If you grew up in the Assemblies of God in Montana in the last 30+ years, you know who Keith Elder was to so many of us. But for those of you who haven’t been blessed by growing up in the Rocky Mountains and the Big Sky, let me take a moment and tell you about a legend that passed on to Heaven this week. A man that altered every day of my life since the day I met him.
Keith Elder was the District Youth Director in my state for over 25 years. He practically lived for a church camp in Hungry Horse, Montana called Glacier Bible Camp. There was only one Assembly of God camp in the state, so hundreds of teens made the trek every summer to youth camp. I didn’t grow up in a Christian family, but I faithfully went with my friend to camp every summer. Keith was my “pastor” for that week of camp and was one of the few voices in my Christianity through junior high. He never knew he carried that weight, but man, he carried it well.
I hope that one of the stories that Jesus will tell Keith in Heaven is about me. I hope so because I am forever grateful for every day he devoted to teenagers.
When I stepped off the bus for camp, I am sure my suitcase weighed more than body. I remember Keith like it was yesterday. He was the largest man I had ever seen. His hands were as enormous as his heart. He called all of us “Suckers” and had a twinkle in his eye that was unmistakable. He had this amazing grin that made him seem like God was directly telling him all about you in the moment he was looking in your eyes.
I can remember in subsequent years of camp sitting on the bus, desperately hoping we got there quickly because I needed a hug from Keith. My home life was heavy and my spirituality was weary. It was in his giant arms that Jesus became big enough again to get me through another year. I know that my faith should have been in Christ alone, but for this young girl, I needed his bear hug to let me know that I was going to make it.
I never missed his camp through junior high or high school. In fact, I went back every summer of my college years to visit and to serve. I was a cabin staff and on a drama team for Keith just weeks before my wedding day. I loved Glacier Bible camp with an appreciation that is difficult to describe and I loved Keith equally as much.
In high school, I volunteered to come to help at a week of Kid’s camp. I was young and in charge of a cabin full of difficult girls. One night after the chapel service all of my girls left to go to the snack shack and I stayed in the all-too-familiar chapel. Almost everybody was gone, but the worship team was still playing music in the background. I knelt at the altar…I had been there many times before. It was at that altar that I first accepted Jesus and He wiped away my sins. It was at that altar that God replaced a heart of anger with a heart of joy. I would be baptized in the Holy Spirit there and it would be in those moments that I would learn to worship. Many of my tears from so many years stained the carpet under where I was kneeling.
And then again I began to cry a deep, painful cry. Sobs shook my body and it was as if I could feel all of the hurt from all of the girls in my cabin that week. Keith came over to pray with me. At first he thought my tears were my own….birthed out of sin and shame. He had been with me over the years with those feelings as well, but my puffy, red, tear streaked eyes looked up at him and said through a cracked voice, “I just want them to know Jesus.”
His eyes softened and he chuckled under his breath. I can still hear that chuckle if I close my eyes. He knew then what I didn’t know…God had given me a heart for ministry.
Keith put his large hands on my head that night and prayed for me. Little did I know that every other dream I would ever have would become mute in light of what God did in that moment. I would spend my life devoted to telling others about Jesus.
Keith would go on to honor me with a D-CAP scholarship to Northwest Bible College. A D-CAP scholarship was the one scholarship that Keith chose himself. As the first and only Christian in my family, this was a rare gift that showed just how much Keith believed in me. I desperately needed someone to believe in me as I faced heading off alone to a private Christian college that I would need to pay for by myself.
Fast forward twenty years and I would be standing in a room with Keith at a conference. When the conference ended, I made a beeline to Keith. “My name is Stacy Newell. I grew up at Glacier Bible Camp, I graduated from Northwest College, I was in youth ministry for a decade, and now my husband and I have started a church. I just wanted to say Thank You because you believed in me.” And the same tears from decades past tumbled out of my eyes once again.
“I remember you.” Keith grinned, twinkled, and chuckled simultaneously.
And then he wrapped those big arms around me and the weariness of many years of ministry melted again. I sank into his strength and was grateful for the rock that he was in my life. That would be my last moment with him.
Thank you, Keith. Thank you for being faithful, for being strong, for being willing, and for seeing a skinny little girl with freckles as a great woman of God. I’ll do my best to make you proud.
We’ll see you soon…
To share your own story of Keith’s impact on your life, please visit the Facebook page set up for tributes at www.facebook.com/acokewithelder