Parting Thoughts: In Ray Ruef, we learned influence is born out of love
By Josh Johnson
Splash Staff Column
It's said that life is simpler when you're young, but the truth is you are simpler when you're young.
When I was a boy, Ray Ruef was the minister in my parents' wedding photo. He was the guy making sure the eggs were hidden each Easter at the county park. He was the Wright Boulevard neighbor tasked with most of the talking at the Garry Road church. And every year around the time of the Apple Cup, he was the handler of a battery-powered stuffed husky that could do a flip when you turned it on. It was a prop he used to mock the Dawgs' common dominance over the Cougs - from the pulpit, no less! - a stunt that caused me to wonder what kept my WSU-graduate parents planted in the pews.
This was my 7-year-old perception of Pastor Ray. Three decades later, the same memories remain - but they have been deeply enriched.
I thought about this fact May 19, sitting next to my parents at a memorial service for Rev. Melvin Raymond "Ray" Ruef, who died last month at age 81. His obituary appears on page 38, and it tells of how he came to be the pastor of Liberty Lake Community Church 49 years ago. It lists myriad ways he has served the greater community since. Any stranger reading it could surmise that this was a man who made an impact.
Just how he made this impact, however, is what has left a lasting impression on me.
Longtime Laker Anton "Ras" Rasmussen was on the elder board that originally hired Ruef nearly half a century ago. I can recount several conversations I've had with Ras over the years where he, in his frank but humorous style, would point out that Sunday sermons were not Pastor Ray's calling card. Our modern-day culture often measures influence using barometers such as slick communication skills, social media followers and megawatt personalities. That's not influence; or if it is, it's a watered-down version of the traditional definition.
I like the way Ras described Pastor Ruef in an old Splash article:
"Ray really cares for people and has the gift of shepherding," Rasmussen said. "He helped build the church. He installed a food room for families in need. He collected clothing for people and established a fund to help people who were having hard times. He's a true pastor."
In a way, a pastor is everything a good friend should be, and Pastor Ray was certainly a good friend. He loved people. He looked for the good in people. And he was there for people. Boy, was he there.
At his memorial service, it was pointed out that Ruef officiated at approximately 1,500 funeral services and 500 weddings during a 50-year career, equivalent to about 30 funerals and 10 weddings annually.
Several people shared stories about how he comforted them during times of loss or rejoiced alongside them during times of celebration. There were stories - including one from my family - about how he was the first person at the hospital during a time of emergency or how he was a consistent visitor to the sick or the shut-in.
He loved people whether they gave to his church or even attended his church. In his words, also from a previous Splash article: "I know it was God's influence that brought me to Liberty Lake. I really got to love the people and encouraged them to love the word of God. I wanted people to know that I cared about them. I wasn't the greatest preacher, but I sure love the people of Liberty Lake."
Some say love is earned, but Pastor Ray's pattern seemed to be to love with gusto out of the gates and skip the part about measuring reciprocity. Love for him was hands-on, active and on purpose.
Rasmussen once recalled that "when (Pastor Ray) arrived in Liberty Lake, the first thing he did was help the bricklayer mix the mortar for the church."
He came to town with his sleeves rolled up, and the church he led was a true community center. The facility hosted Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Brownies, the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District, Liberty Lake Property Owners Association, AA, was a poll site for two voting precincts - it even housed a Central Valley kindergarten class for a year when space ran short in the district's facilities.
Pastor Ray continued to invest in the community late in life. He and his wife, Karen, were mainstays at the weekly senior lunch gatherings in Liberty Lake, and he encouraged seniors of all income levels to attend the gatherings for the camaraderie.
A few years ago, I had the honor of serving alongside him as one of the founding board members of the Liberty Lake Historical Society. Heritage was important to Pastor Ray, and not just here at the lake.
He and Karen enjoyed trips through Israel and Europe tracing biblical and family history - on his farmer parents: "They didn't expect anything to be provided, and if they didn't have enough, they just went without." Instead of relying on slide shows and trip reports, he encouraged others to engage in similar experiences, even leading many tours for seniors to travel together.
That was typical of Pastor Ray. Despite preaching hundreds of messages, his life was about showing, not telling. Indeed, at the memorial service, person after person spoke of his profound influence on their lives, but none of them did so by recalling a line from a Sunday sermon.
It's enough to make one introspective, a place I found myself the other day when recalling my boyhood memories of Pastor Ray. I've come to learn and appreciate that he was more than the man who officiated my parents' wedding. He was a mentor to my Mom and Dad in a way that made a profound impact on our own family heritage, spiritually as well as holistically. He didn't show up for a wedding day or a Sunday; he showed up day after day.
Pastor Ray was also more than the egg hunt coordinator; he was a man who loved Liberty Lake and believed "neighbors need to connect and take care of each other rather than living in isolation," as he and Karen once told The Splash.
As has been recounted, he was more than the guy who talked on Sundays at the church. He was the man who led in such a way that the church was a community sanctuary seven days a week.
Alas, I can even forgive him for being a Husky fan. He graduated from the University of Washington, after all, and he was able to develop a clever sense of humor despite such a lackluster education.
Joking aside, Pastor Ray had the ability to speak warm but candid advice without coming across as preachy or judgmental. Some of us have been programmed to believe this isn't possible, to believe that each should be left to their own equally acceptable perspectives. Pastor Ray held humbly but firmly to ideals and beliefs he felt were meant to be shared and discussed in the proper contexts, but not privatized.
It's this definition of influence I hope to take from the life of the first pastor I ever knew. He earned the ability to touch another human life without relying on words or raw talent.
Turns out, those methods are the easy route. Pastor Ray influenced thousands of lives because he purposefully, persistently and consistently loved people. Love like that - self-sacrificing love, being-present love, work-hard-at-it love - earns one the right to speak into another human heart, often without making a sound.
I sat in the pew enough times that I've got to believe I heard Pastor Ray recite 1 John 3:18: "Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth."
He probably shared the verse, but that's not how I got the message. Pastor Ray's life was his sermon.
In that respect, one would be hard-pressed to find a better preacher.
Josh Johnson is publisher of The Splash.