I don’t remember a time when God was not at least a factor, if not a real Presence in my life. My earliest memories, before age 6, are of my family, secure and comfortable in the typical American lifestyle, in which God and religion were woven into the fabric of life, even though He wasn't in control of our lives at the time, in either lip-service or actuality. At age 7 or so, my father came to know the living God through a life-changing experience, and so, of course, my life changed, too. All of a sudden we were active members of a little church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, a role I accepted in my childish way. Along with the rest of my family, I followed convention, “came forward,” made the confession of accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, and was baptized by immersion.
Looking back on that time, I don’t remember being personally involved with God, although I see that experience as the beginning of my life with God that has continued into the present.
In 1959, just as I turned 10, my father responded to the call of God to leave his career as an executive in the steel industry and enter Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. This change I also took in stride, with interest, and without questioning or challenging the basis, God’s call.
During the seven years I lived in Indianapolis, I grew from childhood through mid teens, went from well-to-do businessman's kid to preacher's kid with limited income, and from childish awareness of God in our lives to a more mature, but mostly unwilling relationship with God. A couple of significant incidents from that time stand out in my mind.
From 1963 to 1965, Gommel (my father) was senior minister at Broad Ripple Christian Church, a suburban church serving a moderately well-to-do congregation on the north edge of Indianapolis. He had just graduated from seminary Summa Cum Laude, and this was his first church on his own. I was busy being an early teen, complete with all the normal rebellions, but without involvement in dating or sex.
During Easter one year, my father gave a sermon on that Sunday, "You were there." He described the events at Easter with such clarity that it affected me deeply, and I sat there with tears streaming down my face. I may have recommitted myself in front of the congregation at the altar call I can't remember. What I do remember was feeling cut to the heart.
In another instance, I found myself arguing with one of the girls who was considered a leader of the high school youth group. She insisted that all people are basically good. I was appalled that someone of her stature and smarts would think something so obviously false. Man was basically sinful! That's why God came to earth through Jesus Christ — to save man from that evil. I remember clearly the shock I felt at that time.
During the last year that my parents lived in Indianapolis (1965), Gommel left the institutional church and led a group who left the church with him and met in our home. Their aim was to try to better express what a church should be to be right with God. I participated, helped to type church bulletins and the little paper called the New Light, but I carefully limited my involvement. I feared that full surrender meant giving up my plans for college and a career of my own choice, and it might change the direction of my life. In no way did I want to give up those things.
God had other plans for that group, so that in November, 1965, the little group broke up, by mutual agreement that it was God's will, and in good spirit. Two of the key people chose to follow their worldly careers instead of following the Lord with abandon.
My parents and sister then moved to California to join Campus Crusade for Christ in San Bernardino. We later came to believe that God's purpose was for them to experience the conservative, almost fundamentalist, side of organized religion. I stayed behind in Indianapolis to finish high school. During that 8 month period, I, too, experienced that side of the organized church when I became heavily involved in a Conservative Baptist church. As I look back at it, the experience amazes me. It was quite "religious," but I loved it and gave myself to it. It did not repel me as religious things normally do, but inspired me — the warmth, zeal, and commitment of the leaders and young people in that church spoke to me. I met with a small group of the kids before school for prayer (Me! anti-religious me!), and I actually carried my Bible to classes, which for me took courage.
At the same time, I participated in a Campus Crusade Bible study, which did repel me. I clashed with a doctrine-spouting zealous and self-righteous (in my view) 14-year-old (boy) over the doctrine of eternal security. I couldn't believe that anyone could believe that once a person was saved, he remained saved forever. How stupid! The whole tenor of the scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, is warning against falling away and exhortation to stay close to God, strong in the Spirit. Although I was young and alone and felt powerless to refute such a person, the Spirit, I now see, had opened my eyes to enough of His truth to be mightily bugged by false doctrine.
I finished up that last lonely year of high school in Indianapolis and then moved to San Bernardino, California, to join my folks who were still with Campus Crusade. Although I was just seventeen and a year younger than my peers, with no college experience, I was allowed to serve on the Campus Crusade Summer Staff, which was composed largely of college juniors and seniors. We worked as cooks, maids, waiters and waitresses at the Arrowhead Springs hotel for room and board and $25 per month. We also were expected to participate in leadership training classes and other activities such as witnessing on the beaches to total strangers, presenting to them the Four Spiritual Laws.
I was happy in my job of kitchen worker (though somewhat envious of the more glamorous waitresses and busboys), and I worked hard and slept well in a 2-story wooden dormitory called the Casitas, with tiny rooms shared by four on bunk beds. One thing I couldn't stand, and felt extremely guilty about, was the requirement that we witness on the beaches. It felt phony and wrong, but I felt I was out of it and inferior spiritually. The entire summer I felt awkward and out of place, which I attributed to my young age compared to the others. I now realize that the Spirit in me was uncomfortable.
So here it was, the summer of 1966, at the height of the 60's rebellion. I was already young at age 17; in addition I had just come from rock-solid, conservative Indiana, where the worst types of kids drank and smoked and were called “hoods “ All of a sudden I was confronted with the California scene of flower children, pot smoking, free love and free sex. Talk about traumatic! Leaving Campus Crusade, with its older college co-workers, and beach witnessing, this barely-17-year-old Indiana high school graduate went up to Santa Barbara to attend college. Fortunately it was Westmont College, a small evangelical Christian school, but located only a few miles from University of California at Santa Barbara, a southern center of the hippie rebellion, just across town at Isla Vista in Goleta.
I had chosen Westmont in spite of doubt. Its no drink/no dance/no smoke behavior code offended me, as it demonstrated Westmont's participation in the side of Christianity that I considered narrow-minded and fundamentalist. But I went there anyway because I really believed God sent me there. Those four ensuing years were spent in basic unhappiness, due to personal struggles with faith, and more importantly due to my feeling that I just didn't fit in spiritually. I wanted to conform and be part of the Westmont scene, but I could not shake the underlying feelings of unease. I became angry at God and I refused to read my Bible or go to church for over a year. My spirit felt dark, even black, during the first two years especially.
At home, the folks had left Campus Crusade due to the inevitable clash between the religious spirit (as evidenced by Campus Crusade) and the Holy Spirit. They ultimately rented a large house in Reche Canyon, south of San Bernardino, and met with a small group of people in the house, with the idea of being a "better" church, as they had in Indianapolis.
I participated with this group to some degree, during the times when I was home from school, although I remained determined to stay my course of finishing college and pursuing some further "career". In July of 1967, the Reche Canyon group bought a small store in the Canyon, after asking God what He wanted. I spent the first two summers working there and enjoyed it a lot. The third summer, before the final year at Westmont, I traveled to Europe as a part of a student trip for college credit. I now suspect that this was another avoidance of participation with the group, clothed in something that was so "good to do."
Finally, during my senior year at Westmont, I began to emerge from the spiritual blackness, partly because it was time for decision. On the one hand, I still wanted to pursue my "career", but had no specific ideas as to what that might be. On the other hand, I could not ignore the little group in Reche Canyon and the store, the Hitchin Post. The challenge was to quit holding out and just do it, "it" being what God wanted — to join in with the group in Reche Canyon.
1970 was the year of decision. I graduated from Westmont College in June and faced the choices: go to graduate school or join the group in Reche Canyon and help with the ministry of the Hitchin Post Market. Go to graduate school, for what? Library science — which I discovered I enjoyed through my job at the Westmont library? Sociology? Somehow I had long ago decided that sociology was a bunch of stuff trying to look like. I knew, as I had known during all four years at Westmont, that God wanted me to surrender and go His way, and His way wasn't doing my own thing in graduate school. Much as I didn't want to rejoin my parents in the name of being independent, I did surrender to His will and joined with this group who were committed to seeking God's will with abandon and following wherever He led. Some of my professors at Westmont were horrified that I would "waste" my talents this way, one even charging me with deciding to go rot in Reche Canyon. Their spiritual logic was: God surely wants us to use our talents for Him; so as long as we are using them, He will bless whatever we do. I knew the truth: God says just the opposite. "Go, sell all that you have and come, follow me," said Jesus Himself.
The Hitchin Post taught all of us a whole new set of skills, such as bookkeeping, the complexities of running a small business (much simpler then than now, nearly 40 years later), and the grocery business itself. Most importantly, we learned about ministering to people in non-religious ways. We had been focused on being a better church, but God was showing us that what did not appear to be "religious" could be His work, and it might be free of the preconceptions and associations that came with religious-looking work.
At the Hitchin Post, we helped people with their most basic, everyday needs by supplying groceries, hardware, hay and feed, gasoline, and for a while, auto repair. There were nine of us in the group at the time, which seemed like a lot of talent concentrated in one small place, and we became restless.
God led us to find a store in Lucerne Valley, in the High Desert 20 miles east of Victorville. We had thought to buy a smaller store that was for sale, because it felt like the Hitchin Post, but God clearly communicated that He wanted us to buy the large store, which was a dump and didn't fit our image of ourselves. But the community of Lucerne Valley was ill-served by that dirty store, so we responded to God's call, pouring our efforts into cleaning, resetting, and renewing the store, formerly Leo's Market but renamed Lucerne Valley Market (LVM). We continued to run the Hitchin Post. I personally spent half my time at each place for the first couple of years and then thankfully stayed at LVM while several others stayed in Reche Canyon. By 1981, LVM's sales had tripled, we were frustrated at the separation of the group, and we knew LVM needed major remodel and expansion, or a new building.
Within the short period of 1981 to 1983, and in obedience to God's will (so we hoped and believed), we sold the Hitchin Post to a Reche Canyon long-time resident; our Lucerne Valley landlord kicked us out of the building since we had not renewed our lease in the hope he would cooperate in a remodel; and we built a big new building for the store in Lucerne Valley. The economy was in deep recession, with interest rates around 20%; the landlord decided to continue running a store in his building as Center Market; and we had to find some kind of jobs for income. Two days after our last business day in the old store, in January of 1982, Bill Lembright and I started work at a brand-new Safeway store in Hesperia where we received invaluable training in supermarket operations, including the relatively new technology of scanning. Others got other jobs, and Gommel set up an office at our home to pursue the design and building of the new store, which we came to believe that God wanted us to explore despite the obstacles.
Over a wet and cold winter of 1982/1983, we built the first half of the present store and opened it for business in a period of just 4 months. Ground-breaking took place on Thanksgiving weekend in November, 1982. Opening day was March 26, 1983. We had added hardware as a major department in the store. Wow! It was an exciting time because God's hand in decisions and events was so very clear.
One other significant decision we made in 1982 was to change the organization of the business from a partnership to a for-profit corporation, whose shares were owned by the non-profit Church of Our Lord and Savior. We believed that we individuals should not own the assets, not accumulate our personal estates, and not be able to benefit from liquidation of the business. This was and is to comply with God's command that we should go, sell all that we have and follow Him. All of the assets were donated to Church of Our Lord and Savior, which organized them into the tax-paying business, and which arrangement continues to this day. If and when we liquidate the assets, the proceeds are legally required to be given to another non-profit organization.
By 1990, business had grown about 10% per year, and we believed we should build the second half of the store, which idea had been anticipated and designed into the original building. Without specially closing even for an hour, we built the second half and remerchandised it. Just in time for the economy to go south. Just as we increased overheads and mortgage payments, the Gulf War started, George Bush I's tax increases slowed the economy, George Air Force Base in Victorville closed, real estate values tanked, and Southern California entered a long period of economic stagnation, which put the High Desert into a recession/depression that lasted past the year 2000. Talk about a lesson in the need for thankful spirit and for faith in GOD, not in a successful, comfortable business! I have struggled with those challenges as much if not more than the others in my tendency to be anxious and negative.
1991 found us asking ourselves what we should do to turn the store around so that sales would grow and the business be profitable, or at least break even. Our steady growth of the 80's had slowed and things were looking difficult. We convened our department heads in a series of meetings, at which we asked what we thought we should do to turn things around. [The very small group of us, who are committed to God, do whatever it takes to keep this business going, and we work at the store. The other staff members are not required or pushed to believe as we do, or participate in our group in any way. We wish that others would choose to.]
Out of the relative blue came the suggestion that we should look at Fleming Foods, a wholesaler we knew little about except that they were "the enemy" to any good member of Certified Grocers, the co-op which served as our wholesaler at that time. We had no idea who they were or how to contact them. Somehow we found out that another Certified retailer had arranged a meeting with their sales representative at his store. We attended that meeting, which started a series of events which led us to switch our wholesaler to Fleming's Phoenix Division. For me, Linda "Loyal", it was a wrenching decision, but one of those times when God's hand was clearly in the events leading to the change.
Years earlier, I had wondered what IGA (Independent Grocers Alliance) was, noticing references to it regularly in the trade magazines. A major article in one of the grocery magazines in the late 80's told the story of IGA and Tom Haggai, the CEO. He described a remarkable series of events that led him, a Baptist minister, to IGA, which he felt was God's calling and his ministry. I loved the story and its spirit, and so I wrote a letter to Dr. Haggai, describing our ministry of Lucerne Valley Market. Little did I realize that we would become so involved.
As we became IGA supplied by Fleming in 1992, we invited Dr. Haggai and Fleming executives to our Grand Opening as IGA, with great assurances of a major invasion of Southern California for Fleming and for IGA. Dr. Haggai even called us his missionaries, as we were the only IGA store (excluding San Diego) in all of Southern California (population 23 million).
Twelve years later, in 2003, Fleming, the largest grocery wholesaler in the U.S., had been run into the ground as a company and closed down its entire grocery operation. We returned to Certified, now known as Unified Western Grocers, on an emergency basis, having been abandoned suddenly by our wholesaler. We maintain contact with Dr. Haggai and somehow relate to him in the Spirit, despite his seeming involvement in "religion". We are still IGA in spirit and name, but not officially.
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In 1994 we decided we should open another market/hardware combination in Apple Valley, to spread our overheads and to serve an area of Apple Valley that really needed and wanted a supermarket and hardware. We spent several months and $55,000 trying to make the project work, with our new wholesaler and the IGA and Ace Hardware banners going for us, or so we thought. After months of struggling with one insurmountable obstacle after another, we threw in the towel. One dark night, on the night of Thanksgiving, we quietly pulled everything out of Apple Valley and shut down the operation, concluding that we had been doing our own thing, and that God really didn't want us to do this. It was a lot my pressure to do it that got us started. I felt that I pushed my own agenda instead of God's agenda, and I felt kind of bad about it.
Other issues have impacted us during this time (1990 to the present). God has shown us how much trust we put in the world by how upset we get when worldly things go wrong. I was so upset when Bill Clinton was elected president, and hated having to endure the eight years of his disgusting example of lying, sexual exploits, and self justification, with no remorse or thought of repentance. I hated the image of him coming out of church, holding high a Bible, as if that made things OK. I hated the church allowing itself to be used in that way. But God said, "What did you expect of this world? If you are so upset and anxious about this, what does it say about where you are putting your trust?"
Because we hire at entry level for most of the jobs, we have first-hand experience with the dramatic change in character, morality, family background, and education of the work force, and especially young people. We have seen a shocking reversal of moral standards so that unmarried sex is standard, single-parent families are more common than the traditional two-parent family, and people are simply unable to read and write with any level of competence. Do we get anxious and bothered about this? Yes. Should we? No, because our hope and trust is supposed to be in God, not the world. Do we fight it? Maybe, if that is what God wants us to do, and if we have the courage. But we must not let our hope be in the conversion of Sodom and Gomorrah.
So often I feel like Lot did in Sodom and Gomorrah. In running the store over a long period of almost 40 years, we witness first-hand the rapid degeneration of our culture. Lot was "distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men, . . . tormented in his soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard . . ." (2 Peter 2:7,8) I often ask God, and express to the others, my desire to go someplace else, to live in a cave, or move to some remote place where we can learn to live and support ourselves, apart from the mainstream culture. I have a vision of a more peaceful life, free of the hassle of serving "the public", so many of whom are spoiled and ungrateful, and without principle or character. Maybe someday God will lead us to a place like that, if such exists, but for now He clearly wants us to continue with the ministry of this store and center. There is no better place to be reminded daily of the importance of putting our hope in Him, not in the world.
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Ernie and Barb Gommel are my folks (Barb is now deceased), whom I didn't want to join when I fought coming from college to the Hitchin Post. Because of our ministry and the group of us who have lived and worked together so closely, our relationship changed from parents/child to fellow servants. I have addressed them as Gommel (his name of choice) and Barb since the 70's. He is the leader, the prophet of the group, and the CEOof the little corporation, which makes him my father, my business boss, and my spiritual leader. This role has been difficult for me with my rebellious propensities I am a hard-headed mule for whom giving in is a major challenge.
Barb gave up her conventional life and personal assets as a part of our group life and calling with a remarkably good spirit. But she had a self-centeredness that took over in her life as she aged. Over the years, we struggled as a group with the issue of what love is — sentimental, soft acceptance of Barb's infirmities, which she demanded, or caring about her spiritual and physical welfare enough to expect her to make the effort to overcome and remain a contributing member of the group. She had become a cripple after several hip operations, and rather than following the doctors' recommendations by exercising, keeping in shape, and staying involved at the store, where customers appreciated her ministry, she retreated mentally and physically to her little house, giving up the store, and spending her time thinking about her ills and going to doctors.
We tried to respond to her in God's care and concern, which often was really tough stuff, as best we thought God wanted. As she became more and more difficult and dependent, I would pray that God take her soon, so that Gommel could have a few years without this burden. In November, 2003, Barb had a stroke, which put her in Victor Valley hospital, and then Apple Valley Christian Care Center. After about six weeks during which Barb recovered from the stroke but seemed not to make real progress overall, she had to return to the hospital when her skin turned blue and cold and her blood pressure dropped. She died on Sunday morning, Jan. 4, 2004, from what they decided was septic shock, an infection that overwhelms the body and is usually fatal. We were both saddened and gladdened. The greatest thing was that we know God stepped in and took her, sparing her further suffering or lingering in a half-aware state. We hope and trust that she is with Him.
We held no services for Barb, apart from our own thoughts shared together as a group. Some people thought we should have a public memorial service for the sake of the community who generally thought Barb was a nice lady. So the Roadrunners, a local women's service group, of whom Barb was a founding member, decided to have a memorial service of their own, welcoming us if we wanted to come. Jan Lembright and I decided to attend, despite our doubts about all of the lovely sweet things that would be said. Two remarkable things came of that evening "service": first, my estranged sister, Cathy, attended the service, and when one of the nice ladies took my arm to bring me to my sister to talk to her (as any nice person would do), I refused, feeling troubled by the standoff in the Spirit which Cathy had created years ago, and deciding that I would see how things went and what the Spirit wanted as the service progressed. As it happened, Cathy asked to speak to the group of about 50 people. She read a little essay of her own and a letter from her daughter Debbie, both of which expressed angry and bitter feelings about the events that separated us, about Gommel, and about the group. And this to utter strangers! I did not stay long enough to talk to Cathy after that. The second remarkable thing: I had asked God for a rain as a sign of His Spirit at this time, and out of the blue, with no weather forecast warning, it rained that very evening. I was so excited at such a gift, a feeling of God so real and present, and I knew that the difficulties with Cathy were because of the Spirit and were as they must be.
We have many sorrows and regrets about Barb and her passing, never comfortably righteous about how we handled our response to her difficult spirit. But we know that a follower must stand for Him, no matter how painful, and often guessing at what is the right path through the murk of our human misunderstandings.
Some other thoughts that are important to share:
Family: My two siblings did not come this way. My brother early on was wrapped up in his own stubbornness and left the family in his late teens, rarely to be seen again. My sister started down the road with those of us following God but never was able to outgrow her rebellion and gross self-indulgence. In 1967, she had a baby out of wedlock, which at that time and in our family was quite shocking. Shortly after, she left the group to follow her sexual passions, by her choice leaving her child with my folks in Reche Canyon. The first four years, that child, Debbie, was a joy and delight, loving God as only an innocent young child can.
But then my sister and brother conspired to kidnap her away from her stable, God-centered life with her grandparents and the group so she could be with her mother who was shacking up with a man who was not her father. The other relatives, who viewed our life with skepticism, encouraged us to let this all slide and be family anyway. We felt we would sell out the Spirit if we did that, and the resulting break in the family remains to this day. The greatest pain was to see the light of the Spirit, that shone so brightly, in that young child, fade and go out over the years. I hope and pray that someday she might return in the Spirit, but she appears to have lost it.
Marriage and children: The group decided that this world is too dangerous a place to raise kids, so we would not have kids if we were to marry. I always wanted and expected to marry, but God has had other ideas. It just never happened. I never made any painful, dramatic decision to give up a loved one for God I can't claim credit for such sacrifice and strength. No opportunities arose, and I didn't push it on my own. In my attitude I finally decided to give up the idea. Over the years, I have become thankful that God spared me that pain and also spared some poor sap having to put up with me. I have never understood how I so completely dodged the bullet of sex and marriage, except to think that somehow God has protected me.
The role of women: This has always been an important subject and has grown to be a key issue as we have grown in our spiritual insight and understanding. From the day I left school and began to work in the Hitchin Post and Lucerne Valley Market, I have found myself in roles that seem to contradict my belief that women should be in roles supportive to those of men and not be in competition with men or over them. I accept the role God has put me in, but it makes me uneasy. It seems to be what He wants for me to do in this ministry at the store, for now.
Far more important is the growing recognition of the damage done and the involvement of Satan in the reversal of roles now so prevalent in American culture and in the churches. In violation of God's command and of human natural instincts, the feminine spirit of emotional, intuitive response, softness, and nurturing has become dominant over the masculine spirit of natural dominance, aggression, challenge, less emotionalism, and risk-taking. Much damage has been done to our culture in the name of (female) compassion, when (male) tough love would have been far more constructive. When you think about it, some of the most destructive elements of our culture spring from this distortion: radical environmentalism, feminism and the subsequent emasculation of men; the welfare state and mentality; the female sentimentality and niceness of religion rather than the straight, hard truth and the courageous stand taken and exemplified by Jesus Christ.
Please understand — I do not believe that there is anything inherently wrong with the female point of view. In proper context, in submission to the male point of view, as in a family where the man is clearly the head of the household, the female approach is necessary and great. When they are reversed, much evil results.
How do I end this? It doesn't end as long as I and the others of our little group live and struggle with the realities of our "selfs", our sin, this world and its allure, and our commitment to be God's people without hiding in religion. God has been actively involved in our lives, reminding us to lose ourselves, to change and grow in the Spirit, to keep on with the vision that following God is Something Else, something completely other than what we are taught by the church. We are to be straight, honest, filled with His care and concern for others, courageous, zealous for the Truth. We are not to live to the image indoctrinated by Churchianity: being nice so that others like us as we do "good" things for them, too often self-serving. We don't do too well with this yet, but it's exciting that God cares enough to let us know how far we have to go.