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Disheveled Theologian: Reachout, and lessons of God's work

church I grew up in, Orcas Island Community Church, was a great place for a kid. It wasn’t a big church — we had 100 people on the best of days — but they taught us well and they loved us even better.

When I was in the fourth grade a girls singing group was started at church, by Chuck and Shirley Dever, who will someday be given special crowns in heaven for putting up with us. The group was called Reachout, and girls from fifth grade through high school could join. I could hardly wait until the day I was old enough.

You see, it wasn’t just about the singing — which I liked a lot — it was even more about the people. The friendships. The attention which was lavished upon us, the ersatz children of the childless Chuck and Shirley.

Once a week the dozen or so of us in Reachout would walk the block down the road from school and Shirley would play piano for us and Chuck would run the sound system and drive us home if we needed a ride after practice was done. Every week there was a pile of Certs breath mints waiting for us. We always thought they were just treats but, in retrospect, it’s entirely possible they were subtle hints — necessary items for a group of girls to have when singing!

We’d sing at our church; we’d sing at other churches on other islands; we’d sing at community clubs; we’d sing at the convalescent home over on San Juan Island. And always, always, Chuck and Shirley would listen to us, teach us, support us.

Every so often they’d have us over to their house for an afternoon hanging out on their beach. They had a private cove, shared only by Shirley’s sister’s family who were rarely there, and we could play all day without bothering a soul. One time a few girls rowed out in their rowboat and an Orca whale surfaced several feet away. The rest of us couldn’t figure out why the girls in the boat were suddenly screaming.

Chuck would tell us stories about his childhood — like about the first time he saw an airplane — they all ran out of the school when they heard it and waved and hooted and hollered as it passed overhead.

He’d talk about the war, too, never telling gruesome stories, just stories about Hawaii and how Shirley would draw a line up the back of her leg with an eyebrow pencil as if she were wearing silk stockings. History came alive when Chuck shared his memories.

Leading our singing group wasn’t the only way Shirley served in church. She played the piano, played the organ, taught Sunday School. I remember sitting in her classroom, trying to conceive of the notion that God has always existed. I was in fifth grade and I couldn’t get my mind around that. How could he always be? My brain kind of fizzled out into a starry cosmos of confusion as I struggled to grasp that concept.

Shirley and Chuck died within a few years of each other, about a dozen years ago. Before they died, a lawyer informed us that they had chosen 10 of us Reachout girls — girls who had stayed in touch over the years, girls who made a point of visiting them when we visited the island — and were leaving us a small legacy in their will. It was kind beyond belief.

But the truth of the matter is, we didn’t stay in touch with any expectation. We stayed in touch because we loved them.

Shirley and Chuck did what they did for God. They used the gifts God gave them and blessed us in so many ways. Yes, Shirley had musical skills, but mostly she was just kind. And Chuck was just patient. And both of them were just plain old good to a bunch of loud and rambunctious girls.

1 Corinthians 12: 4-6 says, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.”

You don’t have to do fancy things. You can just tell stories and drive kids home and listen to their heartaches and serve them lunch. Different kinds of service. The same God at work.

Gretchen O’Donnell is a freelance writer who lives in Worthington with her husband and three children. She has a master’s degree from Bethel Seminary and enjoys writing about the things she sees and applying theological truths to everyday situations. Her column, The Disheveled Theologian, is published weekly. Her email is