Phil Lewis sat in the plane in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, waiting for takeoff. He had said goodbye to this beloved country with a deep sense of loss in his heart. He was leaving behind a source of treasured childhood memories and the town of Dilla where he had planned to live out his days as a missionary teacher and mentor to rural native students at the Ministry Training College. His wife Darla sat beside him on the plane. They were unsure what the next season of life would bring. At the age of 70, Phil’s body simply couldn’t keep up. Recurring fainting spells brought on by sudden drops in blood pressure confirmed that it was time to go home to California.
Would Phil’s indomitable spirit after a lifetime of Christian ministry suddenly be subject to a retirement home, repeated trips to the doctor, and church on the tube? Not in the slightest. Shortly after returning to California, Phil accepted a position as Missions Pastor at Calvary Chapel East Anaheim, where the head pastor was once part of Phil’s dirt bike riding youth group some 30 years ago. Phil plunged back into full-time ministry. And those fainting spells? An indoor electric three-wheel scooter largely eliminated the blood pressure problems and instead introduced the delightful sound of Phil beeping his way across the large church campus.
As a couple, Phil and Darla enthusiastically welcome a new generation of potential missionaries into their home regularly. Phil’s infectious optimism coaxes out their dreams for serving in ministry with words of encouragement as Darla adds practical observations. More importantly, the guests have a chance to watch the silent communication in their marriage. Darla with a consistent eye on Phil watching over his comfort and needs. Phil taking care of his own physical needs as much as possible with an always gentle, thoughtful tone to his voice, silently expressing his love for Darla.
Together, they followed God’s call to Ethiopia as missionaries and taught at a Bible College for nine years. Together, they served at Calvary Chapel with Phil as the Missions Pastor. Together, they attended countless birthday parties, graduations, and weddings of their eight children, 30 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. Seeing their smiles and easy mannerisms, no one would suspect the level of heartache each endured.
Before Phil and Darla, there were Phil and Patricia Lewis and Jay and Darla Short.
In 1991, Phil and his wife, Patricia, headed south on a beautiful October day to attend a wedding in Orange County, California. Phil was asked to officiate the wedding of the oldest son of their close friends, John and Grace. Phil served as the associate pastor under John, and they grew to become even closer friends, having known each other since junior high school. What a wonderful time of reunion and rejoicing this wedding promised to be. The drive from Northern California to Orange County was an opportunity for Phil and Patricia to reflect on their life of abundant blessings. God’s favor seemed ever present during their life together, from the very beginning.
Patricia tumbled and ra-ra’d as a member of Westmont College’s cheerleading team in Santa Barbara. Phil, a student at Biola University, transferred to Westmont College upon his counselors’ encouragement to pursue a teaching career. There the two met, fell deeply in love, and soon married.
After many years of teaching and starting a family, Phil accepted a pastoral role under Senior Pastor John Tebay at Calvary Church in Southern California.
role under Senior Pastor John at Calvary Church in Southern California. Then, after years of successful ministry at Calvary Church, Phil and Patricia received God’s calling to pastor a church in Potter Valley, California, a remote rural area about 130 miles north of San Francisco.
Potter Valley became their home together for 14 years. The houses were spread out among the ranches and farms in the sprawling valley, but they knew everybody in town. They loved their church and their church loved them. The congregation and surrounding community couldn’t seem to do enough for their beloved pastor and his family. Just before the trip to Orange County, Phil and Patricia were given a car. A visitor to the church gifted the Lewis family a used but immaculately maintained Mercedes Benz. The owner hired a mechanic to double- and triple-check every detail and had four brand new tires put on the car. Only when she felt everything was in perfect driving condition, did she hand the keys to Phil and Patricia. As they drove their new car, they thanked God for their wonderful church family and good friends. They thanked God for the good friends they were about to see.
Phil and Patricia waved goodbye to their long-time friend and church member, Clark, as they drove out of town. Clark thought to himself how happy they both looked. The drive down the Interstate 5 was pleasant. The car drove wonderfully. Patricia looked beautiful.
Suddenly, a boom and a long screech. The brand new tire on the front passenger side blew out, causing the car to careen across the median, eventually flipping it over. Phil’s seat belt unlatched and jettisoned him through the sunroof, peeling his scalp. The car landed on his right hip, shattering on impact. The hot exhaust pipe rested on his ear, causing Phil to lose part of that ear later on. He lost consciousness. Patricia, his wife of 34 years, lost her life. Phil regained consciousness just as he was being wheeled through the hospital hallway and heard the paramedic say, “Poor guy, he’s not going to make it.” Phil thought to himself, “You just watch me.”
Darla and Jay Short were childhood sweethearts and best of friends. They met in seventh grade and married six years later. They pastored churches in Southern California for many years. While their salary equaled just a fraction of what most of their parishioners made, the Shorts felt rich. Their home was filled with laughter and the arrival, one by one, of three delightful children. Darla couldn’t have been happier as she found pleasure in even the small things in life, such as being involved in little leagues and helping a small rural church grow and develop.
As two of the three children grew up and moved out, Jay and Darla were asked to pastor a church in the small town of Ukiah, California, about three and a half hours above San Francisco. They loved everything about their life up north. They liked the slower pace of life. The church members felt like family. Darla daydreamed of living in Ukiah for the rest of their lives. However, both were willing to move wherever they believed God called them.
In August of 1991, Rose Drive Baptist Church in Southern California invited Jay to interview for a pastoral position. They happily drove down, had a wonderful interview, and were delighted to spend some time with their children. After the interview, Jay mentioned to Darla that she looked more beautiful than she had ever been. Those simple heartfelt words would soon become a treasured memory. They felt optimistic about their future. No matter what, no matter where, they were in God’s hands and peace filled their hearts.
what, no matter where, they were in God’s hands and peace filled their hearts. On the drive home from the interview, Darla noticed Jay looking pale. He had complained of pain in between his shoulder blades. They decided they would make an appointment to see a doctor if the pain didn’t go away by the time they got home. The first thing Jay did when they got home was measure their youngest son’s height on the edge of the door. They laughed as they remarked about the magic in the water that prompted such rapid growth. Home! It was good to be home. It was good to see Mark. Jay and Darla felt nothing but eternal gratitude for their blessed life.
Jay turned to sit down on a love seat but instead collapsed and then had a seizure. He had suffered a massive heart attack.
The next moments were a blur as Darla and Mark called 911, performed CPR, and tried desperately to help Jay. A neighbor who happened to be a volunteer medic heard the 911 dispatch on his radio and rushed over to administer help. The ambulance carried Jay to a local hospital, from which he was sent in a medical helicopter to a different hospital for more specialized care. Jay fell into a coma. A couple days turned into a week. A week led to two weeks. Agony and uncertainty filled those days, but so did an extraordinary love and care from the church and doctors. Jay’s medical condition continued to deteriorate. Then came a moment in the hospital room when Darla knew. She intuitively knew that God was going to call Jay to his heavenly home. Darla softly whispered in Jay’s ear and told him it was okay, that she and the kids would be fine. As she turned to leave the room to get some rest, looking back over her shoulder, she noticed a tear trickling down Jay’s face as if Jay were saying to her, “I want to stay, but I have to go now.”
Although the doctor had told Darla that Jay could remain comatose for a long time, her intuition proved true just a few short hours later.
long time, her intuition proved true just a few short hours later. Darla had walked back to the borrowed mobile home she had been living in on the hospital parking lot to be close to Jay. As she entered, she read a card from a friend whose husband had passed away the previous year. She was finally able to cry. However, this emotional release proved brief because a few minutes later, a security guard came to escort her to Jay’s room. He didn’t need to say a word. Darla knew why he had come. Still, that peace remained.
An eeriness lingered in the room, now stripped of all medical equipment except for the bed that held Jay’s still body. When the male nurse handed Jay’s wedding ring to Darla, she did a double take. He had worn that ring from age 19 and had not been able to get it off. “How did you get that?” Darla asked. “It just came off,” the nurse replied.
Phil Lewis was flown from Southern California to a hospital in Ukiah, where the best love, care, and support from his beloved church family waited. The healing process proved long and painful. He was put in traction, a mechanical device to help his hip naturally come back together. Despite his physical and emotional pain, he chose to remember God’s faithfulness. Singing became part of his healing process. The nurses later shared how blessed they were to hear Phil sing night after night, “Great is Thy Faithfulness!”
The members of the congregation stepped up to lead the services until their pastor could preach again. Slowly, as his progress would allow, he began to resume his responsibilities. He adjusted to pastoring as a single man. He adjusted to his life without his wife of 34 years.
adjusted to his life without his wife of 34 years. Great was God’s faithfulness and that would never change. Phil was an icon in his community; believers and nonbelievers alike loved Phil. It became second nature to encourage and minister to them all. He had a little gold Datsun pick-up truck that people would wave at as he ministered throughout their ranch community.
Darla desperately missed Jay. Merely trying to keep herself busy wasn’t enough to outrun the pain. There were days when grief was almost paralyzing. She felt physical pain from the loneliness when she looked over at the empty seat in the car or the empty side of the bed. Slowly, she began to realize the reality of her new life without her best friend, provider, childhood sweetheart, and husband of 24 years.
There were other changes. She was no longer the pastor’s wife but instead became the sole provider for her youngest son. Yet, through it all, Darla sensed the Lord’s gentle presence as He worked in amazing ways to get her through the valley of the shadow of death. Over time, Darla began feeling the heaviness start to lift as she prayed and sought the Lord in her sorrow. Crazy unexpected feelings, nights of crying herself to sleep, and the mental fog began to slowly lift. She got a teddy bear to hold at night and had fun putting him in the car while traveling to visit her grandkids.
In order to provide for herself and her youngest son, Darla started a daycare in her home. It provided a source of emotional and physical comfort as she received hugs from 12 precious little people each day. Her first Valentine’s Day without Jay, she drove into the local gas station to get gas, and a friend who worked there came out with a red rose in a bud vase. Darla knew it was a gift from the Lord.
It had been over three years since Jay moved to his heavenly home. Darla dated here and there but none could compare with her Jay.
“The love you share with someone like Jay will never go away,” Darla says. “From time to time, a lump raises up in my throat or a tear comes to my eye, but I know where he is and that I will see him again. He ordained the day of Jay’s death and although I wasn’t ready, God was ready for Jay. In the meantime, God was getting someone else ready for me.”
That someone was Phil Lewis.
When Clark waved goodbye to Phil and Patricia at the edge of town, little did he know that would be the last time he’d see Patricia. Then again, little did he know his beloved pastor would one day marry his wife’s college friend.
Clark and his wife, Jeanne, met Phil and Patricia when they moved from Orange County to Potter Valley in the early 80’s. They started attending the church Phil pastored. Jeanne met Darla at the local college where both took classes. They quickly bonded over their Southern California roots and mutual Christian beliefs. In late August 1991, Jeanne received news that Darla suddenly lost her precious Jay. Two short months later, they received word that their pastor’s wife, Patricia, lost her life in a car accident.
Three years passed after Jay and Patricia departed. Jeanne began to take special note of the similarity in Phil and Darla’s faith and service for God. They both loved the Lord passionately. In her private thoughts, she began to entertain the idea of Phil and Darla together as a couple and wondered how to bring about an introduction. Jeanne was surprised and delighted when Darla happened to attend a Christmas concert at Pastor Phil’s church where the two met.
met. Whatever Jeanne hoped to set up, however, would have to wait...Phil was about to go on an eight-month-long trip to the country he once called home: Ethiopia.
Phil had been invited to return to Ethiopia, the country his parents pioneered as missionaries, the country where his older brother died and where his sister was born, and the country where he gained an Ethiopian brother when his family adopted an orphaned infant. Phil would soon discover how fondly the village elders remembered his parents even some 50 years later.
Back in 1927, Pauline and Earl Lewis traveled by an ocean freighter for 21 days and another 21 days by mules before they arrived in the remote village of Soddo. They quickly established a primitive but much needed clinic for the villagers.
Pauline Lewis gave birth to their first child, David, in 1930. David lived just six months before pneumonia took his life. Around the time they lost David, one of the frequent raids that took place in their village left many dead, including the parents of three young children. The young boy and girl brought their sick infant brother to Mrs. Lewis and asked if she would be willing to nurse their baby brother to health while they go and live with relatives. Despite her grief over just having lost her own son, Pauline took in the infant and nursed him to health. The Lewises named the baby “Yohannes,” and he became a part of their family. Ruth was born two years later. Phil was the last child to join the Lewis family when he was born during a brief family furlough in the U.S. on January 6, 1936.
Earl and Pauline cared for many people in the medical clinic. They taught the villagers how to read and write. They also traveled all over Soddo teaching the Ethiopians about the love of God. Seventy-five people came to believe in God and accept Christ as their Savior.
God and accept Christ as their Savior. Two of those were the town’s witch doctor and his son, Wandaro. Pauline taught Wandaro how to read and write his language, Amharic. Teaching him how to read became significant because he would later walk all over Southern Ethiopia sharing the Gospel when all of the missionaries would have to leave. When the missionaries later returned, they discovered that Wandaro’s ministry had brought thousands to Christ.
Sadly, due to political unrest, the Lewises were forced to flee Ethiopia. They fled to Sudan, but they were forced to leave Yohannes behind as no Ethiopians were allowed to leave the country. Earl and Pauline never saw Yohannes again as he died from rabies before the family was able to reunite.
Born in Chicago on a furlough, Phil returned with his family to Ethiopia at six months of age. He lived near the banks of the Nile until he was five years old, when he left for Sudan with his family. For Phil, life in Sudan was a wonderland. He couldn’t wait to go explore the fields nearby or go spy on the crocodiles down by the river. Each day, as he ran out of the sun dried, mud brick home his father had built, his mom often cautioned him to be careful of the crocodiles.
“Those crocodiles didn’t just swim fast, they also ran fast,” Phil remembers with boyish delight.
In 1995, the baton officially passed from Earl to Phil as he prepared for that eight month trip to Ethiopia. Phil spoke at a three-day conference in Soddo, which thousands of Christians walked several days to attend. The attendees sat, ate, and slept on the ground. Phil greeted the crowd by saying, “I may not look Ethiopian on the outside, but I am on the inside. I have an Ethiopian brother. His name is Yohannes.” The passion for Ethiopia that burned in Earl and Pauline Lewis’s hearts now ignited in Phil’s heart. Phil knew he must return to Ethiopia to help train the young men and women wanting to become teachers and preachers of God’s Word.
knew he must return to Ethiopia to help train the young men and women wanting to become teachers and preachers of God’s Word.
When Phil returned from his trip to Ethiopia, he cautiously approached Darla to begin a relationship. They started meeting regularly for reading sessions, taking turns reading out loud the books they selected together. The relationship quickly grew to one of mutual respect and understanding. To Darla, Phil was the picture of a godly man. To Phil, she was a beautiful, young and godly woman. The following year, in April of 1996, they married. Another year later, Phil returned to Ethiopia with his new bride. Together, they taught at a Bible College in Dilla, just across the lake from Soddo, where it had all started. For the next nine years, Phil and Darla felt privileged to teach and serve the men and women who came from small villages all over the country. Due to a shortage of teachers and preachers, some of these students would return to their villages to sometimes pastor multiple churches.
Phil and Darla loved the Ethiopian people with more than words and hugs. When they sold their Potter Valley home, the proceeds went toward building projects at the Bible College in Ethiopia. When people gave them offerings, they went toward meeting the needs of the students at the school. Phil didn’t have a “retirement fund” because his plan was to die on the field and retire when he got to heaven. Nathan, Phil’s son, once told Phil and Darla’s support team that his dad gave away all of his and his siblings’ inheritances. The twinkle and admiration in Nathan’s eyes when making that statement spoke volumes of his love and respect for his dad. Phil and Darla were examples of how to serve God’s people wholeheartedly, at home and abroad.
Phil’s initial disappointment upon returning to the U.S. in 2007 dissipated quickly as he delved right into his new position as the Missions Pastor at Calvary Chapel.
Calvary Chapel. Phil may have been the oldest pastor on staff but hardly the least energetic.
Whatever the circumstance, whatever the challenge, whatever the change, Phil and Darla adjusted and maintained the same grace, joy, and enthusiasm for God and His people. Their proclamation of God’s faithfulness is evident in all they say and do. Visitors to their home shouldn’t be surprised if Phil begins to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” or another hymn, as he often does to express the message on his heart. Yes, great is the faithful God who will see us through until that day when we’ll meet Him face to face.
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
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