Small Act of Grace Leads to Lifelong Friendship

By Stan Friedman

UNALAKLEET, AK (April 3, 2012) – It was a short letter really, written to an eight-year-old boy whose father had just died.

John Kepler was serving as the associate pastor at the Evangelical Covenant Church in Bellevue, Washington, and would visit Glenn Ivanoff, who regularly traveled from Unalakleet to receive cancer treatments at a Seattle hospital. Glenn’s family would frequently make the trip, too, and John grew close to them.

When Glenn died, John already had moved to serve a church in Chicago, but he wrote the letter to Ivanoff’s young son, Curtis. “It basically gave me permission to grieve, and to cry,” says Curtis, who is now 40 years old and serves as region director of the Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska. “It was a heartfelt letter, and it meant a lot to me.”

John recalls that the letter also shared with the youngster his father’s desire for him to receive a “Christian education.” John didn’t hear back from the family, though.

From left: Betty Oyoumick, Curtis Ivanoff, John and Carol Kepler

Curtis went on to attend the University of Oklahoma, but as he turned 18 years old he began to grieve his father’s death again. Curtis didn’t know he still had the letter until he happened upon it.

“So I got his address and I wrote him a letter,” Curtis recalls. “I just said that 10 years ago you wrote me a letter when my dad died, and I wanted to thank you because you helped me grieve.”

John wrote back thanking Curtis for his letter. “He said thanks – that’s the kind of thing that keeps you going,” Curtis recalls. John also included what he hoped would be more words of encouragement.

Then in 2000, John was in an elevator at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare attending the Midwinter Conference. As the elevator door opened, a young man wearing a name badge that read “Curtis Ivanoff” stepped in.

John wasn’t wearing his name badge, so Curtis had no idea who he was. “I said to him, ‘Are you Glenn’s son?’ ” John says. When Curtis said he was, “I told him my name.”

“I started crying there right on the spot,” says Curtis. “It was just one of those moments that are a touch of grace.”

John was then serving as associate pastor at Zion Covenant in Jamestown, New York. He eventually led several members of the congregation on a mission trip to Alaska Christian College where Curtis worked. While there, the church helped construct a prayer chapel. John later invited Curtis to speak at Zion. The two have remained in touch.

What John calls “a real special moment” happened during last year’s Covenant Annual Meeting. “I got to see Curtis’ mom, Betty, and meet his sister, Nora, who had battled the same cancer as Glenn.”

“It’s really neat to see how God weaves these things into our lives and how significant our journey is when we share in others’ journeys,” Curtis says. “It’s a relationship that can last for life. Even in the simple act of writing a letter, grace was given.

“I was a little boy, and I bet in time John hadn’t given it much thought,” Curtis continued. “But then 10 years later he gets a letter from that little boy who is now a young man, and who would have thought that you would meet on an elevator in Chicago at Midwinter, and you both would be serving in ministry. It was the incredible grace of God.”

John says when he thinks about their intertwined journeys, “It often brings tears to my eyes.”

Editor’s note: President Gary Walter didn’t know the story of the two men when he recently told the Covenant Executive Board, “You never know what God is setting in motion by any single act of simple faithfulness.” Covenant News Service is interested in publishing more stories of people whose lives were changed by acts or words that may have seemed insignificant at the time. To submit stories of 300 words or less for consideration, email Covenant News Service.

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