TEMPLE — On a sizzling August day 33½ years ago, a group of 40 to 50 people called newly ordained pastor Gary Desalvo to leadership of what has grown into one of the area’s largest churches — Temple Bible Church.
“I was fresh out of seminary when we came here in 1981, and I was 26 years old when we came to Temple,” Desalvo said.
“This was a growing community and there was not another Bible church in the area. We fell in love with the people here and the opportunity to help build the church’s foundation.”
From its small beginnings, TBC has grown to an average attendance of more than 3,000 each Sunday, and is planning another expansion.
“We have 500 kids every Sunday between age 3 and fourth grade, so we’re out of space there,” Desalvo said.
“We will also have a chapel for weddings and funerals.”
TBC has not only had an impact on the Temple area, but has 32 families doing mission work in 19 countries throughout the world.
“Missions are huge for us,” Desalvo said.
Desalvo was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, ocular melanoma, in 2013, but that hasn’t slowed him down. It has made him more mindful of the need to make sure TBC is prepared for a new generation of leaders to be ready to step forward, he said.
He is careful to remind people that the church is not about him, it’s about spreading the word of God, and he says everyone who attends the church is involved in the ministry.
“We only have 11 on pastoral staff, and most churches our size have a lot more,” Desalvo said. “That’s part of our philosophy. We want our members to have the privilege of serving in ministry.
Desalvo is also quick to credit the mission of other area churches.
“We’ve been blessed with some great churches in this area, and we know they’re doing a great job,” he said. “We pray for other churches in our community all the time. We trumpet other churches in the community.”
Desalvo grew up in New Orleans, and it was when he was a student at Louisiana State University he felt called to the ministry.
“I was pre-med for no real reason other than I didn’t know what I wanted to major in,” Desalvo said. “I became involved in Campus Crusade for Christ on the LSU campus, and led a couple of Bible studies, which I absolutely loved.”
Desalvo has never served on another church staff, and jokes that he stayed in Temple so long because no one else would hire him.
“We fell in love with the people here, and there was no other place we wanted to be,” he said.
Although TBC has prospered, “we’ll never write a book about what we’ve done because we’ve failed more times than we’ve succeeded,” Desalvo said.
“Our story is the story of God’s grace. We enjoy doing what we’re doing. Three of us have been on staff 20 years or more.”
When the church does hire a new staff member, it’s often someone who is already part of the church, he said.
“Our most recent staff hire, our executive pastor, was a local attorney. Our small groups pastor was an electrical engineer for Oncor.”
Desalvo said there’s only a 30 percent chance for people with his type of cancer to live three years or more, but he told a story which illustrated how fragile life can be — and of a close call he and his family had with death more than three decades ago.
Carbon monoxide from a gas heater poisoned the family back in 1983, and his then 3-year-old son, who is now a doctor, let out a piercing scream in the middle of the night that was so loud it was heard by neighbors.
Drowsy and disconcerted, Desalvo recalls fumbling for his clothes in an effort to rush his son to the hospital (in the days before 911 calls), and seeing other family members also struggle.
His son was stiff as a board, Desalvo recalled, and upon reaching the emergency room, doctors diagnosed the problem. The family spent time in the hospital’s hyperbaric chamber.
Doctors told the Desalvo’s that the boy’s reaction that alerted them to danger was the exact opposite of what most carbon monoxide victim’s do — peacefully fall asleep, rather than cry out loudly.
That experience reminds Desalvo that every day of life is on God’s timing, he said.
Desalvo said his wife Bev, has always been a strong leader in the church, and he has been greatly encouraged by that.
“She has been a real blessing in so many different ways,” he said. “She was on staff for about five years. She’s been a godsend.
“We have a newcomers’ brunch at the house two or three times a year with 60 to 80 different people attending, and I really appreciate her role in that.”
Another hallmark of TBC is the involvement of men in attending and serving, Desalvo said.
“On any given Sunday, 68 percent of those attending church services in our state are women,” he said. “We are blessed to have a lot of men who take an active role in the church, and that makes a big difference for families.
“We have men discipling men and women discipling women. It’s part of our DNA.”
Desalvo said strong and enduring friendships are another thing he is grateful for.
“I’ve been blessed with a number of peer relationships that have challenged and encouraged me over the years, and that’s something a lot of pastors don’t have,” he said.
“We have an amazing congregation that has come beside us and offered whatever help we need.
“The last couple of years, looking at the lives we’ve lived, we want to make sure that God receives all the glory.”
Asked how he would like to be remembered, Desalvo picked up a framed inspirational quote that sits on his desk.
“I hope one day this sums it all up, he said.
The quote reads: “With his sword unsheathed and his armor in place, he went directly to the king with the stain of battle still on his garments.”
Billy Popelka, a founding member of the church, has known Desalvo since 1981.
Asked what stands out to him about Desalvo, Popelka said, “He and I have been close friends for a long time. He is a strong leader who preaches the word and accepts people as they are.
“He is a strong family man and a great example.”