Waver offers warm greetings
Unique ministry results in a variety
of positive benefits
JEFFERSON CITY – A driver in an SUV stopped for the red light near Hy-Vee Grocery Store on West Truman Boulevard. On the other side of the street, near Concord Baptist Church, Jerry Swanson challenged himself to capture the man’s attention and good will.
Swanson smiled and waved – not politely and half-heartedly like a beauty contestant but vigorously and repeatedly.
As the man turned the corner to go toward Hy-Vee, he waved back.
For almost six years, Swanson has spent a few hours Sunday mornings waving to passersby. He also waves during revivals and Vacation Bible School. Area residents may have seen him waving a few weeks ago during a nighttime revival.
Reactions to his greeting vary. Some motorists honk; a few give him the peace sign; others wave while keeping their hands on the steering wheel. “Good morning,” two bicyclists said last Sunday as they passed him. One motorist waved through a sun roof, and a few people rolled down their windows and expressed their appreciation. “It’s good to see you out there,” one man told him.
Almost everyone returned Swanson’s greeting in some way. Granted, few expressed as much enthusiasm as Swanson, but he didn’t mind. In fact, it’s difficult for him to see how each person responds.
“I’m too busy trying to catch the next car,” Swanson said. “I don’t know which one does what.”
Swanson waves for myriad reasons. He wants to attract visitors to Concord Baptist Church, and he wants to brighten other people’s mornings. He also feels that God wants him to do it.
A former greeter at Concord Baptist Church, Swanson was posted inside a door where few people entered. He slowly worked his way toward the street and his current position. For several months, he resisted God’s calling to stand on the street corner.
“I thought about it and felt there was no way that I was going to make a fool of myself by waving on the street,” he wrote in an autobiographical sketch. “Just how stupid could I be?”
When he finally decided to start waving from the street corner, he didn’t tell anyone besides his wife. He was convinced God wanted him to do it, regardless of what other people thought. He didn’t even tell any of the ministers.
“People waved back,” he exclaimed. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Growing up on Kansas farm
Growing up on a farm in Salina, Kan., Swanson and other residents of the area often waved to each other as they passed by on the road.
“If you were even out in the field, they’d wave at you,” he said. “Of course, we knew a lot of these people. They were neighbors and people we were involved with in some way.”
Many of his relatives lived close by, and Swanson and his five brothers enjoyed frequent family get-togethers. He and the other children created their own fun. They sometimes pretended to farm, often with equipment they made themselves.
A member of 4-H, he became secretary and then president of his club. He raised hogs and beef cattle for 4-H and stayed overnight at the fair grounds during his county’s fair. One year, he had the reserve Grand Champion hog.
All of the Swanson boys had chores. Swanson learned to count by gathering eggs from the hen house. As he grew older, he helped raise wheat, hay and corn, and he drove a tractor when his father did custom baling.
“My Dad believed in all work and no play,” he wrote. “However, I would sneak off and play catch.”
Swanson received his first bat and ball from a relative when he was somewhere between three and five years old. “That meant much to me,” he recalled. He went on to play basketball and baseball in high school and college.
Swanson’s school burned down during his junior year of high school. Students attended classes in a church’s parsonage and basement, and the basketball team played its home games at a neighboring school. The team traveled to the state championships. During Swanson’s senior year, the team remained undefeated until the regional tournament.
Swanson earned a B.A. in mathematics from Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kan., and a master’s degree from Kansas State Teachers College in Emporia, Kan. He taught at junior high and high schools for four years before landing a job in St. Louis with McDonnell Douglas. While living in St. Louis, he also taught night school at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where his students included his wife, Charlene.
Except for a two-year stint in the 1970s as director of the Missouri Department of Revenue’s information systems in Jefferson City, Swanson remained in St. Louis until 1991, when he and thousands of other people were laid off from McDonnell Douglas.
For 18 long months he searched for a job, finally returning to Jefferson City as manager of programmer/analysts for the Department of Corrections. His office employed up to 22 inmates, so Swanson chose to work out of the Jefferson City Correctional Center.
He became close to some of the prisoners, many of whom were in their 20s and early 30s, the same age as his son. He found out how easily young men fell into the trap of doing bigger and bigger crimes until they landed in prison for a felony. “They just got on the wrong track,” he said.
By that time, Swanson had become a devout Christian. Although he grew up Lutheran and attended services regularly as a youth, he didn’t feel as if he benefited much from the services. “I never ever listened to the pastor,” he said.
While working at McDonnell Douglas, he began attending Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church in Ladue, and during a revival, he accepted Jesus into his heart and placed him first in his life.
“A lot of people have Christ in their head but not in their heart,” he said.
Once Swanson earned the inmates’ trust – they initially didn’t believe that he would follow through on his word – he established a good working relationship with them. He shared his religious beliefs with some of the inmates, prayed with them and encouraged them to read the Bible. He even sat with a few of the inmates during their parole board hearings.
Swanson found the job interesting, but he encountered difficulty working for the state and maneuvering the bureaucracy. He quit after about two years and started his own air purification business. He is now retired.
“It is amazing that when you retire, so much time is taken up in doing nothing without realizing it, or should I say not accomplishing much,” he said.
Swanson usually begins his day by praying and reading the Bible and Christian literature. He regularly researches upcoming purchases on the Internet for himself and other family members, and he follows current events via newspapers, the Internet and television news.
Married since 1962, he and his wife, Charlene, have two children and five grandchildren. Their daughter Debbie Schneidermann lives in Minneapolis, Minn., and she is a supervisor for elementary education students at Northwestern College in St. Paul. Their son Scott lives in The Woodlands, Texas, and he is marketing and sales manager for SALCO, a company involved in the railroad industry.
“We are a close family,” Swanson noted, “and we’re very close to our grandchildren even though they live far away.”
Swanson coached his son’s baseball team for several years, and he follows closely his grandchildren’s athletic endeavors, which include participation in basketball, soccer, football, hockey and diving.
He and his wife visit their children and grandchildren several times a year, so he misses waving from the street corner on those Sundays.
One time when he missed a few weekends in a row, church member Sharon Kirchoff became worried.
“I thought that maybe he was sick,” she said. “He’s so faithful out there.”
Kirchoff considers Swanson an asset to the church, and she always responds enthusiastically to his greeting. One day, when traffic was light, she drove up to the curb and stopped.
“I’ll have that ready for you when you come back,” he responded.
During his six-year tenure on the street corner, Swanson has tried tweaking his approach. One time, he held a sign – he doesn’t remember what it said – but that didn’t seem right. Another time, he brought a boom box and played Christian music, but the music didn’t carry very far and it didn’t seem appropriate. He eventually decided that God just wanted him to greet anyone and everyone who passed by his corner.
“Good morning,” he called to a woman jogging. “How are you this morning?”
Concord Baptist’s pastor, Monte Shinkle, welcomes and supports Swanson’s ministry.
“It sends a message of openness and friendliness and ‘have a good day,’” he said. “Any way you look at it, it brings a smile.”
Swanson has accepted his calling, but he admits to periods of despair. He initially thought that he would fill every seat in the church, but that didn’t happen and periodically over the last six years, he has considered quitting.
“Every time he talked about quitting, God just would not let him stop,” his wife said. “He got affirmation and confirmation every time he wanted to quit.”
One woman sent him a note expressing her appreciation. Young children wave halfway through the intersection. Youths from Concord Baptist Church have brought him doughnuts from Hy-Vee.
One motorist handed him a cappuccino; another person gave him a raspberry Krispy Kreme doughnut. Church member Helena Shih pointed to him and told her children: “There’s a man who loves the Lord.”
When Swanson witnessed a near accident, he worried that perhaps his waving distracted people. He called the Jefferson City Police Department, half hoping that law officers would frown on his waving. Not so.
“The policeman told me, ‘I think it’s a good idea.’” Swanson recalled. “I was shot down again.”
Swanson now realizes that he will never know how many people have come to the church because of his efforts. He encourages churchgoing, but he realizes that not everyone will feel comfortable in the same congregation.
“If this church doesn’t fill their needs,” he said, “they’d be happier going somewhere else.”
Swanson also realizes that he never will know how his simple greeting affects most motorists. He hopes that he brightens their day.
“We live in a troubled world,” he said. “People don’t always realize what a smile will do.”
Except for weekends when he’s out of town, Swanson has missed only about five Sundays. It may be raining when he wakes up, but by the time he arrives at church, the rain usually has stopped. Concord has become known as the church with the old man out front who waves.
“I think God calls a lot of people and they ignore him like I was ignoring him,” he said. “God wants the best for us, and we just have to be obedient.”
In February, Christian radio host Todd Friel visited the church to speak. He noticed Swanson shoveling snow on his street corner and became alarmed. “He’s too old,” Friel exclaimed. “Doesn’t he know that men over 50 can have heart attacks shoveling the sidewalk?”
Swanson had no desire to shovel the sidewalk. He just wanted to clear his street corner to stand. Friel wondered why he waved each week.
Friel incorporated Swanson’s ministry into one of his next radio broadcasts of “The Way of the Master.” He urged listeners to consider the importance of their ministry. They don’t need to be famous or do something extraordinary to make an impact. Everyone from a Sunday School teacher to a mother to a man waving on a street corner can make an impact.
“What’s your ministry?” Friel challenged. (This story is printed with the permission of the Jefferson City News-Tribune.)