Sunday, October 16, 2016

Oct. 16, 2016, column:

Wheelers' faith: An Amarillo legacy

By Mike Haynes
            You might say that Roy Wheeler built Hillside Christian Church.
            Of course, he would say the Lord built it, and he’d be right. But consider this:
            Many years ago, Amarillo residents Jim and Laura Sims had visited Paramount Terrace Christian Church, the forerunner of Hillside, a few times. While on vacation, Jim was involved in a gas leak at the house where they were staying, and his hands were burned badly. Jim was taken to Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where he was treated and began recuperating.
            Meanwhile, Paramount Terrace Senior Minister Roy Wheeler was on a church trip. While at
Roy and Elnore Wheeler
the Dallas airport changing planes, he called in to his assistant, Pat Strickland, who had heard about Jim Sims’ accident, and she told Roy about it.
            Roy skipped his connecting flight and rushed to Parkland Hospital to see this man who had been visiting the church. The relationship was strengthened, Jim recovered, and before long, Jim and Laura Sims were members of PTCC.
            Fast forward to the mid-2000s. PTCC leaders had decided to leave the location on Mays Avenue near Western Street for the corner of Hillside and Soncy and change the church’s name to reflect the move. Architect Jim Sims was the primary designer of the new building.
            The physical structure is one thing, but Roy’s visit to an injured man who wasn’t even a member of the church is just one of a multitude of personal connections he made that resulted in a small, independent Christian congregation growing into a megachurch. The senior minister from 1966 to 1999, he remained active in ministry until his health started declining. But during those 33 years, he was a go-getter.
              “I would make two or three appointments three or four nights a week for him,” Strickland recalled. “Roy would go to their homes and meet people, and many of them joined the church. They felt the love he exuded from the pulpit, plus his personal contact with them.”
            Roy and Elnore Wheeler, both turning 85 next month, quietly left Amarillo this summer almost exactly 50 years after they arrived from Missouri. Because of health issues, they moved close to their son, Rick Wheeler, who leads a church in Derby, Kan. Another son, Randy, is a minister in Michigan. Oldest son Ron preached for a while but would up doing work such as designing an operational system for Dallas Area Rapid Transit.
          Of course, Hillside had a going-away reception, but the Wheelers’ exit didn’t get the community attention that, for example, the late Dr. Winfred Moore did at milestones in his life. A friend told me he thinks Roy’s influence on Amarillo for half a century rivaled that of the First Baptist legend, bringing “a church that wasn’t going anywhere” into the status of a megachurch.
            Ironically, what made the megachurch was the personal touch.
            Longtime Sunday school teacher Jim McKee said his wife, Lana, remembers she always got a “Roy hug” every time he saw her. The McKees first visited PTCC in 1985, looking for “a nondenominational church that was soundly Bible-based,” Jim McKee said. “We immediately wanted to join, so Roy came to our home to speak with us and answer questions. We joined the next Sunday.”
            Another former assistant, Diana Schmidtman, and her family preceded the Wheelers at PTCC. She was a charter member in 1955. “The way he endeared himself to my family was when my brother, a jet pilot, had his plane shot down in 1968,” Schmidtman said. “Roy was just so wonderful to our family. If we didn’t like him before, we loved him after that.”
            “Roy’s idea of the church was that it’s a hospital for the hurting,” Strickland said. “It didn’t make a difference what your background was or where you came from. He loved people and wanted to tell them about the Lord.
            “If he was in the pulpit and saw somebody in the audience he didn’t know, after church he would go through the guest cards. If they didn’t fill out a card, he would tell me to find out who they were the next time.
            “He loved to know everything about everybody that he dealt with.”
            In some ways, Elnore Wheeler was a typical minister’s wife, supporting her husband and leading church activities. But she really wasn’t typical.
            “She was such a caring, people person,” Strickland said. “Her heart was in missions. If she couldn’t go, she sent money. She taught in the women’s prison, and she went to Russia several times with Roy. I think she helped in an orphanage at Chernobyl.”
            Anyone who spent much time at the church between Sundays knew Elnore’s impact.
            “We always knew Elnore to be a quiet servant,” Jim McKee said, “reaching out and helping kids and the downcast. She always worked behind the scenes. Things would get done somehow, but if you backtracked to the source, very often you would find Elnore Wheeler at the beginning.”
            Roy Wheeler has been well-known across the country, especially in independent Christian circles. He was a frequent conference speaker and in his heyday, he preached at two or three revivals a year in other churches. Strickland said he did mission work in Belarus 17 times, often with Elnore by his side. He baptized the parents of his Belarussian interpreter, Luda. He visited Jamaica many times to help minister friend Vincent Graham.  
            Roy’s fluid, measured speaking style, solidly scriptural but non-threatening, attracted thousands to the gospel – and to PTCC – over three decades. He said he favored “a positive approach to Christianity” but constantly challenged the congregation of his “undenominational” church with the idea that “God calls us all to be ministers if we’re Christians.”
            A factor in his 1999 retirement was his voice, which had begun fading with a rare vocal cord condition. But when his preaching became rare, he kept his eyes and ears open for people who were hurting.
            “There’s no one like him,” Schmidtman said. “If you were ever in trouble, he’s the one you wanted. He was a great shepherd.”
            “He was a lover of people and wanted them to know the Lord,” Strickland said.
            Roy and Elnore, those of us whom you’ve touched thank you.