Wallace Rivers: An unstoppable servant
He’s moving a little slower these days, the result of an accident 10 years ago that crushed his right ankle. The cane no longer seems like such a bad idea and that “handicapped” hangtag in the car sure comes in handy.
But his servant’s heart beats as strong and sure as it ever did.
Wallace Rivers can do just about anything – repair an engine, unclog a sink, guide a Navy ship into port, manage a staff or clean a fish. Yet he chose to spend his life serving others.
To be honest, I didn’t know most of my dad’s story until I was grown. The significance of the rest would have been lost on me until I had experienced some life myself.
Plenty of folks in tiny High Springs, Florida where he grew up, would never have predicted Wallace would accomplish very much. Not because he wasn’t resourceful or capable, but because he wasn’t expected to live. He was born a twin in 1922 and his brother died hours later; Wallace suffered a variety of health problems himself as a youngster. Doctors said he might not make it to 21.
When Wallace was only 9, his father Percy, a World War I vet, died tragically of blood poisoning after a doctor used an unsterilized scalpel to lance his infected throat.
Needing a source of income, Wallace’s mother turned their home into a boarding house. She earned extra money working when she could at the local café, grocery store, and pharmacy.
On Sundays she prepared a home-cooked meal for the railroad workers who stopped by, which meant a little extra income. She made sure Wallace and his little sister went to church, though, and modeled her faith and strong work ethic daily.
His mother’s example of serving would never leave him.
Serving His Country
Wallace was 20 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. His father had once said that if there was ever another war, he hoped his son wouldn’t be a “slacker.” Wallace never forgot that. Against his mother’s wishes and though his health was still fragile, he joined the Navy.
By early 1944, he had seen action in the Pacific and achieved the rank of Quartermaster First Class. He was the official photographer for his Division and navigated the ship using a sextant, stars, and “dead reckoning”.
He also met Ernestine, a beautiful brunette from South Carolina, and married her three weeks later before shipping out on a destroyer escort.
Due to health issues he was honorably discharged in 1945. He was out of the military, but had only begun to serve.
Serving His God
In 1947, Wallace was called to Christian ministry during a “revival” service at his church. He was one of several who entered ministry at this time. They became known to the congregation (and to each other) as the “Preacher Boys”.
To support our family – which by now included my brother, sister and me – he took every back-breaking job he could and preached at church when the pastor was out. He was determined to graduate from college and go to seminary.
Despite the hardships, Wallace loves telling stories of how the Lord provided. One of his favorites was when he was struggling to get through college. He was filling in for his ailing pastor when he became very sick himself. He couldn’t afford to fill the prescription he was given. There wasn’t even milk for my siblings and me.
That night – out of food and out of options – we all just went to bed early. Wallace explains, “No one knew about our situation – only the Lord and us. But we trusted Him.”
About 9:00 p.m., one of the church members knocked on the door. Wallace told him our family was already asleep, but the man insisted on seeing him. He presented two large boxes of groceries and an offering taken up by the people in the church to thank Wallace for helping them while their pastor was sick. The amount of the offering was exactly enough to pay for the prescription.
Never Holding Back
In seminary, both my parents trained to be missionaries to Chile but then were rejected by their denomination at the last minute. They were devastated. Wallace had already resigned his job and his church when they got the word so they sold what little furniture they had and returned to Florida.
Over the next several decades, Wallace pastored tiny churches in North and South Florida, none larger than about 150 members. Many much smaller.
He was never “just” the pastor; he was also janitor, personnel director, bus driver, and mechanic. He became whatever was needed. He held nothing back, humbly putting his heart and soul into every job.
A Retirement of Work
Even though he is now “retired,” Wallace hasn’t quit working. He is quick to tell you that he’d rather “burn out” than “rust out”. After stepping out of pastoring full-time, he was both a hospital and a jail chaplain. In his lifetime he has conducted almost 1400 funerals, seeing them as a unique opportunity to comfort and connect people to God.
When Ernestine became gravely ill in 1997, Wallace cared for her selflessly until she died a few months later. Theirs was a bond formed in war-time that had withstood many hardships over 54 years, sustained by shared faith and rock-solid commitment.
He remarried the next year and with his new wife, and continues to faithfully serve his church and volunteer in his community.
Wallace will share his faith with anyone: the grocery store bagger, the mattress salesman, the police officer at the hospital. He does everything in his power to reconcile relationships and build others up . Or fade into the background if necessary.
Ninety years and counting, he is an unstoppable servant.