125th and 25th: First Christian Church to mark dual anniversaries Sunday

PHOTO BY MARYANN KROMER These models depict the original First Christian Church and the present building.

In the 1960s, Doug DeVos walked past First Christian Church every day on his way to classes at Heidelberg College. He could not have known he would become the pastor of that congregation more than 30 years later.

As 2016 draws to a close, the church is preparing to celebrate its 125th anniversary in Tiffin and its 25th year at its current site at 2016 S. CR 19. Sunday, past and present families, singers, music directors and pastors are invited to attend the 9:30 a.m. worship and communion service, followed by a dinner in the Fellowship Hall.

“Linda and I are preparing it,” DeVos said. “We’re going to get together and remember the past. Our building committee, most of them are still living.”

During DeVos’ college days, First Christian Church was located on East Market Street, next to what now is East Tower. Because of high enrollment at Heidelberg in the mid-1960s, the junior and senior men had to live in approved apartments off-campus. DeVos and a handful of his fraternity brothers lived above the Tiffin Beauty Academy.

“I walked past the church every day. … The Lord works in mysterious ways,” DeVos said.

First Christian is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, but the pastor explained each church is autonomous. The elders direct each congregation, with a pastor as a figure head. Conservative and scripturally based, the church has no creed or doctrine per se. Everyone is free to practice their own beliefs, based on the Bible.

“We are anti-racist, pro-reconciling. That’s the goal of the whole Disciples of Christ. That opens up a lot of doors,” DeVos said. “My goal, apart from bringing people into the church — bringing people to Christ — is to take care of those who have known him and loved him throughout their lives.”

With some difficult years behind them and “excellent lay leadership,” the congregation “has reinvented themselves” and rebounded with DeVos at the helm. He estimates his following at about 125 members. Several are in their 90s, while others are young families with children.

“It’s a marvelous congregation,” he said.

DeVos is pleased with the way members show concern for one another. Recently, a woman lost her home when an auto crashed into it. The congregation gathered gift cards to present to that member. DeVos regularly visits shut-ins, and other members take time to call or look in on them, as well.

“That’s really what makes a church,” DeVos said, “where people care about each other and support each other.”

DeVos’ daughter is a full-time paramedic for the Bellevue area, so the pastor has a special interest in the needs of first responders. The media has carried numerous reports of violence against these professionals, who must deal with countless emergency situations, including drug overdoses. DeVos recognizes the pressure these professionals endure every day.

“We put the flags up. We remember these people every time we gather, because they’re on the front lines of this fatal tragedy the country’s going through right now,” he said.

For community outreach, First Christian hosts an Alcoholics Anonymous group every Wednesday at noon. To promote ecumenism, DeVos participates in the Ministerial Association and offers services once a month for residents of Elmwood at the Shawhan and Seneca House. Also, he has been collaborating with the Family of Faith Lutheran congregation for a joint Vacation Bible School and other projects.

In every ministry, DeVos said he emphasizes the need for prayer. He invites his congregation to voice their prayer concerns and maintains a prayer list on the church’s website.

“The church cannot survive unless we know how to pray and feel free enough to pray … That’s the key that keeps churches alive,” DeVos said.

Biography of a pastor

The Rev. Doug DeVos grew up in Rochester, New York, and came to Tiffin at the insistence of his high school music teacher. A Heidelberg graduate herself, she spoke highly of the music program at her alma mater.

“I was a student of Dr. (Ferris) Ohl,” DeVos said. “He was like a dad to me. We still go up to the Shawhan to see him and Dorothy … They brought music to Tiffin, I think.”

After graduating from Heidelberg in 1970, DeVos earned a master of divinity at McCormick Seminary in Chicago. He worked several years as a Presbyterian pastor and then 35 years as a Lutheran pastor. In 1989, DeVos moved to Marblehead, to lead a church there. He also started renewing his Tiffin ties.

“I came back to Heidelberg and just took a couple of courses in counseling. Before I knew it, I’d finished the master’s in counseling (in 1996), and then they invited me to teach there for a while,” DeVos said.

When his first wife died, DeVos retired from ministry, moved to Castalia, and went to work for Kent Tong in Tiffin. A member of First Christian, Tong said his church was struggling with a series of interim pastors. He knew DeVos had been a minister.

“He said … ‘Would you come over and give us a hand for a couple of weeks?’ That couple of weeks has now morphed into 13 years,” DeVos said.

At first, DeVos declined. He had a full-time position with Tong’s; however, he “loved the people” of the congregation. As time went by and a permanent pastor had not been found, DeVos was asked again. He agreed to take on the “pastor duties” if the elders would “run the church.”

Modern technology allows DeVos to post messages and information online and to record his sermons on CDs for those who can’t get to church. He can work from home, yet stay connected with his flock.

“They know they can call me 24/7. We can be here in 30 minutes,” DeVos said.

In addition, his return to the community reconnected DeVos with former Heidelberg graduates, one of which he married. Linda DeVos is a retired Columbian High School band director. Together, they have eight grandchildren.

The couple and three other Heidelberg music alumni lead the music ministry at First Christian. The organist has been with the church 35 years. DeVos said the generosity of the congregation has funded the purchases of a new organ and baby grand piano.

“We believe music is the key God uses to open up the heart,” DeVos said.