The Story of Christ in Me

David L. Zapf
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I grew up in the rural mid-western town of Mendota, Illinois. My father was a German immigrant who went through the horror of World War II as a young boy. Since Germany was so devastated after the war, he came to the United States in order to find work and make a living for himself. Through a great deal of hard work and effort, he was able to establish a business as a mason contractor. Many of the homes in Mendota and the surrounding areas are built on a foundation he laid! My mother was raised on a farm near Mendota. She worked very hard in the early years of marriage to help my father establish a business and then was able to be a stay-at-home mom.

I grew up with a fairly carefree life. Mendota is a typical, quiet, conservative, farm town with little trouble. I have three brothers and there were the usual sibling rivalries, but all in all I knew the security of a loving family. I enjoyed being active in sports and school. My family upheld high moral standards and I never went through a time of rebellion. Life was good.

I cannot remember a time during my years growing up when my family (with the exception of my father) did not go to church. However, we were not Christians. In my early teen years my mother sensed that in spite of the trappings of a “successful family,” something was missing. Her search for something beyond the enjoyment of family and friends and the comforts of possessions led her to begin reading the Bible. To paraphrase Augustine, her heart found no rest until it found its rest in God. Through her reading, she came to accept Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. That beginning led her on a search for a church where she could “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” My father also eventually accepted Christ as his Savior.


By this time I was 15. We had been visiting several different churches. We found an evangelical church and had been going there for a few weeks when something happened that changed the course of my life. On July 4, 1971, my uncle invited my family to join his family for a day boating on the river. My dad went ahead with my uncle to put the boat in the river. The rest of my family followed a little later. We never made it to the river. A tire blew, the car swerved and went over an embankment and flipped upside down. I happened to be wearing a seat belt (a rare thing for me in those days), which saved my life, but crushed vertebrae in my back. I was paralyzed from the waist down and spent the next three months in the hospital.

While I was in the hospital, the pastor of the church we had been visiting came to see me. At the time he thought I was a Christian, but nevertheless he talked to me about how much Jesus loves us, and how he died for our sins. One afternoon, when nobody came to visit me (the hospital was 60 miles from home), having nothing better to do in my hospital bed, I thought about my relationship to God. It really came home to me for the first time in my life that I was a sinner and needed a Savior. So at that point I accepted Jesus as my personal Savior.

Eventually I began to recover movement in my legs. After two operations in which six vertebrae in my lower back were fused, I was released to return home. Remarkably (by the grace of God), I made a significant recovery and was even able to play pickup games of basketball for many years. Nevertheless, I spent the next 31 years with daily back pain. Towards the end of that time the pain had become so severe that I could barely walk a couple of blocks. In November of 2002 I underwent 25 hours of spinal surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Unfortunately, some of the screws that held rods in place in my back broke and I underwent another 12 hours of surgery in 2006. I am currently in the best physical shape I have been since the accident in 1971, running between 3 to 7 miles a day, five days a week.


As a new Christian I had a real desire to know the Word of God. I read through the Bible many times and asked more questions than my Sunday School teachers wanted to hear! Through a quizzing program in which our church participated, I memorized the book of Hebrews and 1 Corinthians 1–11. I also memorized many other verses of Scripture. As a High School student I led a before school Bible Study and was a summer camp counselor.

During this time the house of one of the farmers in our church was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. I went with several kids from the Senior High youth group to help with clean up. I happened to be looking for a job at the time (prior to this I had been working for my dad helping pour cement foundations and concrete slabs, but after the accident I was no longer able do such heavy work). I asked the farmer if he needed some part time help, and he agreed. Several years later I married his daughter! Ruth, my wife, was taught the Scriptures from an early age. At age three she understood enough to trust Jesus as her Savior.

After becoming a Christian I felt called by God to go into the ministry, so upon graduation from high school I went to Grand Rapids School of the Bible and Music. I graduated as valedictorian from GRSBM in 1977. Following a year working to earn some money, I finished my bachelor’s degree at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana, in 1980 with a double major in Biblical Studies and Biblical Languages, graduating magna cum laude. I was selected to the Alpha Chi Honor Society and received the James L. Boyer Award in Biblical Languages and the department Award in Biblical Studies.


Ruth and I were married in August of 1979, prior to my senior year. Ruth attended Grace College for one year taking as many of the Biblical Studies courses as she could. She also studied music, taking piano lessons under the supervision of Barbara Manahan, wife of Ronald Manahan who would later become President of Grace College and Grace Theological Seminary.

After college I enrolled in Grace Theological Seminary. However, prior to my first year in seminary, my father-in-law was in an accident in which he almost lost his life. My wife and I moved back home to help run the family farm. I returned to school for the second semester and worked as a grader for Prof. Manahan. I also began working as a copy editor for the Grace Theological Journal. While still in school I had an article published in the journal (“How the Mighty are Fallen! A Study of 2 Samuel 1:17–27” [Grace Theological Journal Vol. 5, No. 1: Spring 1984], pp. 95–126).


In the summer of 1981 our first son, Joshua, was born. Josh received his bachelor’s degree from Taylor University and a master’s degree from Indiana University/Perdue University of Indianapolis and is currently a doctoral candidate at Purdue University. Following graduation he will be taking a job with a company in San Diego that has been sponsoring his education through a S.M.A.R.T. scholarship. Professors at Taylor University inspired Josh to see physics in terms of God’s creation and to dedicate his vocation as an expression of faith. He is married to Beth, also a graduate of Taylor University. I had the awesome privilege of officiating their wedding in May of 2003. After graduation from Taylor, Beth taught at a Christian School. Josh and Beth are the proud parents of Olivia (age 7), Benjamin (age 5), Levi (age 3), and Evelyn (born May 13, 2012).

Also in the summer of 1981 I began working fulltime for Eisenbrauns, a small publishing company specializing in ancient Near Eastern materials and Biblical Studies for the scholarly market. My knowledge of Greek and Hebrew was an asset for this job, and to my benefit it allowed me to see and interact with some cutting edge work being published in the field of my schooling.


In January of 1983 our second son, Noah, was born. During the summers of 2002 and 2003 Noah worked as an intern in youth ministry at Cielo Vista Church in El Paso, Texas. In the summer of 2003 Noah knew that God was calling him into fulltime youth ministry, to the great joy of his mother and me! In the summer of 2004 he accepted a position as an interim youth pastor at Solid Rock Community Church in West Unity, Ohio. At the end of the summer, the church offered him a fulltime position, which they held for him until his graduation from Taylor University in May of 2005. In December of 2007 I had the privilege of officiating Noah’s wedding ceremony. Noah’s wife Ashton is a graduate of the University of Ohio with a degree in human resources. In 2008 Noah and Ashton moved to Nashville, Tennessee, so that Noah could pursue a master’s degree in counseling. While Noah was in school and working part-time, Ashton worked full time in human resources. Following his graduation, Noah has worked part-time as a counselor for The Refuge Center, a Christian organization, and has established a private practice. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Trevecca Nazarene University. Noah and Ashton are the proud parents of Hudson (born March 22, 2012).


The load of fulltime work, full-time school, and a growing family began to take its toll on me, so I began to cut back in the number of hours I took in the seminary, although I continued to take enough hours to be considered a fulltime student. In December of 1983 my father-in-law contracted Meningitis and once again nearly died. He spent many months in the hospital and my wife spent much of her time back home in Illinois. I came to Illinois as often as I could. My father-in-law never fully recovered from this illness and went to be with his Lord in 1990. Working fulltime, going to school fulltime, separated much of the time from my family, and frequent trips to Illinois began to take a further toll on me.

By the Spring of 1984 I was physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted, and we were struggling financially. I had originally intended to complete a Th.M. degree at Grace Theological Seminary (a 4-year graduate degree), but after the Spring, 1984, semester I dropped out of school and just worked at Eisenbrauns, where I had become the composition department manager. I considered switching to the M.Div. degree (a 3-year graduate degree), but my heart wasn’t in it, nor did I have the money to continue.


Our first daughter, Melissa, was born in January of 1987. Melissa graduated as Salutatorian of her High School Class. Following High School, Melissa attended Trinity Christian College, graduating in 2009. Part of her college experience was to spend a semester in a study abroad program, which took her to Australia. Following graduation she worked in Australia for a year on a “working holiday” visa. While there, she fell in love with David Clarke. I had the privilege of officiating their wedding ceremony in 2010. David and Melissa live in Sydney, Australia. David is an accomplished musician, having been the lead drummer for a Christian band in Australia. He is currently employed as a personal trainer. Melissa is employed as a Marketing Officer at Wesley University for the Performing Arts. Both David and Melissa are heavily involved in the ministry of their local church.


By the time Melissa was born, it was becoming harder and harder for us to make ends meet, so in the summer of 1987 I accepted a position as a graphic artist near where Ruth and I had been raised in Illinois. This was a low point spiritually for me. Subtly over the years I had stopped pursuing a relationship with the living God and had settled for a “good Christian life.” For the next several years Ruth and I were active in church, teaching Sunday School, serving on church committees and boards, being involved in the music ministry (Ruth), and occasionally preaching (myself).

During this time we were in a church under the leadership of Pastor Spencer, who was in his early 70s at the time. Pastor Spencer was a godly shepherd who loved his Lord and loved the people of the Church. This was just the example I needed at the time. He led me back to the foundation of my faith—Jesus Christ. As my personal relationship with Jesus began to be rekindled, so did my desire to serve Him. I continued to work as a graphic artist, but my heart was simply in making Christ known and loving and serving people.


In December of 1991 our final daughter, Shannon, was born. Shannon was a starter on her middle school volleyball team in Illinois. That team was and remains the most successful team the school ever produced. One of the most difficult questions that Ruth and I faced when we received the call to ministry in Missouri was how the move would affect Shannon. We have been very grateful that the Lord answered our prayers as we saw Shannon flourish spiritually, socially, and intellectually during her High School years. She was a captain of her volleyball team and graduated as Valedictorian of her class. She is currently a Junior at Southwest Baptist University majoring in biology. She plans on pursuing a graduate degree in order to become a Physician’s Assistant. Having participated in several short-term mission trips, Shannon has considered using her education in a mission context, whether as a full-time missionary or through further short-term mission trips.


In the course of my work, we relocated to Mendota, Illinois, in 1992. In October of 2000 a small group of 20 people who had a desire to reach out to a younger generation through a contemporary style church asked me to become their pastor. I accepted this position, though at first it involved no salary. I continued to work fulltime as a graphic artist while we got the church off the ground. Eventually the church was able to offer a part-time salary. This small church had a big heart for ministry. The church established a youth center for the town. A small Christian school was started. God raised up a team of senior high youth leaders who ministered to some teens who came from very troubled home lives.

While serving as the pastor of this church plant in Mendota, I continued to work full-time as a graphic artist. In August of 2001 the company I was working for achieved the highest volume of sales in their history. However, the tragedy of the September, 2001, terrorist attacks had a profoundly negative impact on their business. Sales fell off quickly and the company never fully recovered from the loss of business. As a result, I was laid off in 2004. Fortunately my wife was working full time at a bank, but the loss of my income threatened to derail a foundational commitment that we had as a couple: to send all of our children to a Christian college. I worked part-time over the next couple of years at odd jobs, but was unable to secure full-time employment. Nevertheless, during this period of time I was able to complete my MDiv degree from Grace Theological Seminary. When the opportunity came to serve as full-time pastor at Bethel Mennonite Church in Fortuna, Missouri, it was an answer to our prayers.


The call to serve at Bethel came at an opportune time. In 2002 Bethel decided not to become part of the Mennonite Church USA, which was formed as a union between the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Churches. Subsequently Bethel joined the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches. The process of severing deep connections that crossed several generations was very difficult for the church. Then, for unrelated reasons, the pastor at the time left in 2004. The church was without a pastor for two years. It was a time of deep struggle for the church. In the meantime, before the church voted to call me as pastor, I informed them that I would soon be undergoing back surgery that would leave me in a weakened state for some time. Nevertheless, they unanimously voted to call me as their pastor.

I believe God used my struggle to recover from back surgery when I first came to Bethel for His glory. Rather than focusing on the problems they had come through, the church rallied to minister to me and my family! In turn, I believe I have brought a calming, stabilizing influence to the church. It has been a season of fruitful ministry.


Ruth and I are entering another phase in our lives. Our children are grown, most are married and raising their own families, and are actively serving the Lord in various ways. They are literally spread throughout the world! Looking back, we can see the trace of God’s hand as He has led us along the way. Looking ahead we have confidence in His continuing guidance. We rejoice in the knowledge that though we may plan our course, it is the Lord who directs our steps (Proverbs 16:9)!

Thank you for this opportunity to introduce myself and to testify of God’s work of redemption in my life. To Him be all the glory!

May God Bless!

Rev. David L. Zapf
37830 Bethel Church Rd.
Fortuna, MO 65084
Phone: (815) 228-6391
E-mail: drzapf@gmail.com