The Mowing Minister
Pastor of Greener Pastures
By Barry Dalton
LADDONIA, MO–In Act 2, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the character Puck asks another sprite, “Whither wander you?” and the magical sprite replies: “Over hill, over dale, through bush, through brier, over park, over pale, through flood, through fire, I do wander everywhere.”
Dale Roberts, 82, is not a magical character in a play. He’s a man with a mower and a message. His journeys over the course of his life have been both physical and spiritual, but now, through the magic of social media, his journeys are digital, as well.
He’s an Army veteran who pastors for the First Christian Church in Laddonia every Sunday morning at 10 a.m. Over the years, he has worked as a welder, a carpenter, a plumber, a pastor and, yes, a mower.
He currently mows parks for the City of Moberly part-time, Monday through Friday, but every morning at 9 a.m. he shuts off his blades, finds a nice quiet spot, parks his mower and fires up Facebook Live. He then delivers a short, daily devotional based on the Psalms. His mission: to bring happiness to the world.
Dale and Joy Roberts have been married for 63 years, and together they raise foster children, as well, and they recently adopted their son, Jacob, who will be 5 in December.
“His birth certificate says I was 78 years old when I gave birth to him—I didn’t,” she says with a warm laugh.
When they got Jacob as a foster child, he was a sickly 9 month old baby, whose health just kept getting worse. Eventually, he was diagnosed with sanfilippo syndrome, a terminal illness also known as MPS III-A.
“His parents were basically living in a car, so he was malnourished, and was supposed to be being fed through a tube he had at that time, and they couldn’t do it all,” Joy said.
The parents, who wanted the best for their son, signed their parental rights over to Joy and Dale even before the adoption became official so that he could participate in a clinical program for his rare disease.
“The program would not take him as a foster child,” Joy explained. “They will not deal with the courts because you make life and death decisions on the spot. You can’t blame them because legally you have to go back to the courts to do anything with foster children and that’s the way it should be because they’re not yours.”
Jacob is now the fifth person in the world to be under this clinical program and third in the U.S. To participate, Jacob must travel to children’s hospitals in Minneapolis and Houston. (On Oct. 6, they left for Houston to continue participation in the one-year program.)
Oftentimes, children with the disease develop behavior disorders such as violent tantrums.
“We’ve not seen the violence, we’ve not seen the anger so far,” Joy said. “Children with his disease are in pain all of the time, so they act out. But Jacob, he’s kind of passive about things. We’re just blessed that he’s not experiencing those things.”
Both Dale and Joy beam with pride when they speak about their son.
“He’s a loving little boy, and he’s changed our life,” Joy said as Dale nodded with an affectionate smile. “But I really do think Dale hit the nail on the head when he said he and I would just be two old people watching TV if it weren’t for Jacob and our other foster children.”
The Christian Church of Laddonia has been supportive as well. Dale and Joy say that the small church has been really loving and have accepted Dale and his family with open arms, even if the church’s board chair is concerned that Dale is riding a lawn mower every day at his age.
“I don’t have a problem with him mowing,” Joy said in support of Dale’s day job. “I talked to the doctor about it because I thought it was too much at first, too, but the doctor said, ‘nope, you let him do whatever he feels capable of doing.”
Dale was a full-time pastor for 18 years in California, but now only serves as a pastor a couple of hours per week. He felt the calling to do more, though, until one day two Christian Church members, Becky Garnett and Amanda Grawe, suggested he give Facebook Live a try and helped get him set up.
“Grawe and Garnett] just thought it would be good because there were a lot of people who wouldn’t be able to see [Dale preach on Sunday during the early days of the pandemic],” said congregation member Tammy Grawe, Amanda’s mother.
Nearly 200 daily episodes later, Dale is still plugging along, reading the Psalms, though these days there are fewer flocks of geese honking in the background as cold weather moves in and Dale must wrap up tight to go live on Facebook from the back of his mower.
“The reason I do the Psalms is because I’m not looking for theological concepts,” Dale explains. “I’m looking for something to make my heart happy. Good news is what I’m calling it.”
He reads scripture from a bible and an old pamphlet that was distributed at Billy Graham crusades in the 1950s. Found at a Goodwill store, it doesn’t have a back on it anymore and it starts at page 18.
“It was a good news thing, so I use that because it’s easy to understand,” he explains. “I just pick out one of the verses and say this is what it says to me.”
Dale came to the Christian Church through a connection with the director of Mainstreet Moberly, the downtown arm of the Moberly Chamber of Commerce. Her mother was a member of the Christian Church in Laddonia when the church lost its pastor.
“I was the chaplain of Main Street Moberly,” Dale said. “What I did, I prayed and I walked the city downtown and just asked God to bless these businesses. I prayed for them every morning seven days a week for the first two years, and then I got sick and cut back to six because I was pastoring a church and having to drive.”
One Sunday, he was asked to come speak at the Laddonia church and the rest is history. Dale is a storyteller at heart, but more than that he’s a person with great empathy and understanding of human suffering.
“I never aimed to stay because it’s 65 miles from Moberly,” Dale admitted. “But they’re good to us. I have a real cool job. I don’t run the church. I do the speaking and the encouraging and the visiting and stuff like that. My goal is to make people feel better when they leave than when they came. People get beat up everywhere all week long, why beat them up at church.”
Although he would love to pastor more often, Dale’s daily devotions on social media have given him a new calling, as well. His background gave him an appreciation for keeping things short and using stories as a way to connect with people who are busy during the day and don’t have time for a long sermon but could use a spiritual pick-me-up with their morning cup of coffee.
“When I started pastoring [at 24 years old], I could barely read,” Dale said. “I was functionally illiterate. They call it dyslexia now; they used to call it stupid. So to cover up I would just read a short text and then tell stories that related to that text.”
And although he hasn’t developed a huge following yet, Dale says it’s worth it if he reaches just one soul a day; although, he does admit he feels joy when he hears people are listening.
“I got a note the other day from a guy in Korea, who was watching me …,” he said. “And from another one of our church members who is visiting the Philippines and watches every day.”
His daily show isn’t without its problems, though. Sometimes interruptions are man-made and sometimes they are acts of God, such as overcast weather interrupting his phone reception or wind disrupting the audio.
“I’ve been late three mornings out of almost 200,” he said. “One day I couldn’t get my phone to work. Another day someone called me right in the middle and shut the whole thing off, but the guys I work with at the parks department all know that at 9 a.m., I’m going to be on the phone for a couple of minutes and then back to mowing again.”
Dale says he enjoys doing the Facebook sermons, but it’s pastoring at the church that is most rewarding. His wife agrees.
“I think the Lord has blessed us abundantly all of the years that we’ve served Him in the churches, but this church is kind of special because it’s very small right now—I wish it were not but it is—but they are loving people. They love us. They show us that they do, and they’re supportive of us when we bring the children in here and disrupt services, and let us be ourselves. And that makes me very, very happy whenever people can accept you like you are.”
Joy hopes she and Dale can afford to move permanently to Laddonia someday soon.
“At this point, God hasn’t opened up that avenue for us to have a place to stay here, so if he does, that is what we’ll do,” she said. “It’s been a blessing for us to be here.”