Putting faith into action
As Mike Stevens cut through flood-damaged paneling in Laura Anderson's basement, he looked more like a construction worker than a pastor. Muscular and wiry with a shaved head and bright blue eyes, he is as comfortable wrestling with a saw as he is dealing with questions of religion and philosophy.
That's a big part of what keeps Cloquet's Al Denman coming back to Good Hope Church in Cloquet (behind Super One) with his family week after week.
"I like the fact that Mike is a pastor of action," Denman said July 13, taking a break from working on yet another recently flooded basement in rural Carlton County. "We're called to put our faith into action, not just to go pray."
Stevens is definitely a man of action. He demonstrated that for numerous people outside his congregation in the weeks after the flood, working (volunteering) six days a week evaluating flooded properties, training other volunteers and doing a lot of hard physical labor on flood-damaged homes.
"Without Pastor Mike we'd be in big trouble in northern Carlton County," said Dave Lee, director of public health and human services for Carlton County, after working closely with Stevens since a few days after the flood. "He's kind of taken the bull by the horns and basically trained everyone, worked with unaffiliated volunteers, whatever needs to be done."
Volunteers from other local churches - Zion Lutheran and St. Matthew's, among others - also helped with flood remediation, but Stevens had experience with disaster that many local volunteers lacked. He had been to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; Galveston, Texas, after Hurricane Ike; Cedar Rapids, Iowa, after the flood there; and Joplin, Mo., after last year's tornado.
Denman met Mike Stevens shortly after Mike and his wife, Tranette, moved to Cloquet from Bigfork, Minn. with their three sons to "plant" the Good Hope Church. The boys joined Denman's Cloquet High School wrestling program and Mike volunteered to act as an assistant. After spending a wrestling season together, Denman and his family decided to see how Stevens was behind the pulpit.
They've been there ever since, despite a difficult time finding a church home before. Denman and his daughters, Jolynne and Alison, traveled to Joplin to volunteer with Mike last year.
"Mike's the real deal; he's not just talk." Denman added, noting that he wouldn't be attending Good Hope Church if Stevens were what he calls an "armchair pastor."
"He's my coach when it comes to this sort of thing, how to put your faith into action," Denman said about volunteering. "It's a cursed world. Bad things happen. But you're not supposed to be passive, you're supposed to fight the terrible tragedies that happen to people. Being wrestlers, we have a tendency to fight back."
Pastor, wrestler, construction worker ... did we mention that Stevens got his bachelor's degree in philosophy from Bemidji State, and a master's degree in philosophy from Northern Illinois University in 1994, a full six years before he completed an online course through Berean University to become a pastor with the Assembly of God?
And that he met Tranette when they both worked at a summer theater company between Park Rapids and Bemidji? Mike was an actor; Tranette was working in the costume shop. She was supposed to measure his inseam but was too embarrassed and simply handed him the measuring tape to do it himself. They were friends first, then dated for three years before getting married in 1991. Now they have three sons: Jacob, 18; Seth, 15; and Daniel, 13.
"He had this gorgeous white-blonde hair back in the day," Tranette said with a smile, looking at her husband's shaven head. "The whole group just hung out all summer. We would get together at noon and finish between eleven and midnight."
Mike smiled back.
"It was a super-fun summer," he said. "Constant work, but a real fun group of people."
The couple still work together, at the church they basically planted together. Tranette acts as administrative assistant for the church, doing the office work, finances, scheduling and more.
"Tranette was the first person on the Good Hope team that I recruited," he said. "Especially with church planting, the lifestyle early on is such a sporadic business. It's important for me to have somebody who's around all the time. But we can't pay someone to be there all the time.
"We pay people in titles," he adds with a chuckle.
Although he became a Christian the same year he met Tranette - Stevens says he was raised in a nice liberal home that preached love and tolerance but not religion - becoming a pastor was not on his radar to start with. It's a vocation he chose after lots of thinking and "searching for the truth" - not atypical of a philosopher, perhaps.
To pay the bills while he was pondering his future, Stevens did a little bit of everything.
"I drove a forklift, drove a bread truck, worked in group homes, ... there's not a lot of employment for a philosophy major," he said. "I did some teaching at a community college and a Bible college. I think I would have enjoyed growing up going into teaching if that's what I was supposed to do."
But it wasn't.
In the end, he felt called to be a pastor.
"In a way, not growing up Christian was helpful," he said, adding that he grew up with immense respect for other people's beliefs. "I didn't have a horse in the race. It didn't matter to me - Muslims, Jews, Catholics, etc. - who was right. I could just try to find out what was real. I called the Mormon number on television and invited them over; I talked to the Jehovah's Witnesses until they were ready to leave."
Tranette laughed and shook her head, testifying to the fact that her husband was dogged in his search for truth. He even read much of the Koran - the holy book of the Islamic faith.
At this stage in his evolution as a Christian, Stevens explained, he believes that the whole Bible is the "inspired, inherent word of God," but that the New Testament is the foundation for today's church.
"We believe all the miracles and spiritual experiences in the New Testament - those are for today," he said. "You see divine healing in the New Testament; we believe in divine healing for today. You see people having visions in the New Testament; we believe in that for today, although it's rare. You see spiritual gifts in the New Testament, speaking in tongues and prophecy."
He described the atmosphere at Good Hope as "experiential."
"We're kind of the hand-raising type," he said. "We encourage that, because it ties into the experience of worship. It's not just showing up for church - something should happen to you when you worship. It should be experiential. We can't make that happen, but that's the goal."
Being straightforward with people and staying grounded in the real world of today is very important to Mike and Tranette Stevens, both in terms of their congregation and their kids.
"I've met a lot of people who claim to believe the same things I believe and they're just weird," he said. "I don't connect with them. I think that 'fringe-y weirdness' and hypocrisy are the two most serious problems for Christianity today.
"For me, finding faith in God and believing in the New Testament was not easy. This stuff is not intuitive. If you just believe and accept it at face value without investigating, that's weird. It took me years of prayer and introspection to arrive at a solid faith in God."
Stevens and his flock also believe in putting their faith into action, through mission work, helping others in need and doing one's best to follow the teachings in the New Testament.
"If you say you follow Jesus, you should follow his example," Denman said. "He was feeding the hungry, healing the sick, helping people who needed it. Imagine if everybody gave up half a day of something they wanted to do to help others in need. We'd have a lot more people here than just this small group.
Although Stevens doesn't preach while he's hoisting a hammer, he does pray with any volunteers who are amenable as well as the flood victims. Most people - even non-believers - figure it can't hurt, he said, adding that no one's ever turned him down when he offers to pray.
That easy-going but caring attitude is also incorporated into his church. Stevens isn't about to insist only Good Hope Church has the key to the Kingdom of Heaven, rather, he simply wants people to develop and further their relationship with God.
"The New Testament preaches that there is one Church: those that believe in Christ," he said. "There are a lot of churches in the Cloquet area that are part of that 'one church.' I believe that everybody who believes in Christ is part of the body."
So, while he would like to grow his congregation at Good Hope, Stevens says it's more important that people simply go to church.
"Our goal is for people in the Cloquet area to go to church, even if it isn't our church," Tranette said, pointing to a flyer in the lobby of their church listing a number of other area churches.
"In order to build their relationship with the Lord and grow as Christians," Mike added. "I don't really care who advances the Kingdom of God. If it's me, fine. If it's someone else, great. But I believe in Heaven and Hell, so I can't sit back and do nothing when I know as a culture we have a lot of people who are 'lost,' as the Bible would define it."