Small town pastor refuses to slow down, as he nears 100th birthday
By Lindsay Peyton - En Español
FUMC Big Sandy will soon celebrate the 100th birthday of their pastor Dr. Jack Hetzel. Standing at the helm of the congregation is a veteran, an educator, a world-traveler and a disciple. He has ministered around the globe – and now hangs his hat in East Texas, about half an hour north of Tyler. That is, until he departs for more preaching engagements abroad.
Hetzel had hoped to gather with friends and family at the church, but neighboring pastors told him there would not be enough room. “They said that people in Big Sandy will want to turn out in large quantities,” Hetzel said with a smile.
A fixture in the community
Hetzel has led FUMC Big Sandy for the past seven years. When worship and Sunday school wrap up at 11 a.m., he often heads to another church service. “There are three churches in town I attend,” Hetzel said. “Sometimes I go out of town. I don’t care which denomination. I’m a minister of the Gospel.”
Born in Louisiana on November 18, 1921, Hetzel dropped out of school in the third grade, became a carpenter and enlisted in the military in 1941. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Army, retiring as a Sergeant First Class.
Hetzel clearly recalls when finishing basic training in Utah and then taking a three-day train ride to Arizona to a base. “Can you imagine that today? A three-day train ride?” he asks.
He traveled around military bases in the U.S. before arriving in England, just after D-Day. Then, he headed to France. “We could still hear the firing all around us,” he said. After battling in France, Hetzel arrived in Germany, two days before Hitler’s death.
After the war, Hetzel returned home to work again as a carpenter, but by 1946, he re-enlisted. That’s when he began teaching. First, he taught typing classes, then other administrative courses. He later taught Military Science at Texas A&M University.
While serving in Korea, he met the late David Yonggi Cho, who would become a South Korean minister with the largest congregation in the world. Cho died on Sept. 14.
“I met him the day I got here,” Hetzel recalled. “He was graduating, and the following Monday, we started doing crusades together.”
At one point, he remembers the Rev. Cho asking, “Do you think I should start a church on my own?”
Hetzel replied, “If God is telling you to do it, you would be remiss if you didn’t.”
Cho started his church in an army tent, which Hetzel said he had the privilege of preaching inside. In 1953, Hetzel recommitted his life to Christ and led his first sermon in Comanche, Texas. His ninth sermon was in Germany at an interdenominational chapel, where he later became pastor.
After two years of ministry, he headed to Naples, Italy. “I preached once, then I preached again,” Hetzel recalled. One thing led to another, and he became pastor of another interdenominational chapel in Naples.
Since then, Hetzel has ministered in most of Western Europe, as well as, in Asia and Africa, where he was inaugurated as a King in Ghana. He preached in the U.K. for about eight years and then became a missionary with Assemblies of God after retiring from the Army.
A return to learning
Hetzel returned to college later in life and began serving as a pastor in Texas at the same time. “I was taking 15 hours per semester,” he said. “I pastored and attended college.”
A few years ago, he was recognized with an honorary doctorate of divinity. “I didn’t get a doctorate because of the classes I attended, but because of what I’ve done and the books that I’ve written,” he said.
Hetzel is the author of “Colossians: Verse by Verse” and “Divine Devotions: Hear What God Says,” which was published this September. He also has a new book in the works, which explores the themes of Romans 8.
“It’s one of the most powerful chapters in the Bible,” Hetzel said. “That one is coming out around the first of January.”
Hetzel credits his wife Pat for bringing him to the United Methodist Church. She attended in Tyler, and before long, he offered his services to the district superintendent. Eventually, he became the pastor at FUMC Big Sandy, where he was welcomed with open arms. “If I tried to retire, they’d stop me,” he said.
On his 99th birthday, Hetzel asked the church for four more years as its leader. But during the period, he hopes to take his first vacation in his time at FUMC Big Sandy. “I want to go back to England and do some more preaching as a 100-year old man,” he said.
Hetzel also wants to return to Africa, especially to the village where he was named chief. “I live an exciting life – and I’m still excited,” he said. “In fact, I’m more excited about ministry than I ever have been.”
While he may lead a small church in Big Sandy, he also ministers online daily to thousands of individuals. He also mentors future pastors.
When speaking about writing his upcoming sermons, he is overtaken with emotion. The pastor is a lifelong learner who continues to marvel at the word of God.
He quotes Deuteronomy, when God promised Abraham, “Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field.”
“My rendition of that is that you will blessed coming and going,” Hetzel said.
And he continues to work to share that message of hope.