kindness.

Felicia Tonga, Lake Union Herald
<strong>Paying It Forward After 43 Years</strong>
Kalamazoo Seventh-day Adventist church leaders Dan Burch and Marjie Shade remember the 1980 storm which provided an opportunity to show kindness to a Latter-day Saints congregation that lost its building. [Photo Credit: Jeff Kroehler]

More than four decades ago, a powerful tornado ripped through the town of Kalamazoo, Michigan, United States. Rated F3 on the Fujita scale, the tornado killed five people, injured 79, and caused damage estimated at US$50 million.

“I was 33 years old when the storm hit Kalamazoo,” Marjie Shade, current secretary of the Kalamazoo Seventh-day Adventist Church, said. “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.”

Among the buildings damaged was a Latter-Day Saints (LDS) ward, and that congregation lost its place of worship. The members of the ward sought refuge from neighboring churches that had withstood the brutal storm, but they faced resistance from one after another. Finally, in a last desperate attempt, the LDS 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, and more than 2,000 miles (3,200 km) away, and this act of kindness was paid forward.

A Memory of Kindness

“A miracle happened,” Keith Hassinger, senior pastor of the Hawthorne Seventh-day Adventist Church in Hawthorne, California, said. “My church was in desperate need of help, and we didn’t have the money to resolve it,” he said. 

Located in Southern California, the Hawthorne church sits on five acres (2 hectares) on the corner of Prairie and Marine Avenue and includes four large buildings: a sanctuary, gym, classrooms, and chapel. In the center of the church property is a beautiful grass area with a pathway and garden where members can enjoy the Sabbath. For years, the church suffered from termites in its building structure. Understanding the seriousness of the issue, the members of the Hawthorne church came together in June 2022 to raise funds 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,” Hassinger said. “The event was successful, but it wasn’t enough.”

Hawthorne’s leadership team of 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,” Setaleki said. “We were ready to throw in the towel and give up!” 

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 said. 

Understanding the process better, the Hawthorne leadership team knew there was no way they could cover the cost. But Ellis was not done. He 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 did not expect.

“We’ll do it,” Ellis said over the phone.

“Really?” Hassinger said.

“Yes, I spoke with my dad, and when he found out you were a Seventh-day Adventist church, he was moved to help.” 

Kalamazoo church leaders remember the storm that ripped through the area 43 years ago. The catastrophe provided an opportunity to open the church doors to a Latter-day Saints congregation in need of a place to meet. [Photo Credit: Jeff Kroehler]

Ellis explained that many years earlier, his father, Craig, had worked as a zone leader for the LDS ward in Kalamazoo, Michigan. On May 13, 1980, a violent tornado destroyed the building he had been 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, which opened its doors to the ward members free of charge. 

“They didn’t even charge us a cleaning fee!” Craig said. “The LDS congregation was grateful for a long time and forged lasting relationships with their Adventist neighbors,” Craig said, smiling as he reminisced. 

During that time, the Kalamazoo Seventh-day Adventist Church refused any payment. The bishop of the LDS Ward insisted on paying a cleaning fee, but the church refused it. According to Craig, the Adventist church wanted to be sure the LDS congregation could get back on their feet and would not accept payment until they received support from LDS 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,” Cardon Ellis said. 

UniPest fumigated the entire property of the Hawthorne Seventh-day Adventist Church with almost no labor cost.

Dan Burch, current elder of the Kalamazoo Adventist church, who was serving as the Pathfinder director during the 1980 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.” 

The original version of this story was posted by the Lake Union Herald.

Felicia Tonga, Lake Union Herald