Sunday, July 31, 2005

A test of faith

From: The Sun in San Bernardino

Bruce Nelson's day begins with a cocktail of prescription drugs, the Bible and his wife asking God to take from him the pain sown on a mission trip to India.

"Lord, I pray you will bring Bruce peace today,' pleads Cassie, sitting on the edge of their bed. "I pray you will heal his ailing body.'

Once finished, Bruce reaches for an empty urine jug on the nightstand. It's easier than getting to the toilet.

"And I don't stand. I sit when I pee – like a woman.'

This Wednesday is like most days since the San Bernardino resident contracted dengue fever on a church-sponsored trip two years ago.

His body's unusual reaction to the virus has cost him the use of his legs and his job as an assistant pastor at Calvary Chapel Rialto.

The church later offered him a position washing walls and scrubbing stalls. Because he uses a motorized wheelchair for mobility – and feeling humiliated – he declined the janitor job.

For the 54-year-old, every day is physically painful and emotionally exhausting.

"My physical and mental condition is nothing what it was like before I went on that mission. I was an athlete. I was a chaplain at the Rialto Fire Department. I did a lot of charity.

"Now I'm a cripple.'

His former boss, Senior Pastor Terry Hlebo, said Calvary could not afford to pay him for a job he couldn't do.

He accused Bruce of "trying to split the church.'

The dispute depicts one difficulty of running a place where finite wealth and infinite needs collide.

The church's personnel policy provides five days pay and medical expenses for an on-the-job injury – Bruce received his full salary and health benefits for almost three months. After that, he received the workers' compensation insurance to which his employer had contributed.

"Calvary Chapel did go above and beyond what was required,' said its attorney, Geniene Stillwell.

Still, dozens of families left Calvary because they believed the church's response was un-Christian.

Bruce became depressed.

Angry with God? At times. But not disillusioned.

Amid Bruce's darkness, he has found light – an outpouring of love and support, church members and elders lobbying that his $52,000-per-year position be held and his bills paid until his health returns.

"This is a black eye on the church. And somebody has got to speak to it and correct it. Because as long as they don't, this poor guy is in the same situation,' said Leonard Larson, who resigned as a church elder and left Calvary because of the way Bruce was treated.


For 11 years, Calvary Chapel Rialto was at the center of Bruce's life. There this prodigal son had found purpose after a decade using drugs and another recovering.

Hlebo hired him in 1992 to lead children's ministries, a role he seemed born for.

"The true test is if you're walking into a Wal-Mart and a kid yells, 'Hey, Pastor Bruce!'' Hlebo told The Sun's sister paper, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, in a 1998 profile of Bruce Nelson. "He loves the kids, and they know it. They feel they can talk to him.'

Bruce ran Sunday School. He planned summer and winter getaways. And, always the adventurer, he organized beach socials, ski retreats and mountain hikes.

On March 17, 2003, Bruce flew into Madras, India. It was a two-week mission trip that would change his life.

He and the team from Calvary took a train into the country, where Bruce said he ministered to children in rural villages. As far as furthering Christendom, he said, it was his "best trip.'

When Bruce returned to San Bernardino on April 2, he assumed his exhaustion was jet lag.

Three weeks later, he was hospitalized. He didn't work during the following five weeks.

On May 30, Bruce received an e-mail from Hlebo titled "Coming back to work.' It was four sentences long and appeared to have been written quickly:

"Bruce as of Today May 30 we will no longer be paying your salary. You need to contact disability or workman comp to find out what steps you need to take collect. We have been covering for two months. So if you have any questions give me a call.'

Bruce was shocked. He had no warning.

Hlebo's decision was fought by Larson, then treasurer of the church's board of directors.

"It's way beyond the law, it's how a Christian should behave, setting an example for others. How can you have a ministry if you don't set an example for others?' Larson said. "Compassion is the heart of the Gospel.'

Hlebo agreed to keep Bruce on the payroll until he began receiving checks from workers' compensation in early July, according to a letter Hlebo sent Bruce.

At that point, Larson left the church.

The relationship between Bruce and Calvary was already souring. It completely spoiled when Hlebo suspected Bruce was going to sue.

After the church stopped Bruce's salary, he asked that they keep his lights on and his water running.

The church denied his request because of Bruce's "apparent preparation of a civil suit,' according to a July 24, 2003, letter from Assistant Pastor Fred Ruiz, written on behalf of Hlebo.

The Bible states in 1 Corinthians Chapter 6 that Christians should not take their disputes to "court before the unrighteous.'

But Bruce has not sued and said he does not intend to.

Hlebo, however, said he believes Bruce is responding to his sickness with sin.

"He is bitter. He is angry. And he doesn't want God in his life,' Hlebo said in a brief phone conversation.

Hlebo declined requests for an extended interview.

The church's attorney, Stillwell, claimed Bruce was hostile and made unreasonable demands – and said Calvary had provided him with more than the law requires.

In November 2003, the Nelsons contacted Don McClure, then director of Calvary Chapel Outreach Fellowship, which oversees pastoral issues for the 1,100 Calvary Chapels worldwide, including about 200 in Southern California. The office has little authority, though, because Calvary Chapel is a nondenominational network of churches, and each has its own articles of incorporation and bylaws.

"They seemed pretty angry and bitter, but at the same time, it seemed like the church was doing everything it could to help,' said McClure, now senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Laguna Beach.

He said Hlebo has a "great' reputation.

"Of all the people to accuse of not being compassionate, he's the least likely one,' McClure said.

Five months later, in April 2004, a workers' compensation doctor cleared Bruce to return to work. Restrictions included "preclusion from heavy work,' according to a letter from GuideOne Insurance.

Bruce's doctor, Michael Ing at Jerry L. Pettis Memorial Veterans Medical Center in Loma Linda, insisted his patient was incapable of working then and remains unable to today. But after receiving $27,864 from workers' comp – about half Bruce's salary – the checks stopped May 19, 2004.

Under California labor law, Calvary was required to offer Bruce a job within 15percent of his previous pay.

Hlebo, however, said he had decided Bruce was no longer spiritually fit to be a pastor. To avoid having to pay him severance, Hlebo said, the church offered Bruce a job as a janitor.

Bruce filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It was dismissed last May because of a lack of jurisdiction. Mediation was held this spring at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. The outcome is confidential.

For the mediation, Carey F. Baird wrote in a letter of reference that Bruce "was one of the most diligent, reliable and hard working employees on staff' and "has exemplified the description given by Christ of a servant.'

Baird, a church janitor for 10 years, believed Bruce's heart would lead him to do whatever the church needed. But custodial work, he wrote, was something Bruce couldn't do.

"It is not a position that could be carried out to the satisfaction of the pastor by a man that is dependent upon a walker, much less a wheelchair,' Baird wrote. "The job requires physical agility and stamina, it involves bending, kneeling and even crawling.'

During the past two years, Bruce said, he has followed a biblical model in appealing his termination, going from Hlebo to members of the church board, to McClure, to the government. Unhappy with the results, he spoke this month with The Sun.


The way the Nelsons see it, a single mosquito – something most Westerners considered little more than a nuisance until the emergence of West Nile virus – has turned their lives upside down.

The family income has been more than halved.

Medical bills continue to fill the mailbox.

Rebekah and Katie, Bruce's 21- and 22-year-old daughters, moved into a room together and share a full-sized bed so Bruce can have a home office to continue counseling Christians and ministering.

Katie took leave from college to care for her dad.

Bruce sold two of his cars and his custom Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

He and Cassie, 52, have discussed selling the house they bought in 1983 and buying a cheaper condo.

"It's tough when you had a dad who would do everything and, all of a sudden, it's four girls who don't know what to do,' says Katie, whose 26-year-old sister, Jenny, lives six blocks away.

If a friend hadn't built ramps at the kitchen door and the side door of the master bedroom, Bruce would be trapped in his home.

His doctors are baffled by why a previously healthy man who loved to walk local mountains and surf the Pacific hasn't bounced back from an illness most recover from within weeks.

"We don't know completely what is going on. We know that he went to India and came back very sick,' said Ing, chief of infectious diseases at the veterans hospital.

Bruce is not paralyzed. He can stand, but the pain is excruciating and his muscles are weak.

"When I stand up,' Bruce said, "it feels like someone is drilling a hole into my kneecap.'

He takes a pain killer, a nerve blocker and an anti-depressant four times a day. Ambien keeps him from waking up screaming in pain.

Dengue fever is rare in the United States. It is endemic in tropical regions such as Puerto Rico, southern Africa and India. Common symptoms include high fever, headache, joint pains, vomiting and rashes. Less than 1percent of infected people die from dengue fever, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ing said other viruses may have taken a toll on Bruce's body. In March 2004, the CDC's vector-borne infectious diseases lab found tick-borne encephalitis, Japanese encephalitis and West Nile virus in Bruce's blood. The lab could not conclude when he was infected.

Bruce continues to have eight to 10 doctor appointments each month.

"We've tried everything and every medication. We've done everything we know medically to try to turn him around, and we've just not been able to improve his situation,' Ing said.

"As far as trying to come up with a magic bullet to solve his problems, we kind of struck out and it's not from lack of trying.'


Water of Life Community Church in Fontana has a smaller crowd on Saturday nights than Sunday mornings. Still, Bruce and Cassie arrived early to secure an end seat.

Bruce sits while others stand and sing.

"You are God and you can take my pain away,' the worship leader sings softly.

Bruce nods. Cassie rubs his back and nestles her head against his shoulder.

The sermon is part of a series titled "How You Can Know God's Will for Your Life.' The focus tonight is prayer.

Bruce prays "all the time.' For his family. For his health. For resolution in his dispute with Calvary.

Pastor Danny Carroll warns his congregation that God does not always immediately answer prayers or remove suffering. God uses these trials to build character, Carroll says.

At the end of the sermon he leads the congregation in prayer and asks for a show of hands from those with special requests.

Cassie raises her right hand.

"It's been 2 years,' she says after the service. "And after a while, you don't stop praying but you don't have the faith you had for healing in the beginning.'

Bruce is intercepted by old friends as he rolls his wheelchair toward the exit.

"We've always loved Bruce, before his illness and after his illness,' says Rick Savage, whose three daughters were part of Bruce's ministry.

The Savages left Calvary earlier this year, in part because of what happened to Bruce.

Carroll is perplexed by Calvary's treatment of a stricken missionary. He has written letters on Bruce's behalf to Calvary Chapel Rialto and the flagship, Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa. He counsels Bruce and prays with him, especially when money is lacking.

"Imagine if it were you and me, how you'd feel if your family was going hungry and you couldn't work?' Carroll says, standing in his church parking lot.

Bruce spends most days reading, sleeping, baby-sitting, writing his autobiography and battling depression.

At times, he has felt distant from God and asked the question most do when they suffer: Why?

But, he says, his faith has remained firmly rooted. He leads a weekly Bible study for six couples in his home and occasionally officiates at weddings and funerals. He's been encouraged by the support so many have given his family.

Friends and relatives deliver dinners, help maintain the house, even pay some bills. In June, his father's uncle gave them $2,000, which almost covered two months' mortgage payments.

"That kind of stuff really increases my faith,' Bruce says, sitting in his living room.

Moments later, Jenny drops off her 9- and 6-year-old daughters, a clear source of joy in his life.

Bruce reads his granddaughters a story from a picture Bible.

"So the lesson of that story is God can turn bad things around for the good,' Bruce says. "You just have to trust him.'