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Answering the Call

Widow Letty Stepp carries on as California church pastor a year after her husband's death.

As Bakersfield Christian Church (BCC) children's pastor, Letty Stepp accompanied elementary-aged kids to camp every year. But last year, unlike 2013, her husband David Stepp, the church's co-founder and senior pastor, stayed home.

As always, they spoke on the phone every day. That changed on the next-to-last day of the camp, June 30. David didn't answer her call.

On July 1 she returned home to find his car in the garage. Her husband of almost 34 years was not home. Nor was his motorcycle. No one at the church had seen him, either.

But "Find my iPhone" discovered a ping from his mobile device.

She called 9-1-1. But the police didn't consider the pastor's absence an emergency. Because the phone's signal came from neighboring Ventura County, it was out of their jurisdiction.

Accompanied by the church's creative arts pastor and that pastor's sister, Letty set off toward the winding road through desert mountains where an iPad had detected a signal from David's smartphone. On July 2, 2014, came the grim discovery of the body of the 61-year-old pastor at the foot of a cliff, his motorcycle beside him. A bent mile-marker stood by the sharp, gravel-strewn turn in the road above him that had no guardrail.

While much has changed in the year since David Stepp's tragic death, his vision endures for the church of 450 that he and Letty, 53, planted. The church's board of directors asked her to assume the church's senior pastorate.

"God is in control. I've seen His hand on everything," Letty says. "God will provide. He will take care. Whatever He brings, we face it and go through it. The Lord opened the door for me to continue."

Letty and David's individual journeys to Christ began on two continents. David's parents, William and Hazel Joyce Stepp, were career Assemblies of God world missionaries to South America. David grew up in Venezuela.

But at age 18, he left for the United States and left the Lord. By the late 1970s, he managed a restaurant in Brownsville, Texas, where he met Letty, who worked as a server. They began to date before he moved to Oklahoma, where his sister lived. In 1980 they married. At First Assembly of God of Oklahoma City, both Letty and David dedicated their lives to Christ.

Soon a church worker asked Letty to assist with the Rainbows preschool program. "David was the teacher, I was the helper," Letty recalls.

The Stepps became involved in church leadership simply by meeting a need in an area where the couple didn't necessarily have experience. After David's parents retired to California in 1984, the couple moved to a nearby community where David found work with the gas company. They joined First Assembly of God of Bakersfield, which had a Spanish-language Sunday School class. Within two weeks, the teacher asked David Stepp to lead the class. David fell back on his memories from growing up in Venezuelan churches. He brought in songs he sang as a teenager in youth groups.

"The next thing we knew, we had 100 people in Sunday School," Letty remembers. Within months, the class grew to 400.

Those in the class wanted a Spanish service and a pastor. David Stepp resisted the idea but brought requests to the church's head pastor.

"Every time they wanted something, the pastor said to give it to them," Letty says. "Finally David told him they need a pastor, and the pastor said, 'What about you?'" That caused David to do some soul-searching.

"He'd never thought about being a pastor," his widow says. "Neither he nor I thought about going that direction. We just wanted to minister. We prayed about it for a year."

At last, David left his job and went full-time into ministry. In 2001 Bakersfield Christian Church began Spanish services in an old movie theater. In 2008, he told his wife, then working at a brokerage firm, that he needed her help. She gladly agreed and became children's pastor.

David cast a vision that centered on meeting people's needs, both for those in the church and those outside. To that end, David wanted to launch a Christian school. He also wanted to meet the needs of Bakersfield residents through training, such as workshops on marriage and financial issues, as well as classes in both English and Spanish. While older church congregants' preferred language is Spanish, their children and grandchildren prefer English. Last year David added an English service.

"Little by little, his vision is being accomplished," Letty says. "I continue to follow the vision he had."

Yet after the board asked her to continue her husband's leadership, Letty acknowledges apprehension.

"It was because I didn't have my husband," she says. "He's the one that God used in a mighty way. I just prayed and cried out to God." At last she felt peace that the Holy Spirit was indeed calling her. Her ministry as senior pastor has proven a natural continuation.

"From the beginning, Letty was an integral part of the leadership, as she oversaw the administration support and served as the children's pastor as well," says Rich Guerra, superintendent of the SoCal Network Assemblies of God. "Under her leadership, the church has continued to thrive and grow. It has been a stretching time for Letty, but the Holy Spirit has given her the wisdom and knowledge necessary to continue their dream of reaching Hispanics in Bakersfield."

Letty plans to commemorate the somber first anniversary of her husband's death by taking a week off and uniting with family members. The church will hold a formal observance service Aug. 9.

A church member painted David's portrait, which will hang in the foyer, along with something else he wanted for the church.

"David's desire was have a world map in our lobby with our missionaries our church supports on it, to show that our church is a missions church and hopefully to help more of them," Letty says.


Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.