Remembering Willard Swalm
By Jordan Polson
In January I drove down to Didsbury to visit an old friend. Willard Swalm, the man who founded our church in 1962, was in the hospital. He was 88 years old and nearing the end of his fruitful life. I met his wife Eunice in the hallway of the hospital and she lit up when she saw me. I went into Willard’s room to sit with him. He recognized me, and although his speech was impaired and he was hard to hear, his smiles spoke volumes. We spent some time talking, and I began to share some of the stories of what God has done in this church he started so long ago.
Willard Swalm was the district superintendent of the United Missionary Church back in the 1960s. He was also serving as a pastor in Edmonton, and would travel from there to Calgary often. As he drove through Red Deer each time, he began feeling that God wanted to do a work in this city. So he took time off from his duties as district superintendent, and he, along with a few faithful families, planted a church. The first Sunday in November of 1962, this new church had 35 people meeting in the YMCA building. Pastor Swalm got the church on its feet and then left in 1966 to resume his role as superintendent. But in 1972, God called Pastor Swalm back to our church—by then Oriole Park Church—and he put his heart and soul into it. Pastor Swalm would knock on doors in the Oriole Park neighbourhood, inviting people to church and sharing Jesus with them.
My wife Kathleen and I started attending Oriole Park Church in 1980, soon after we were married. There were about 200 people attending at that time, and we fell in love with the church. We rolled up our sleeves and dug in—taught Sunday school, helped with the youth, and I eventually joined the Church Board.
When I was about 25-years-old, Pastor Swalm came to me and asked me to chair the Church Board. I was blown away—the fact that he came and asked me to take on this role was amazing. And I was foolish enough to say “yes.” But as I look back, I realize that God has done some amazing things in my life simply because I’ve said “yes.” Willard became my mentor during that time and he was always by my side. As Board Chair, I had to deal with different issues in the church, and Willard never took my place, but let me lead even in my immaturity, which showed his humility and grace. We developed a strong relationship and he was a lot of fun to hang out with. During the week, we would often sit down and talk about the church—where it was going, what was changing, what we need to be doing.
Willard left our church in the late 80s, and we’ve continued to have great leadership here at CrossRoads since then. Our church has moved properties and grown and we’ve seen God do some amazing things here over the years.
When I visited Willard in the hospital a few weeks ago, I shared some of our stories with him. I told him about how our church has grown to about 2,500 people. I told him about all of the people who have come to Christ and who are baptized every year. I shared all the money that we are able to give to missions, and he was blown away. I shared about our unity as a church and the humility of our leadership. I felt so much joy because with every story I pulled out of my pocket, his excitement grew. In his broken voice he said, “I’m bubbling over!” He lifted his hands and waved them and his joy was evident as we talked about all those who have come to Christ through CrossRoads Church.
In all of the years I knew him, Willard always deflected praise because he was a humble man. If you ever tried to encourage him or give him accolades, he would give glory to God. He would never let the compliments land on himself. As I shared with him about God’s people in our church who are committed to reaching our world, and as I shared about the Holy Spirit who is inviting people to return to Him, Willard was excited. God allowed him to take my compliments as the good and faithful servant he had been. His spirit was refreshed as God allowed him to rest in hearing all that He has done because of his faithfulness in starting our church.
In Willard’s final sermon at our church, he asked us if we would be faithful to what God had called us to do. A few weeks ago as we were finishing Deuteronomy, Pastor Dan used Moses’ example and asked us the same thing. As we are faithful, God can do above and beyond what we can imagine (Ephesians 3:20). I’ve been privy to the Spirit’s work in our church since 1980. I’ve seen God deliver and I’ve seen us receive His goodness. I’ve seen our Board, our people, and our pastors be faithful to what God has called us to do.
Willard Swalm went to be with his Saviour on January 26. I am grateful that I had the chance to spend some time with him right before that. He heard the witness that we’ve been faithful, and my spirit was lifted as I saw his joy at everything God has done. Sometimes I can take for granted what’s going on at our church because I’m in the middle of the story. But to talk with someone who had this seed and planted it and then got to hear of how it has flourished was a blessing. He was overwhelmed that day, and his tears of joy and laughter were a blessing to me personally.
It was good to be with our founding pastor that day, and if I can say it, I’m proud of him and his response to the call that God placed on his life. May we always respond to God’s call in the same way so that we can look back and see everything God has put into our hands as we’ve been faithful to Him.
So, I honor Pastor Willard Swalm today. I’m grateful that God placed me in his path so that I could learn and grow from his wisdom. And I’m grateful for this vision he had for a new church here in Red Deer. May we at CrossRoads Church continue to be faithful to what God has called us to as we honour Him with all that we do.
If you’re interested in learning more about Willard Swalm and the history of our church from 1962 until now, our 50th anniversary hardcover book, “Being Part of God’s Story” is available for $15 at The Compass. The book is a great way to connect to our past and look forward to the future with us!