Pastors celebrate life, service to community

Mervins retire after 10 years, journey through recovery

Pastors Kenny and Sharon Mervin at a food distribution event on Aug. 27. The Tama Meskwaki Food Pantry of which they have organized since 2012 donated its 1 millionth pound of food during the month of August. Darvin Graham/News Chronicle

For almost 10 years, Pastors Kenny and Sharon Mervin have been the facilitators for one of Tama-Toledo’s most crucial services.

The Tama Meskwaki Food Pantry is one of two food pantry operations within Tama-Toledo and has been serving those in need out of the Tama Meskwaki Celebration Assembly of God Church since 2012.

The Mervins say one of the primary goals of the Tama Meskwaki Food Pantry has been to provide a resource for working individuals that may not qualify for federal nutrition assistance programs, although the doors are always open for anybody in need of assistance.

In late August, as the community was still recovering from the August 10 derecho and the COVID-19 pandemic was headed into its sixth month, the church congregation celebrated a milestone and a bittersweet farewell.

During a drive-thru food distribution event in partnership with the Northeast Iowa Food Bank on August 27, the pantry gave away its 1 millionth pound of food since opening its doors eight years ago.

Pastor Kenny Mervin helps to direct the line of traffic heading into a recent food distribution event in Tama. Darvin Graham/News Chronicle

Three days later the congregation held an outdoor celebration and farewell for Kenny and Sharon as they announced their retirement earlier in the year and August 30 was set to be their last Sunday at the Tama Meskwaki Assembly of God Church.

“The Northeast Iowa Food Bank has been proud to partner with Pastor Kenny, Pastor Sharon, and everyone from Tama Meskwaki Celebration Church over the years,” Northeast Iowa Food Bank Executive Director Barb Prather said.

“The Mervins have been leaders and partners with us to reach food insecure people in Tama County. From when our partnership started in 2012, to today, providing over 1 million pounds of food has truly made a difference. Fortunately for the projected 14% of people in Tama County who are food insecure, the Celebration Church and Northeast Iowa Food Bank partnership has made a difference. We thank them and Celebration Church for all they have done and best wishes to the Mervins on their retirement.”

Road to Recovery

The Mervins, now in their 70s, have been on a journey that has taken many twists and turns and has been filled with grace, sacrifice, joy, hardship, and redemption.

In the early 2000s Kenny and Sharon were living north of Dysart and were concluding careers with Deere and Co. in Waterloo.

As an adult Kenny developed an addiction to methamphetamine that ultimately led him to manufacture the drug at his home.

Then in 2002 he credits Sharon for making the call that would send him to jail but would also set him on the path to recovery.

Following his arrest, Kenny spent 144 days in the Black Hawk County Jail and during that time received word that Sharon had filed for divorce. He was certain significant prison time was in his future.

However, while he was in jail Sharon made the decision to give Kenny another chance and spent as many days as possible driving to Waterloo to visit him.

She pieced together what she could to bond him out of jail later that year and miraculously the judge hearing his case ruled in favor of probation rather than a prison sentence.

Kenny returned home to rural Dysart and was soon visited by a neighbor, Bob Hill, who lived next door for more than 20 years but who he had no real relationship with.

Kenny recalls Bob pulling into his driveway in 2002, asking how he was doing and after some small talk departed by saying, “If you need a friend, give me a call”.

Bob encouraged Kenny to meet with him and learn about the teachings of Christ and the Holy Bible.

Kenny was a self professed devout atheist and reluctantly agreed to meet with Bob in his garage. Kenny said at the time he had burned several bridges and had few friends to turn to as his social circle before was so heavily steeped in the drug world.

Bob and Kenny developed a friendship and Kenny eventually accepted Christ into his heart.

Meanwhile, Sharon and Kenny began to attend an Assembly of God church in Waterloo where an addiction recovery group called Celebrate Recovery was meeting.

Kenny participated in the Christ-focused 12 step recovery process and eventually he and Sharon took on leadership roles with the group. In 2004 they brought the group to the Assembly of God church in Dysart and established the fifth Celebrate Recovery group in Iowa.

Since that time the couple have assisted with the beginning of 21 other Celebrate Recovery groups in various parts of Iowa and have served as the Iowa state representative for the Celebrate Recovery initiative which has grown into an international effort since its inception in California in the 90s.

Kenny even took his experience as a drug addict and testified before the Iowa Legislature in a 2005 panel that reviewed over the counter pseudoephedrine and its role in the making of methamphetamine. Restrictions were approved later that year in a state law that required identification and limits on sales of cold medicines that included the pseudoephedrine ingredient.

A few years later the Mervins began attending the Iowa School of Ministry in Des Moines in hopes of becoming full time pastors as a second career.

The two graduated in 2009 and Sharon later began pastoring at the Meskwaki Assembly of God church that met in a garage in Tama. Within a year the church merged with the nearby Tama Assembly of God congregation and became the Tama Meskwaki Assembly of God Church where they both have served as pastors ever since.

Service to Community

During their time as pastors in the Tama-Toledo community the Mervins and their congregation have established their own Celebrate Recovery support group that has been meeting every Monday at the church.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic the group would often host a free community meal on Mondays before their meetings that would draw in 50 or 60 people on average each week. They would also host special events such as appreciation meals for area first responders and a big Thanksgiving meal offered at no cost the week before Thanksgiving.

They have established a food pantry that partners with local grocery stores including Fareway and Dollar Fresh and is part of a patchwork support system at work in the southern Tama County area for those struggling to make ends meet. They’re used to regular phone calls from individuals reaching out for help or organizations looking to connect resources to people.

The Mervins admit there is sadness in the leaving. When asked what they will miss the most about pastoring at the Assembly of God church they both immediately responded in unison, “The people. We’ll miss the people the most.”

During the weeks leading up to their final Sunday, the Mervins had the pleasure of baptizing 11 different members of their congregation and officiated the wedding of two others.

In hopes of aiding in the pastoral transition the denomination’s guidelines for the Mervins now that they are retired are to distance themselves from their congregation. For some pastors this approach fits easily as leaving a church often means moving to another community to take up another church position. But Kenny and Sharon are not moving. They are just getting older and feel the need to slow their life down.

They hope to spend more time with their grandkids and great-grandkids and to travel to visit friends and other pastors they’ve come to know over the years. Kenny is also an avid fisherman and hopes to find more time to fish with his brother and great-grandson.

“We want to continue to do something for the Lord,” Kenny said. “We still want to be there for people who are struggling.”

Today Kenny can celebrate 18 years sober and he and Sharon also recently celebrated 45 years of marriage. When given the opportunity to talk about their life experiences or explain how they’ve been able to not only survive but also thrive as pastors, as partners, caretakers, and as community members; they make no hesitation in pointing toward their faith in Christ.

“So many people suffer through life. If we can help set them free, that’s a wonderful thing to be called to do,” Kenny said.

“We just want to do our part. For this community to work, we all have to work together.”

As the Mervins bid farewell, the Tama Meskwaki Assembly of God church looks to continue worshiping and serving in many of the same ways as they have before.

The food pantry is still open Monday-Thursday from 5-7 p.m.

Celebrate Recovery continues to meet on Mondays and worship still happens on Sundays even though the congregation is still searching for a new pastor.