When I was in the 8th grade, I was really bored of the “tiptoe-deep” teaching that was present among most teachers that taught my age group and needed to move up to the high school youth group to keep growing spiritually. Because I was in 8th grade, but was held back and was the age of a freshman in high school, this caused a bit of a stir. For a week or two, my sister, Rachel Ruiz-Austin, tried to convince the high school leaders to allow me to jump ahead to the high school youth group and show them that I was mature enough to attend that youth service for the highschoolers.
Eventually, Joel Wheelersburg, who was the high school senior youth pastor at the time said yes and the rest is history. Yet, I met Joel Wheelersburg just a little earlier before I ever went to the youth group that he led. I actually met him on a bad note when I was sent by my Mom to go help him around the church as punishment for being disobedient at home.
Growing up, I didn’t usually get in that much trouble. This time it was serious and funnily enough, I don’t even remember what I did to deserve this unusual punishment. Regardless, I walked from my house to the church, which was a mile away, and met up with Joel who knew my Mom had sent me to clean around the church during a summer weekday. I only knew him as my older brother’s pastor, but now in that moment I knew him as the mean pastor because he had me do all sorts of maintenance.
We started out by mopping all the concrete floors on all three levels, then doing the stairs on the way down, which led to us cleaning the bathrooms, scrubbing toilets and all, before ending with us sweeping the parking lot as we also picked up trash outside. After that day, I wasn’t necessarily his biggest fan when I walked back home. From there, I would a few months later attend the youth group he led and regularly go with my two older siblings.
At first glance, Joel looks like a punk rocker that accidentally walked into a lumberjack convention in Ohio. With his flannel shirts, flat billed “HE>i” hats, Reformed-style beard, and his sleeves of sound-doctrine tattoos, Joel has always looked like a bit of everything. He also happens to be the second ethnically ambiguous mentor in my life, next to Kevin King of course. I’m still unsure if he’s Asian or not. Whatever. Moving on!
After a while, Joel asked if I would start serving in the youth group as the sound guy during worship before and after service. I reluctantly said yes and as I progressed through high school, I became more and more involved with the high school ministry. This involvement in the high school ministry would lead to a close-knit relationship we would have over the years that emulated that of family. Brothers in the LORD and friends in the faith.
This dynamic truly grew when Joel asked if he could personally disciple me and I said “yes,” which led to several years of true discipleship. We went through a lot of books during that time frame because that’s what Calvary Chapel people do: book clubs. We read Encounter: Face to Face With Jesus (2010) by Skip Heitzig, The Man That God Uses (2003) by Chuck Smith, Second (1996) by L. E. Romaine, Standing Up in a Fallen World (2004) by Chuck Smith, and others I can’t recall at the moment. Besides reading the literary works of the patron saints of the Calvary Chapel Movement, we also did a lot of community outreach together as I learned from his example. We would go door-to-door as we handed out flyers for upcoming events at our church, share the Gospel at skate parks or concerts we went to with the high school ministry, regularly cleaned around the church together, and I tried my best to emulate his godly example as I grew in spiritual maturity.
Joel would invite the highschoolers to his own house, along with other youth group kids as we did community groups for the high school ministry during the summer. It was here, in his own element, that I was always and still am impressed by how consistent he lives his life as a Christian pastor. From what I could tell when I would shadow him was that whether we were with his family in his home or out at a homeless shelter serving the needy in Denver, he always remained the same person. There was and is no facade to Joel as far as I know him. He genuinely was himself in every situation and that openness really stuck with me to be more authentic with everyone, everywhere I go. It’s simple, but just be you. Authenticity is one of his greatest attributes and it’s an attribute that this introvert wishes he had more of as I see such value in transparency.
Sometimes, this transparency showed the good and the bad of his character. I was there for his loving rebukes and his moments of defeat in ministry. Watching as he dealt with the ups and downs that are always present in youth ministry. If he was mad, he showed it and it was obvious. If he was happy, he showed it and it was obvious. Either way, he doesn’t pretend to be something he is not and that is a very underrated characteristic these days in a world full of distorted realities.
Joel will forever be a father in the faith that I can look up to and I think his other students would agree that he is a good guy all around. His passion for Christ and proper study of God’s Word is impeccable, so too is his love for sharing the Gospel with the outcasts of society. As Christians, we have to have both book smarts and street smarts. Although, most of us have either one or the other. We either have the book smarts and know why we believe or we have the street smarts and show what we believe. Joel is one of the few believers that perfectly balances these two scales in Christian living. He has both an intellectual grasp of his faith and in the same respect lives out practically a Christ-led life.
Above all, Joel lives a Christ-centered life and his influence on my life cannot be understated. He taught me essential leadership skills, as well as how to serve God in all that I do. Whether it’s allowing me to teach a sermon, which he did have me do, or asking me to take out the trash because it needed to get done. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The leader leads and the boss drives” and Joel leads a life worth emulating. Thank you Joel for being a mentor that made me a man. With that, Godspeed and Jesus bless!