On the Doorstep

by Bob Bach

It was a cool evening in June of 1938. It was prayer meeting night at the Covenant Church in Helena, Montana. Rev. Clarence Swanson was gathered with a group of the congregation at a renovated old mansion that served as both the church and the parsonage. The first floor was the living area for the pastor and the sanctuary was on the second floor. This evening the group had gathered on the first floor. Pastor Swanson’s wife, Holly, was in Minnesota visiting her sister, and also recuperating from a hysterectomy. She and Clarence had prayed earnestly for children of their own, but no children had come. The surgery had been difficult for Holly, both physically and emotionally.

As people began to leave at the conclusion of the prayer meeting, someone noticed a wicker basket on the steps outside the front door. It was full of rags. “Well, Pastor,” someone commented, “you must have some laundry for us to take home.” Then they noticed that there was some movement in the basket. They brought the basket into the house and set it on the table. As they began to peel the rags away, they noticed a small little baby snuggled inside. There was also a note inside. It read, “Dear Pastor, please raise my baby for me because I cannot.” It was signed, “A Despondent Mother.” There was a stunned silence in the group. Not one person gathered there that evening knew anything about this. The silence turned quickly to excited chatter, and then the group, anxious to tell family members what had happened, hurriedly departed.

The baby appeared to be only a couple of weeks old. A check with the local hospital showed that no baby had been born during that time and there was no record of any such birth with any of the doctors in the Helena area. Clarence found himself alone with the baby. He picked up the telephone and called Holly in Minnesota. Excitedly he shouted, “Come home quickly, I’ve just had a baby here.”

Holly rushed home. She and Clarence pondered the questions: “Why the Covenant Church?” “Why this particular night?” “Why the note from the mother?” “Who was the mother?” “Did she live in Helena?” “Was she a teenager?” “Was she a Covenant girl?” Someone had to know something; but these questions were never answered. One month later, in July of 1938, the baby was adopted by Clarence and Holly. He was named Wesley, after John Wesley, and Clarence, after his new father. The doctors determined that he was born sometime during the first two weeks of June. Since Holly’s day of birth was on November 4th, it was decided that for the official record, Wes’s birth date would be June 4, 1938. A new life for Wesley Clarence Swanson had begun.

Ever since he can remember, Wes has been aware of the circumstances surrounding his birth and adoption; mainly because his parents and church members couldn’t stop talking about it. To them it was a miracle, but as he started to get older Wes wrestled with confusion. This led to feelings of fear and insecurity. Often he would think, “If I have been abandoned once, could it happen again?” So he determined to endure the questions and teasings from friends and toe the mark at home so that there would be no reason for anyone to ever leave him again. The feelings of insecurity, however, which began in Helena, continued on to Little Falls, Minnesota, where his father accepted a pastorate, and where Wes spent his elementary school years; then on to Poplar, Wisconsin, where he spent some of his high school years; and then to Oberlin, Kansas, where he graduated from high school.

He enrolled at North Park College in the fall of 1956. His college years centered mainly around his studies and work. Because of his need to work in order to help with college costs, he did not participate much in social or athletic activities. Although he was a full time college student, he was also essentially a full time employee of the Jewell grocery store. North Park was a pleasant experience for him, but he still struggled with identity and insecurity, and became somewhat withdrawn.

A low point came during the school year of 1958 when he found himself in Swedish Covenant Hospital for two weeks with a bleeding stomach ulcer. But he wasn’t forgotten: Professor Zenos Hawkinson visited him regularly and French teacher, Bonnie Farsje, even hobbled down Foster on crutches to see him. They cared about Wes, and were aware that he was struggling with gut-wrenching internal issues. Wes had sessions with campus counselor and psychologist, Truman Esau. Dr. Esau emphasized the fact that Wes needed to resolve the issues surrounding his birth, his adoption, and his fear of rejection.

The turning point for Wes came during his junior year at North Park. Along with his encouraging roommate, Lee Peterson, Wes attended the annual Christian Emphasis Week at the school. The speaker was Dr. Sam Shoemaker, a noted Episcopal priest, and an early influence behind the concept of people becoming free from addiction and personal doubt. Dr. Shoemaker later founded “Faith At Work,” an ecumenical organization which emphasized this theme. He also preached a straight-forward gospel approach which drove the point home that God heals the broken heart, and He will never, never, throw you out.

Wes was moved, and he found himself on his knees in his dorm room, pouring out his soul. “Lord,” he prayed, “I have nothing right now to offer you, but I know that you heal the broken, and I turn myself over to you. I know that you will never leave me, and I will never leave you. Heal me!” Like Pilgrim, the main character in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Wes was lifted from the “Slough of Despond,” and set upon firm ground. A new sense of joy enveloped him and he knew that a life of service to God was for him. He had been studying to become a teacher, but was now being led by God into the ministry. He graduated from North Park College in 1960 with its first four-year graduating class and entered North Park Theological Seminary.

In the summer of 1961, Wes served a summer internship in Dassel, Minnesota as youth pastor at the Covenant Church. At this time he met Clarice Olson, a school teacher and member of the church. Wes continued his internship years in 1962-63 in Duluth, Minnesota and he also continued his relationship with Clarice. He graduated from North Park Seminary in June of 1965, and he and Clarice were married that August in Dassel.

Wes began full time ministry as pastor of the Covenant Church in Little Falls, Minnesota, where he served from 1965-1970. The small congregation at Little Falls was struggling at the time, but a sweet revival occurred during Wes’s ministry. The church expanded and purchased 25 acres along the Mississippi River and built a new church and parsonage. While in Little Falls, two boys were born to Wes and Clarice—Paul, in 1967, and Mark, in 1969.

In 1970, Northbrook Covenant Church in the Chicago suburb called Wes. He became their first permanent pastor. The Northbrook church began as a small group, but under Wes’ ministry, this church began to grow and to see the need for larger facilities and more significant outreach. In 1973, a third son, Luke, was born to Wes and Clarice. Wes had a wonderful ministry at Northbrook, a warm and complete family, and life was abundant.

However, an ominous cloud appeared on the horizon. In 1975, Clarice suffered a fall due to a grand mal seizure. Tests revealed that she had a large tumor on her brain. Thus began years of treatment, five major surgeries, and several years in which she was totally incapacitated. In 1977, Wes accepted a call to First Covenant Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Even though Clarice was struggling physically, Wes and his family felt it was God’s leading that he go. He served there until 1989.

Wes came to a well established church at Grand Rapids, but the vision for broader community outreach became a reality. During Wes’s ministry, three daughter churches were planted—Thornapple, Jenison, and Caledonia. Life at home continued to be a challenge, as Clarice steadily went downhill. In her last years, she was completely bedridden with no movements at all. “The boys were absolutely wonderful to their mother during this time,” says Wes softly. “They, and even their friends, would constantly gather around her bed doing everything they could to be cheerful and uplifting.” Clarice died in 1984. The boys were 17, 15, and 11 at the time, so Wes now had the challenge of being father, mother, and pastor. The church at Grand Rapids grieved with him and poured out immense love and support. It was a testing time of faith for everyone, but God led them steadily along.

In 1987, God brought Wes together with Sandra Tengwall, a longtime family friend and a missionary to Japan for 12 years. They were married at Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton, Minnesota. Wes’s boys were delighted to welcome a mother figure into their home. Two years later, Wes accepted a call to First Covenant Church in Arvada, Colorado, and served there until his retirement in 2002.

When Wes arrived in Arvada, he found a congregation in disruption and discouragement. More than 500 members and friends had departed the church and the need for healing and restoration was evident. Under Wes’s guidance and ministry the congregation began to grow and became a strong presence in the community.

But cracks in the family foundation suddenly appeared once again. On their sixth wedding anniversary, Sandy was diagnosed with colon cancer and she underwent emergency surgery. Despite aggressive treatment, she died 11 months later. It was 1994 and another church found itself grieving with its pastor and once again powerful love and support from the church family and from friends enveloped Wes and his boys. Despite another personal tragedy, Wes continued strong and faithful in the ministry and the Arvada congregation continued to grow in the Lord. In 1999, the church moved into a beautiful new facility and became one of the largest congregations in the Covenant denomination.

Shortly before Wes retired from his Arvada ministry, another godly woman, Carolyn Aley Larson, a 1961 graduate of North Park College came into Wes’s life. She, too, had suffered grief in the sudden death of her husband, Dave, in 1996. Wes and Carolyn began to correspond and to see each other. They realized they had much in common. When they married on December 31, 2002, two wonderful families were brought together. The wedding ceremony at Arvada Covenant was officiated by Rev. Luke Swanson, Wes’s son, and Rev. J.D. Larson, Carolyn’s son.

Wes retired from full time ministry in 2002, however he continues to serve on mission projects and in interim roles. His sons, who endured the challenging journey with their dad, are on solid footing with families of their own. Paul, a high school coach and teacher, lives in Mt. Prospect, Illinois. Mark, a Jr. High School teacher, lives in Westminster, Colorado, and Luke, is Pastor of Community Covenant Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Currently Wes is serving as interim pastor at Turlock Covenant Church in California. Once again, he is leading a congregation and helping this historic church determine their vision in an ever-changing neighborhood and community. Carolyn has taken an active role as a pastor’s wife and the parsonage on High Street in Turlock is constantly humming with activity.

The influence of Wes’s ministry has been far-reaching to young and old alike. Those who have seen him up close during the bleakest of times have been encouraged and strengthened by his unwavering faith and trust in the Lord. A friend of Wes’s boys, Scott Magnuson, says it this way: “Pastor Wes has been a wonderful Pastor to observe and I have often reflected on his character and integrity when I have been faced with a difficult situation. He was broken by loss but never embittered by circumstance. What a model of faith.”

Reflecting on his years of ministry, Wes says without hesitation, “I think of the words of Dr. D.T. Niles, missionary to India, who once wrote: ‘A pastor is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.’” I consider it a sacred honor to have been led by God to be just a wounded beggar, with the privilege of sharing with other beggars where they can find the bread of life.”