When the Relationship with Dad Is Difficult
David T. Novak is an Assemblies of God pastor in south Sacramento. His minister father, Bobby Novak, trod nearby turf before him, planting an AG inner-city church in California’s capital. Dave preached his 80-year-old father’s funeral in March.
But unlike many such services, Dave didn’t wax eloquently about the great rapport the two men enjoyed. On a platform above his father’s open casket, he spent much of the message transparently describing the complicated and prickly nature of their relationship — and the deficiencies that developed as a result.
The discord began to mellow a bit only near the end of Bobby’s life as his health failed from diabetes, neuropathy, prostate cancer, bone cancer, and an eventual heart attack that hastened his death.
On his final night alive, Bobby finally, tenderly, uttered the words his son had craved for 45 years: I love you.
Dave came to comprehend why his father had such a struggle offering admiration and affection.
Bobby had been abused and abandoned by multiple father figures: his biological father married seven times. After being placed in a Chicago orphanage, Bobby went to live with an uncle — who repeatedly beat him with hoses.
In all, Bobby spent 13 years incarcerated. Bobby became a heroin addict, drug pusher, and gang leader, locked up nearly a dozen times, starting at age 13, usually for burglary and armed robbery. He had been involved in car chases and running gun battles in the streets. A passerby yanked him back onto a sidewalk as Bobby prepared to commit suicide by jumping from a freeway overpass. While still a teenager, Bobby’s parents dropped him at Skid Row in Los Angeles, saying, This is where you belong.
However, Bobby became a Christian in prison, and for two years unabashedly proclaimed the gospel to fellow inmates. Released from custody for the final time at the beginning of 1975, Bobby married a woman with a similarly troubled past. Dave came into the world at the end of that year.
Bobby paroled to a residential halfway house called Prison Ministries Center in Sacramento. He later became director of the facility.
Life at home proved rocky. Ultimately, among his parents’ other relationships, Dave had nine half-siblings, but only one full-blooded sister from the union between his father and mother. His parents divorced when Dave was 5, and initially Dave lived with his mother.
But at the age of 8, Dave went to stay with his dad, who by then had remarried. Wanda represented a far different background than Bobby: a virtuous young woman from a small town who had graduated from Bethany Bible College and become a missionary in Belize.
Like many ministers, Bobby threw himself into his work. In 1983, he founded Neighborhood Outreach Church, an AG congregation in downtown Sacramento. Up to 700 children came on a children’s ministry program on Saturdays.
Bobby likewise reached out to adults with compassion, helping drug addicts find deliverance and prostitutes start a new life in the low-income neighborhood.
Such benevolence didn’t extend to the family home. Dave didn’t receive hugs or affirmation.
“Ministry consumed the rhythm of our home,” Dave remembers. “I was never celebrated. But I always knew when I had messed up.”
With such a background, it may seem odd that Dave followed in his father’s footsteps.
“I didn’t want to be in ministry,” Dave recalls. “But it was in me to be a minister.”
Following youth pastorates in nearby West Sacramento and Lodi, as well as Chicago, Dave eventually planted an AG church in Sacramento — just as his father had.
Dave met his wife, Lori, at Harvest Church in Elk Grove. The couple, who wed in 1999, have two children, 18-year-old Leah and 16-year-old Titus. In 2008, Dave and Lori founded Streamline Church. Lori heads the kid’s ministry.
Despite both being in the ministry, the father and son went through lengthy periods without speaking to each other. When they did talk, too often they uttered cutting remarks. Yet through it all, Dave learned to appreciate the Christian education he received and the work ethnic his father instilled.
“We never reached the point of completely mending our ups and downs,” Dave says. “My dad loved from a deficit, the best way he knew how, without having received love himself.”
Bobby resigned as a pastor to be the full-time caregiver to Wanda in 2000, when she received a multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Wanda died in 2012 after 31 years of marriage to Bobby.
Dave is grateful he emulated his father’s devotion to the ministry instead of falling into a life of crime and drugs. At the funeral, Dave acknowledged that the two had reconciled at the end. On his last day on earth, Bobby tightly gripped Dave’s hand and at last expressed pride in his son’s ministry and family.
“I loved my dad for the dad he wanted to be, and the dad he was slowly becoming,” Dave said in the funeral message. “When we focus on the love we missed, it only comes with bitterness.”
Samuel M. Huddleston, a member of the AG’s 21-member Executive Presbytery as well as assistant superintendent of the AG’s Northern California-Nevada District, commends Novak for his respectful candor at the funeral.
“The transparency was healing for Dave, but it was also honoring for his dad,” says Huddleston, who closed the service. “I’ve never heard such honest remarks at a funeral.”
Huddleston met Bobby Novak in 1976. He and Bobby later conducted follow-up prison ministry together. Huddleston has known Dave for 17 years.
“God gives the strength and the wherewithal to deal with the past,” Huddleston says. “Too many times, we try to move on without dealing with it.”