But there's so much more to the story than just a news line.
Duane Severance lived an amazing life, and I'd like to share it with you. His story is so unique, I can't help but share it. I was blessed to know him. He was unlike anyone I'd ever met. And it would be an honor and privilege to know more people like him.
I met him back in 1998. I was a member of a fledgling new church, which had a sweet spirit among its members. Youth group met in the house of the youth pastor, Steve Stoppe and his wife. I always thought they were so brave to cram 100+ middle and high school students into their living room. Anyhow, after youth group on Wednesday nights, they'd move things to their dining room, where all the band equipment would be set up and they'd have band practice for the Sunday worship team. The youth would naturally hang around and visit until midnight or later (well, at least for us youth leaders, who were in college...). One night, a new man appeared on the team. Duane had come to visit from Hawaii, with nothing but a backpack and a guitar. He had a voice that was both soft and strong. Tender would be the right word. Or meek. I learned he'd be a street preacher in Hawaii. I'd never heard of such a thing before...
He joined our church, deciding to turn his visit into a move. He lived with his sister and her family nearby, and would play his guitar with the band. And if we were lucky, he'd pull out his trumpet and play that for us too.
He was a modern day John the Baptist. He always wore a Hawaiian shirt and flip flops. He never put on airs, but came across as down-to-earth. There wasn't a materialistic bone in his body. He loved God's Word. Always had his Bible with him. It had sweat marks on the leather cover from him keeping it tucked under his arm. He would apply the Word like salve to the wounds of those who were hurting. He was like the mix of a prophet and a spiritual paramedic. And his life backed up his message. He didn't solicit donations. He had no motive other than to preach the Word in order to help people. He'd walked the streets of downtown Austin and prayed for God to show him where to preach. God led him to 6th and Congress. Where the bars met the legislature. He'd stand there and preach to anyone who'd listen. Folks would sometimes sit on a bench and listen. He'd play his 12 string, too. But not for money like a beggar. Just to make the people think as he sang. He knew beautiful songs, all Scripture set to music. I went down to visit a time or two, and sat and prayed for him. And watched the funny expressions of the people who passed by. Some were angry or annoyed. But some were paying attention. And I got to witness Leslie. He was the famous scantily clad transvestite who also decided to claim 6th and Congress as his own. He enjoyed being a spectacle. I don't know if he did it for hand outs or what, but he sat by Duane. He also made signs telling how ridiculous Duane and his message were. He opposed Duane in any way that he could. Yet Duane patiently tolerated his abuse. Duane told me that one day, someone stole Duane's Bible and took off running with it. And Leslie, in his heels and everything, took off after the robber and got the Bible back and returned it to Duane. Hilarious!!
Pretty soon, Duane developed relationships with many homeless people. Before long, he began meeting with them under bridges in Austin, and started "Church Under the Bridge." A lot of folks from our church would help out, and it was a neat ministry.
Also, a friend of mine, Brandy, had started going to our church. She was Chuck's age. Despite nearly 20 years in age difference, she and Duane fell in love. Had it been anyone else I would've thought it odd. But these two were so meant to be together. They were married a month before Chuck and I, in November 1999. Their wedding was amazing. It was outdoors, in his sister's back yard. It mimicked more of a Jewish wedding, in that the bride stood down front with the pastor, and the groom, at the sound of the trumpet, began to walk the aisle to his bride. But Duane got so excited, he ran!! And I want to say he was barefoot, or just in flip flops. It was quite a sight, and such a beautiful picture of Christ and His waiting church, and how excited Jesus must be to return and be united with us!!
As for Brandy, she was an amazing photographer, and I have our wedding photos to prove it! :) Duane was her assistant/second shooter for weddings. But mostly Duane and Brandy survived on donations from various churches and people. They weren't on any payroll. Yet they trusted God to meet their needs instead of worrying. I never heard Brandy fret. Which shames me in a way, for I often worry about how to pay for our bills...they're example was a good one.
Duane, I learned, had once had a lucrative career as an executive chef at a 5 star restaurant in Hawaii. Yet, there he felt God calling him to minister, so he moved out of his apartment and lived on the streets with the homeless, in order to reach them. Once he and Brandy married, they moved into an RV park (smaller homes than a trailer park), where they had a tiny trailer. I remember Brandy musing about how she'd hear Duane thanking God for the person who donated the hot water heater, as he took a shower. He was so humble. When was the last time you thanked God for hot water?! And then, one day, as they were at our house for band practice, I was making tacos but didn't have seasoning, so he taught me how to season tacos. I've loved it so much I've never bought taco seasoning since. I had no idea I was learning from a master! Or what he had given up to preach the Word.
One story that was shared at his funeral by another Hawaiian street preacher was how a fishing boat captain donated an 80 pound mahi mahi fish to them to give to the people. He said Duane would fry up the fish with some ramen and serve the poor with it. He said Duane paid special attention even to the presentation of the meal. I think it's neat that God called an elite chef to serve food to the homeless. :)
After they married, they lived a neighborhood over from me, so Brandy and I got to visit often. Within a couple of years, they had a daughter, Salem. A couple of years after that, while I was pregnant with Charlie, she birthed another daughter, Rhema, who died shortly before birth. The cord went first. It was heartbreaking. Yet I remember seeing her and Duane shortly after; their strength and peace that God allowed that for a reason actually comforted me...which I was expecting to comfort them! Then another couple of years later, they had a boy, Seth. And then...Sophie!
Before Sophie was born, one night a fire started outside of their trailer. Brandy opened the door to see what was going on, and the fire spread inside. They managed to escape, but lost everything. It was a Saturday night. Brandy had her photography business, yet nearly everything went up in smoke. Her camera had gotten stuck on the door handle as she was running out and she had to let it go. Yet they thanked God anyhow. Duane showed up the next morning to the Church Under the Bridge and preached. Some friends and I sent in a video to Extreme Home Makeover and found out they were runner up to another family in Austin who got a new home. Thankfully, another group came together and got them a bigger trailer for their growing family. Here's a video of Duane as they were moving it in.
Shortly after this, we moved to San Antonio, and I didn't see Brandy as much. She had become a mentor to me, though, as I got more into photography.
She had instant messaged me back in June of last year and said that they were moving to a remote town, 3+ hours North of Austin. They had a new home! And they were expecting again! Evidently, Duane had mentored many men over the last 10+ years who were now taking his place, and felt that God was "shutting the doors" for him in Austin. They were moving out, going to focus on their growing family more (the ministry was quite time consuming), and I was so happy for them!! I praised God for giving them this season in their lives!
So when I heard the news last week about Duane passing away on his way home from Austin, I was stunned. Shocked. Worried about Brandy. Wondering what God was doing.
Then we went to the funeral Monday. And once again, as I went in hoping to comfort, it was Brandy, and the many testimonies about Duane, that comforted me. Many people who knew him in his various seasons of life shared their stories. We were there for 3 hours, yet I could've listened for days. It was truly awe-inspiring. And joyful. Instead of worrying about what's to happen with Brandy and their children (baby Samuel is due next month!), the focus was on how great God is, and how greatly magnified He was by Duane's living example.
They have a memorial website for him, which is so sweet. There's a picture Brandy took, of Duane, with his hands raised in prayer, Bible in hand, with the Capitol building behind it. This is so him. And why God is so amazing...
All week I've had a song stuck in my head, which we sang often in church with Duane...
"The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning, new every morning. Great is Thy faithfulness, Oh God! Great is Thy faithfulness."
from Lamentations 3:22-24
Please pray for this precious family, for Brandy, Salem, Seth, Sophie and the still to come Samuel. For God to keep them strong in faith as their father/husband taught them, and for God to continually meet their needs.
Also, here are some news reports about Duane. Some reports interview the folks from Church Under the Bridge.