Reflections from Friends

Al Helder made a lasting impact on the lives of many people.  This page is a tribute to the life-giving messages he shared week in and week out.

It’s important to know how people have integrated Al’s teachings into their personal lives. As much as he loved to preach, he also wanted to make a difference. He struggled with his own flaws and imperfections but they made him who he was and why he was so good at what he did. He saw the Christian life as an ongoing process.  “Becoming” was the word he used.  I’ve asked several people how Al’s teachings and beliefs manifested or played out in their daily lives. Responses will be personal and are probably going to be all over the map. 


(An excerpt from a Christmas card that meant a lot to me re Al’s ministry at New West CRC in the late 90’s.)

December 2014

Dear Sandy,

This time of year is certainly not the only time we think of you.  In fact it is amazing how often you and Al come to mind as we discuss certain topics where our thinking has changed or even certain actions that we would have not done in the past.  You two have had and are still having a tremendous influence on our lives…and I would say all for the better!  Thanks!  I can say we are very grateful for that for sure.

Chuck and Margaret Gerber

Surrey Hills, Canada


Many people still refer to Al as a great person and friend.  But it was also very special to hear that after all these years, his Biblical teachings and preaching still influence people’s lives.

Al was my pastor and good friend.  As my pastor he was an excellent teacher, compassionate listener and counselor and skillful leader.  He led with honesty and integrity.  His messages challenged me to think (outside of that box), go beyond my comfort zone and to study the Bible in the proper context.  And always, there was no more important theme than God’s abundant grace in our lives.

But it was as my friend that he impacted me the most.  Al was never afraid to share the stories of his life with me.  He had not had a picture perfect life and like all of us he wasn’t without fault.  He had been to the bottom and back which made him that good listener and counselor – and he had experienced firsthand the full power of God’s grace in his own life when he came to accept it.  I was always impressed hearing how he handled himself in dire situations but it wasn’t until I personally witnessed it myself did I fully see how that grace translated to his relationship with others.  Al had a situation where most people, myself included, would have lashed out.  To me it was unforgivable – in fact I’m still not over it.  He was angry and he was honest about that anger but where most would have wanted revenge Al rose above.  He confronted it openly and with love.  There was truly not a better example of a person extending the grace God had given him to those who had hurt him.   A beautiful lesson learned.  Anyone can speak the words but Al gave it his best shot to live them.



I don’t understand divine appointments.

I don’t know how God works out His mixture of purpose, plan, and free will. Somehow He uses lifetimes of crazy choices and the arc of His vision to orchestrate the intersection of two lives at a specific time and place. I don’t have to know how it happens. I’m only profoundly grateful that God made a divine appointment in 1981 for Al Helder and me.

I remember the first time Al proclaimed one of his favorite lines, “Nobody’s here by accident.”

I didn’t get it. I thought he meant everyone in the room was supposed to know their precise purpose. I figured I was the only person who had no idea why he was there, so I kept my head down and hoped no one would ask.

I’ve since learned it’s not my job to know why God does what He does. It’s my job to follow Jesus in love and grace and let God take care of the results. I learned that during my decade-long divine appointment.

I learned other stuff from Al. I learned Jesus was a person, not a theology, and He liked me and I could know Him and talk to Him. I learned it wasn’t about pretending to be perfect, but about facing my flaws. I learned Jesus was less about rules and more about the freedom to love.

I learned pastors are regular guys with the same fears and flaws as everyone else. That realization has served me as I’ve watched others place pastors on impossible pedestals.

I learned God sees my gifts, not my mistakes. I didn’t learn that lesson instantly or completely—I’m not sure anyone does. But I needed it badly, and I think it’s a message you can only hear from the right teacher.

I learned friends can tell you tough truths. I learned it’s all about relationships, and in that context trust and honesty are essential. I learned nobody gets those right all the time, so it’s important to lean toward grace.

I learned, through a tragic injury, the Jesus doesn’t allow our circumstances to define us. I’d heard those words, but in long conversations in a hospital room Al helped me understand their reality. Al was “Jesus in blue jeans” when I was ready to give up. Because of his gentle, committed friendship in a horrible time I’ve survived, thrived, and lived a meaningful life in a wheelchair for more than 25 years.

I learned, through Al’s personal struggles, that the gospel is big enough. When it seems like circumstances overwhelm our ability, God’s grace and promise to work for good is bigger than whatever or whomever we face.

As I reflect, I realize I learned mostly hard lessons from Al. I think that’s how it is with great teachers and divine appointments—they don’t need to show up for the easy stuff.

It was a casual coffee shop conversation, just friends chatting about nothing special. “So sad to hear about Al Helder’s passing” dropped into the conversation. I couldn’t breathe, tears filled my eyes. He could tell he’d surprised me.

“I’m sorry. I assumed you knew.”

I choked on a single word. “When?”

“About six months ago.”

He shared some details I didn’t hear. I returned to my truck and sat in numb silence. I wanted to contact Sandy, Chris, and Chad, but what could I say after six months?

Now I read my friend’s words compiled on a Facebook page. He never made it easy. I wish I could stop him, ask questions, seek further explanation of a difficult point. I think he chuckles as I read and re-read and try to recall principles not always understood during late night discussions.

Thank you, my friend. I’m still learning.

-Rich (February 2014)


Thinking back and focusing deeply on Al brings such joy and such sadness. I am joyful and grateful for our relationship and still so sad that he is no longer here to nurture and enlighten my soul as my pastor. Al was unique in that he was “every man” and “every woman,” and at the same time able to stay a rung above on the spiritual ladder, while remaining completely present…an amazing combination of gifts.
He was ever ready to ask the right question at the right time which, in my experience, opened me to a higher level of consciousness and spiritual growth. We shared the common bond of being raised by alcoholic mothers and the challenges that brings to children, no matter the chronological age one becomes. We were fortunate to have many arm-chair visits (coffee always) in our home during which time we wandered many paths together.
Al’s sermon series on “The Land Between” was especially meaningful to me and coincided with one of his drive-by visits. (“The Land Between” is a “place where everything that has become normal is interrupted” per Al, and sooner or later, we will all enter it.) All of his sermons were rich with food for thought, but this one was literally tangible. As we talked about Al’s belief that God carries us through the challenges faced in this Land—that He is always with us, no matter what our circumstances—I was suddenly struck by the sense of a puzzle piece falling from above, coming to rest into my heart. Al picked up on that instantly and gently asked me, “Tell me about the puzzle piece.” I will always remember his face at that moment, intently listening to me and validating me as I put together a lost memory, one that I had searched for over many years. It was a wonderful healing experience for me and one that Al rejoiced in, as well.  He remarkably indicated it had some healing properties for him, too.
Al Helder’s spirit, teachings, great combination of humanity and theology live on in our memories and reflections of this wonderful, inspired man whose booming laughter echoes over the universe and whose mind and heart knew no bounds. His thirst for greater knowledge was endless and his ability to share his insights was like rain on a dry, drought-stricken landscape.
-Sally(February 2014)



I will never forget the first time we met and shook hands. I knew instantly that an important relationship was already happening. He had just finished leading a Sunday morning service as our new Interim Minister and was walking down the side aisle when we met. I do not remember the sermon but I will always remember the messenger.

Al was God’s messenger extraordinaire. He helped bring the scriptures to life with vital meaning and purpose. He was not afraid to connect his life experiences with his awareness of God at work through his journey and all us “journeyers” who had the privilege of knowing him. He very transparently allowed his difficult experiences growing up to shed light on our Creator and the realities of our world. He had the courage to transcend hardened literalness with the Word and bring the life giving light of faith, hope, and love into the worship experience. I, having been a pastor myself with a more liberal theology, felt nurtured, fed, and highly challenged to keep growing as his insights kept knocking at the door of my soul. Worship was lively and consistently meaningful.

Al was a consummate spiritual guide and leader with great vision about the purpose of the church in this world. I will never forget how he would baptize an infant and then walk the aisle introducing the new life by name to the congregation. It was a powerful and very personal experience for the whole church as he sought to unite the congregation in compassionate and loving spiritual community and servanthood.

Powerfully present, gone too soon. I have been touched and blessed by this man of God.

-Charley (January 2014)


I reread Al’s “Reflections of a Son” for the umpteenth time again this morning and the eyes of my own mind just see Al driving past the Iowa cornfields as those thoughts went through his head.  The love, the disappointment, the hate, the role reversals – all of it so true.  But as I go tearfully through it, I’m not reading Al’s conflicted feelings about his parents – I’m reading my own feelings about mine. To me, being able to immerse myself into the same feelings is one of the beautiful things about the poem.  And at the end, I again realize kids are just plain stuck with their parents.  But, even so, it is ok – because it is the last paragraph that really says it all.  If only someone had explained it to me when I was a kid.

-Tom (January 2014)


It’s hard to separate Al, the pastor, from Al, the friend.  Granted we live what we believe to be true, and Al had an extreme impact on the truth I came to know as Christianity.  So much came to life as we experienced our friendship over the years.  My life, today, is what it is because Al was my friend and pastor when I experienced some of the worst struggles of my life.  I thank the Lord for Al’s wisdom, his patience, and his ability to see what was really going on and for calling a spade, a spade.  When I first went back to church in 1987, talk about church leadership that reflected the early church!  They were legalistic and judgmental.  After coming to the PCC church in Honolulu, Al showed me another side of what Christianity, when practiced as our Lord and the Bible proclaims, can be and is.  Al was accepting of where I was and whatever I had previously suffered either at the hands of the church, folks I had befriended, or by my own hand.  He was there to assist in my healing. He encouraged living in the here and now, seeking out Lord’s will for my life, and most importantly living and believing that our Lord really had some grand plans for me. Jer 29:11

-Gaylien (January 2014)


Let me start by saying that having Al Helder as a pastor, working with him side by side as the church secretary, and spending many evenings together drinking wine at the Boathouse restaurant along with our spouses, shaped my faith life in a profound way.

In preparation for his move to California, while packing up his office at the First Christian Reformed Church of New Westminster, Al was thinning out his collection of books. I inherited a beautiful little assembly of poems and writings by Robert Raines entitled “Living the Questions”. I remember each page was bordered with a pale yellow stain, I expect due to years of exposure to Al’s nicotine habit. The author wrote in his foreward: “This book is comprised of my pressing questions of recent years. I have gone through divorce and remarriage, change of job and geographic location, changing relationship with parents and children, and the breaking and remaking of my self-image and my image of God. My questions come out of the particular pain and promise of this period of my life. Perhaps some of them will be useful to you in naming and living your own questions.” I wonder to this day what truths, insights or comfort Al gleaned from those pages.

During those years that Al and I worked together we would spend our breaks standing out back of the church building having a smoke. (He loved his cigarettes, and I was an on-again, off-again smoker at the time).  I would pepper him with questions about all kinds of theological musings and he would honour me by engaging in deep conversations about all things spiritual. But sometimes, he would take a long puff of his cigarette, look down at the ground and hunch his shoulders in that very “Al-like” way, exhale out of the corner of his mouth, look at me over top of his glasses and utter these words: “I don’t know Carolyn. I’m not smart enough to figure this stuff out.”  Al was comfortable with “living the questions”.  I loved that about him. He allowed for a large, uncontainable expanse of grey in his life.  And no question was ever taboo. He was what I term as “unshockable”. No matter what I threw at him he never once covered his mouth and gasped that I had the nerve to ask such a thing.

As I reflect back on my life, I have always been uneasy with pat answers and platitudes some Christians provided when I asked the question “why”. But Al rarely, if ever, gave me answers.  He was sort of rabbinic that way, often responding to a question with another question, prodding me to think about things differently, or to think period!  I would say that my experience with Al during those years, coupled with reading the works of a few new authors on the Christian literature scene (one of whom pointed out that the word “Christian” makes a terrible adjective) saved me from giving up on Christianity all together. I needed a faith that embraced my questions, and also one that embraced my imperfections.

That brings me to another book that Al and I discussed often, and that was foundational in shaping my own spirituality; “The Spirituality of Imperfection: Story Telling and the Journey to Wholeness”. To this day I consider that book one of the most formational I have ever read.  Al seemed to be able to embrace his own weaknesses and imperfections, and I think that allowed him to preach the way he did, and provide a safe place for people to unburden their own shame, guilt and pain.  He loved people in a way that I will never be able to. He listened to their stories in such a way that they felt heard, and he had a gift for asking the right questions to help people forge their way forward towards wholeness.

And Al was consistent in his message. He always preached grace from the pulpit, and one-on-one he made people feel loved, and worthy and important. (Unless you pissed him off with an attitude like that of the Pharisees in which case you may remember Al rather differently than I do. He had a righteous anger that, if fanned into flame, could be somewhat intimidating.) He loved his God, and he loved the work of sharing that love with God`s people. And he did it in such a way that left lots of room for growth, for exploration, for imperfection and for oodles of questions.

Al shaped how both my husband Stuart and I tend to respond when people in our lives share their questions, or doubts, or stories of imperfection. We tend to be unshockable, and I attribute that in part to the influence of Al’s teaching and mentoring. He provided a safe place for people to throw everything on the table for examination.

Stuart and I recently downsized and moved into a smaller home. In the process of packing I was thinning out my own collection of books. It took me some time to make up my mind, but “Living the Questions”, the tattered, hand-me-down book with Al’s handwriting in the margins, finally ended up in the in the give-away box. I guess everything has a life cycle and it was time to pass that piece of “Al memorabilia” on to someone else. But the title, and what it represents, will never leave me. God is big enough to handle all my questions, doubts, fears, failures and imperfections. And he loves me anyway. When I think of God’s love I remember what it felt like to be swallowed up in one of Al’s great big bear hugs. Warm, safe and loved, even if I was a mess on the inside.

-Carolyn (January 2014)