The congregation at Life Center in Tacoma reacted with bittersweet emotions today just hours after the church’s pastor for 40 years, the Rev. Fulton Buntain, died.
“This morning is going to be a party of sorts because we believe in heaven,” said the Rev. Dean Curry, who succeeded Buntain after his retirement in 2005. “And we have a great friend who is now in heaven.”
The crowd of several hundred applauded when asked if they believed in heaven. But many sighed when Curry choked up after announcing, “He went home to be with the Lord yesterday. He was 86 years old and had been sick.”
Calling Buntain “the patriarch of this church” for the last 46 years, Curry said, “Everything that was built here was built under his leadership” – including a school and retirement community.
Life Center remains one of Tacoma’s largest churches with Sunday worship attendance of about 4,000.
Between morning services today, churchgoers described Buntain as a caring and inspiring pastor.
Lois Belsvik remembered Buntain as a “very kind and generous man,” who visited her husband, Loren, when he was dying from cancer three years ago.
“He was always willing to go out and help others and pray with others,” Belsvik said.
Cathy Anderson, of Fircrest, said she wasn’t really sad. “Heaven is what he talked about,” Anderson said. “That’s our home. I will miss seeing his smiling face.”
Anderson said she will still carry the memories of Buntain’s “positive and inspiring nature,” and the messages he gave during services.
Sipping a cup of coffee in the church foyer, Tom Eby said Buntain “was just a fantastic man. He was friendly to everybody.”
While Eby didn’t know Buntain well, the pastor knew him by name. Buntain recently said to him at a service, “‘You’ve been with me a long time,’” Eby said.
Scott Howe, of Puyallup, said Buntain was a kind and loving man, demonstrating qualities he hadn’t experienced from his own father.
“He was my spiritual father,” Howe said of Buntain.
Buntain created one of the Northwest’s first megachurches – before the word was even coined. On the campus of Life Center, he built a 750-student school, ages preschool through 12th grade, and a senior housing complex.
He died Saturday night at Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community.
His health had deteriorated in recent months as several conditions worsened, Curry said.
The date for a memorial service hasn’t been finalized yet. Curry said it would take place some time within the next two weeks at Life Center.
Buntain’s son-in-law, the Rev. Tim Cox, was with Buntain when he died Saturday night.
Buntain always maintained, ” ‘I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want it to hurt,’ ” said Cox, an associate pastor.
“He passed away peacefully,” Cox said.
During services, the main video screen showed a montage from black-and-white photos of Buntain and his family, and a shot of Buntain with former President Bill Clinton. The congregation sang two of Buntain’s favorite songs, “Alleluia” and “I Surrender All.”
Outside, the church’s electronic reader board near South 19th Street and Union Avenue flashed, “Fulton W. Buntain, 1925-2012” with an image of Buntain.
Brian Sonntag, the state auditor and a Life Center member, said Buntain reached out to the community, especially through the Singing Christmas Tree and special productions for Easter and the Fourth of July.
“Those things touched a lot of people,” Sonntag said.
And Buntain was known for his box of motivational phrases, he called “chinlifters.”
“I still use those darn things,” Sonntag said. “They’re great reminders.”
For instance, when dealing with conflict, Buntain advised: “Cry a river, build a bridge and get over it.”
Cox said people often remarked after Buntain’s sermons, “‘I thought he was talking just to me.’”
Dean Stageberg recommended the congregation hire the Canadian-born Buntain back in 1965. He was the seventh pastor in the congregation’s history. Under his leadership, the congregation grew in size and influence.
“Everybody was a friend of Pastor Buntain’s,” Stageberg said today. “He didn’t know a stranger.”
He said Buntain focused on “how do we live until next Thursday.”
“I think he had a relevant message for the times we live in,” Stageberg said. “I guess we need more Fulton Buntains in the world.”