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Local faiths: The Depot Church on Railroad

Silver State Post of Deer Lodge, Montana

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Churches usually get a name from a saint or their denomination. The Community Evangelical Free Church in Deer Lodge tried that on for size in 2000. Briefly. But it didn't take.

"I would tell people that I was pastor at the Community Evangelical Free Church and they'd look at me funny and then say, 'Oh. The Depot Church.' So eventually I just gave up and said, yeah, I'm the pastor at the Depot Church," Pastor Caleb Burton said.

Since opening its doors in the 70s, just after the Milwaukee Railroad packed up and left, the Depot Church has been known for its structure more than it has been known for the faith within.

That faith, Evangelical Free, comes from Swedish and Norwegian immigrants who came to the United States in the 1800s. Forming their own churches in secret in their homelands (at the time the Roman Catholic Church held power), they preached free and open in America. In 1912 the Evangelical Free Church of America was formed out of the two groups' separate bodies.

Shel Hesley founded the Depot Church and there is a connection between him and Burton that is special to the pastor. But that comes later.

Burton came to the EFCA later in life, he said. He grew up as a Southern Baptist in Wyoming, regularly attending church and youth group activities. He said it was just what he did; part of the weekly routine.

But Burton said he never really felt close to God. Not until he got to college-a time when many people actually fall away from the church was a time of awakening for him.

It came down to the most important question ever posed to him: "What is the purpose of that chair?" A friend in campus ministry at the University of Wyoming asked him about it.

Burton answered that the chair is made by man and is for man to have a place to sit.

But the person asking was looking for a deeper answer; he was leading Burton to a bigger, and more important question: "What is your purpose?"

Burton said it knocked him for a loop. He had always believed that he was created by God, it's a fundamental part of his theology, but to answer that question, well, that was beyond him a bit. He said it took him some time to work it out but eventually he decided that if God had created him then he did indeed have a specific purpose in life. He became very active in campus ministry himself, continuing to work even after he finished his degree (not in theology, but in Russian studies; a field he got into because he wanted to be an intelligence officer, a field that shrank quickly when the Berlin wall fell his sophomore year at UW).

The ministry style he learned then is how he preaches now.

"A lot of people think faith is esoteric, they see at as some existential thing that is just out there. I think it's how you live," he said. "I try to teach people that they should be honest with truth and with grace."

For Burton that means telling a person that what is in scripture is the truth and that we are all are living in sin. That's the truth part. The grace comes from telling people that despite that -those deep flaws - everyone is loved; everyone is part of creation and worthy.

"I can treat you as someone who was created by God. I can and have to treat you with love," he said. "God has done everything to save people."

Through the campus ministry work Burton and his wife Shelly, a Spanish teacher at the middle school, became missionaries. The work took them to Greece, where Burton said he drank coffee and saw a lot of rioting. He describes the country (particularly the food) fondly and said it was a great opportunity to become immersed in another culture and also a great chance to preach.

When the three years ofjnis-sionary work ended, Burton returned to the U.S. wondering what to do. What happened next he said is a long story, but that it can be summarized like this: he had a friend working at a church in Kalispell who told him that the Depot Church in Deer Lodge needed a new pastor. Burton said he preached a few times at the church and then was hired as pastor.

While learning the history of the church the name Shel Hesley jumped out at him. Hesley had been a close friend of his grandfather. Burton saw it as a sign that he should be there at the Depot Church.

He also works as a bus driver, driving back and forth five days a week to the Perkins Ranch in: the south valley, to pick up children and bring them to school and home. He said it's a nice side job that gives him a little more income and is something he really enjoys.

During a recent Sunday service at the Depot, members of the congregation laid their hands on Burton and asked that he be blessed in his work at the church. Most of the congregation stood by him. It was clear in the small 40' by 20' church that the people are close and that relationship they have with Burton is an important part of that.

"Basically I'm a person here to teach, and to hopefully convince and encourage people to live like Christ," he said.

Copyright 2012 Silver State Post, Deer Lodge, Montana. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: February 15, 2012

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