RICE LAKE, Wis. — After a long and fruitful career with Southern Baptist missions in New Mexico and later with the Home Mission Board (HMB — predecessor to the North American Mission Board — NAMB), Gerald and Libby Palmer retired to his family’s farm in Balsam Lake, Wis.
But they didn’t stop serving the Lord.
“I don’t see how any Christian can stop until they die,” said Libby Palmer, now 81.
“I am getting to where sometimes I can’t do what I’d like to do,” she said. “But I do all I can.”
Gerald Palmer, who retired as an HMB vice president responsible for language missions, chaplaincy and more, died two years ago. His last ministry — which started soon after moving to Wisconsin from Atlanta in 1995 — was restarting what is now named Hope Baptist Church in Rice Lake, about 50 miles northeast of his family’s farm.
Libby Palmer continues to make that drive at least twice a week, often through Wisconsin’s grueling winters.
In addition to rebuilding the congregation one convert at a time, Palmer mentored two men called to the gospel ministry: Richard Fossum, who replaced him as pastor of Hope, and Darrell Robinson, currently a pastor in Barron, Wis.
About 40 people — more on a good Sunday — attend Sunday morning worship at Hope Baptist. As they were taught to do by the Palmers, who had seen the benefit through 50 years of denominational service, Hope continues to commit 15 percent of its undesignated offerings to reaching people through the Cooperative Program (CP), Southern Baptists’ unified effort for state, national and international missionary initiatives.
“The benefit is the fact that we’re helping others who are in more need than we are,” said Fossum, who knew nothing of the Cooperative Program until he was taught by Palmer. “The scripture says it’s more blessed to give than to receive. I think it makes us feel better because we realize what we give is helping somebody somewhere.”
Fossum became a Christian in a denomination with churches that supported individual missionaries. When they came back to the United States each year to raise money for the next, they visited in the churches that supported them. Fossum said he missed knowing missionaries personally, so as pastor he led Hope to find some they could call their own.
One young woman went out from the church to East Asia, where she is employed by the government to teach English. She hosts Bible studies in her home as part of the ministry she has been assigned by the SBC’s International Mission Board. Though the church for security reasons doesn’t put her name in print or the nation where she serves, they know who she is; they know what she looks like; and she maintains regular contact with Hope so members know how to pray for her.
A family in the church hosted a young married couple who since have gone to that same East Asia nation. That couple also have become Hope’s personal missionaries-on-assignment. Two other families were introduced to church leaders during a state convention meeting, so Hope now also has missionaries they pray for who serve in northern Africa and the Middle East.
Hope members minister locally as well as globally. They spread out among area nursing homes and assisted living centers to provide a “ministry of presence” there. Oftentimes Hope members will play table games with the residents, read to them, write letters for them or as the residents express needs, serve as the hands, arms and feet of Jesus.
Hope members hosted a block party in June, two weeks before the start of Vacation Bible School (VBS). “I thought that particular activity drew people together,” Fossum said. “They came together and worked together, and about 150 people came to the block party. That brought some families who hadn’t been to the church before; one family has visited and another indicated they were going to, but they haven’t yet.”
About 60 youngsters came back for VBS, the pastor added.
About 8,500 people live in Rice Lake. Most have a Lutheran or Catholic background that they left behind when they were teenagers. Many don’t return to God until their late 30s to early 40s when they’re facing the consequences of their decisions, the pastor said.
“It’s sad to see them go through all the struggles they go through as they’re walking away from God,” Fossum said. But it’s exciting to see the change in people’s lives when they turn back to God, the pastor quickly added.
The Tony and Cindy Magana family is the personification of that.
Their young daughter was visiting her aunt in Rice Lake perhaps eight years ago, and attended Hope’s VBS. The Palmers went to visit the family, who lived about 15 miles away.
“Their father was a Christian, but very, very timid,” Libby Palmer recalled. “So was Cindy. They would barely open the door when we visited them, and when eventually they let us in, one would go hide while the other one talked with us.”
But over time, they began to visit, then attend, then joined Hope. Cindy asked to speak at Gerald Palmer’s funeral, and wrote down what she wanted to say, Libby Palmer said.
“She said she was so thankful we kept coming,” Palmer said. “Today, Tony is the backbone of his whole clan. He was the first one to be reached after their daughter went to VBS.” Now, his brother, sister-in-law and two nephews join them for Sunday and sometimes Wednesday church with Tony, Cindy and their five children.
In addition to Sunday School for all ages, Hope offers a midweek pre-school/kindergarten program led by Gaylie Paul; TeamKids for youngsters in the first through sixth grades, led by the pastor and his wife Violet; and a youth group led by Libby Palmer. She also leads a Wednesday morning Bible study for women and the pastor leads an adult Bible study on Wednesday evenings, after TeamKid. They’re soon to finish Matthew; next: James MacDonald’s “Downpour,” a study of God’s holiness, man’s sinfulness, the need for repentance, the grace of Christ and power of the Holy Spirit.
“I would like to see the individual’s life grow in very close relationship with the Lord, instead of being on the surface,” Fossum said. “I’d like to see them be really committed to God and what He wants to do through them.
“We’ve definitely seen some people become stronger in the Lord,” the pastor continued. “I’ve seen some new Christians come to the Lord.”
Like Palmer, Fossum and his wife returned to his hometown after retiring. He had been a high school agriculture and math teacher and also was an FFA leader for 32 years. He now drives a school bus to supplement his retirement income.
The blessing in his employment is that he is seeing God working, the pastor said. He recently performed the wedding of another bus driver and a bus mechanic, and a driver who calls himself an atheist is asking spiritual questions.
“Little by little I see things changing in the bus garage,” Fossum said. “You’ve got to love them and continue to pray for them.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Willoughby is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message.)