After four and a half years at Grand Canyon, Community Church Pastor Ed Purkey and wife Karen have begun a mobile retirement with first stops on the west coast.
"Our grown children live in California so we plan to spend some time there first," said Karen.
They left the park yesterday, heading for San Francisco in their new mobile home, where they will spend a couple of months near their first grandchild, a four-month-old boy. After that, they will go to San Diego where their daughter and her family live. The next stop after that will be in Karen's home state of Washington where the couple has family as well as friends from Ed's work in churches there.
"That's as far as we've planned," said Ed. "The nice thing about retirement is that you don't have to make a lot of plans."
Though the Purkeys had discussed retiring to a migratory lifestyle for some time, the retirement itself is about four years earlier than planned. They made the decision as Ed struggled with a long recovery from surgery in October of 2005 to remove a brain tumor.
I was out of circulation for three months," he said. "By May I was working full time and by mid-June, I hit the wall. It was this summer that we came to a realization that I couldn't work full time with the demands of a ministry. I can and do function, obviously, but the church, and ministry needs and deserves a full time, active, energetic minister."
They finalized their decision in August.
"It was an agonizing decision because we love the park, we love the canyon and we really love the people," said Ed.
He and Karen said the love in return became evident after his surgery.
"There was such an outpouring of love and concern and support form everybody, both in the congregation and the community at large," said Ed. "It was literally overwhelming, and gratifying."
"The support was just amazing and has been the whole time," Karen added.
Ed said that he will also miss the uniqueness of ministering at Grand Canyon,
"I enjoy the non-traditional setting, I enjoy outdoor worship and I enjoy the international visitors. Jesus said to go to all the world but in the national parks, the world comes to us."
The Purkeys arrived here in spring of 2002. Before that, Ed was a senior pastor in a large church in Everett, Wash.
"We had 29 meetings a month," he said. "I just got burned out."
He called the deputy director of Christian Ministries in the National Parks and was informed that the pastor at Grand Canyon had resigned the day before.
"He asked, 'Are you available?' and here we are," said Karen.
They had gotten got a taste of the simpler National Park ministry while Ed was still in seminary with summer stints in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. They also served in permanent ministry in Yellowstone.
Christian Ministries in the National Parks receives no government funding and is self sustaining.
"A lot of people talk about living on faith. For us, it's a reality," he said.
More than pastor
Along with bringing stability to a position that sees much turnover, Ed said that by necessity, his function has always extended beyond Sunday morning worship.
"I have been the community pastor as well as steward of the community assistance fund and food pantry," he said. "I do it on behalf of all of the churches. A lot of the new arriving employees and residents who are strapped, we provide emergency food and transportation. When the rangers call us, we help arrange emergency shelter for people who may need to leave a home because of domestic violence. In a bigger community, you'd have shelters, food banks, that kind of thing but we don't have that here."
He has also sought to be the community's pastor, touching lives through his involvement in Rotary and by having cute, little dogs that draw people into conversation.
"I go out my door and walk the dogs, and I get to know people who work in the park who aren't church people," said Ed. "It's not just the agenda of we want them to come to church, but we do want to be a service to people, whether they do or don't attend."
The Purkeys have also built a strong outreach to the international workers who come here.
"You have people from Thailand and Singapore, Chinese and Korean people, people from all over the world in worship," Ed said. "It's really been wonderful."
Karen added that they found much joy in opening their home and kitchen, providing a sense of family for young people far from home.
"I can't say how many Korean and Thai meals we've eaten," she said. "That's been a big part of our ministry, just helping them prepare home-cooked meals from scratch. We had a lot of fun."
They are also the base ministry that administers a memorial fund that provides foreign language Bibles for international workers.
"Word has gotten out gradually," said Ed. "They can call us and request bibles in their language. We distribute them for free. This will continue. We provide those Bibles to the 36 parks that have park ministries.
While he looks at some time for R and R, Ed said that he and Karen plan to return to ministry in some capacity down the road, most likely as a volunteer in other national parks. Christian Ministry in the National Parks relies heavily on volunteers.
"I don't see myself going back to a traditional church," he said. "I've been ruined."
Ed also plans to pursue incorporating guitar and electric bass into worship, and working on 12-step recovery materials for adult survivors of sexual abuse.
"I've done some writing of 12-step recovery programs for such persons," he said. "I want to pick it up again."
Long term, they are looking at road trips to parks in New Mexico, Utah parks and Arizona, as well as to Glacier and Yellowstone where they still have friends. Eventually they hope to travel cross country to the east coast.