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Attending Cowboy Church at the San Benito County Fair this past Sunday [Oct. 1] reminded me of Ardyss Golden, minister at Hollister United Methodist Church (HUMC) from 1995 to 2012. Ardyss died in January, 80 years old, after a brief illness. Ardyss initiated Cowboy Church at the Fair a few years ago because she lived her belief that the church is everywhere and, anywhere you are, you can welcome people to share God’s love and Jesus’ message of hope.

I met her when my family moved to Hollister in 2001. After commuting for work all week, I didn’t want to drive an hour each way to get to a Quaker meeting on Sunday. But I quickly felt at home with Ardyss as my pastor demonstrating by example the Methodist philosophy of “Open Hearts, Open Doors, and Open Minds.”

Ardyss was adventuresome. When middle-aged, she moved her family of husband George and four sons from New York state to San Francisco so she could study for a Master’s degree in Costume Design. Then she felt called to the ministry and pursued a Divinity degree at age 50. Hollister was her first and only church where she served as minister.

I expect people know many stories about her, but here are some of my favorite memories of her life and work here:

Ardyss saw everything around her as an opportunity to spread the love of Jesus. Wherever she saw a need, she thought of how to give of herself to help. At one point, she was a chaplain working with the Hollister Police Department as they responded to almost daily trouble calls at Rancho San Justo Middle School. This exposed her to young people at Juvenile Hall, which led to Ardyss and George becoming foster parents to six youth.

Seeing her foster kids struggle at school, she fought for IEPs and remedial tutoring. One 9th grader was barely reading at a 4th grade level because they had been in so many different schools as they moved from one foster home to another in their childhood. She became concerned enough about San Benito High School (now called Hollister High) that she decided to run for school board of the high school. Alas, some ballots were already printed and mailed when the County Elections Office realized that she lived just outside the SBHS district in the San Juan-Aromas School District.

As she was trying to rebuild relationships among estranged families, she felt handicapped by not being able to talk to the teens’ parents in Spanish. When Gavilan College offered a month long Spanish immersion course in Zacatecas in January, she decided to go. She lived with a family and said her layers of long underwear were barely enough to cope with the penetrating chill of an under-heated house in winter. Every night she watched a soap opera with her landlady.

Although she felt her progress in Spanish was limited, we were confident that she had absorbed a fair bit because for at least a month after she returned, she called her landlady regularly to catch up on the plot developments in the telenovela they watched together. My impression is that she helped reconcile at least one family because they appreciated her trying to communicate by using every word she knew in Spanish.

The Goldens first lived downtown on Monterey Street, then bought a house on five acres nicknamed the Golden Ark Ranch. Ardyss got a horse plus other animals like chickens and goats. When the County Sheriff’s Department started a Mounted Search and Rescue Team, Ardyss volunteered. I heard that she brought her horse to the training but unfortunately, it flunked the test of staying calm during noises like helicopters and fireworks or flares. But I think she stayed on the team in the capacity of chaplain.

Her life experiences affected her choices of how to serve. She had a past career in nursing home administration, so she started a communion service on the first Sunday of the month in the community room of the William and Inez Mabie Skilled Nursing facility. HUMC members came to sing songs and share communion wine and bread with twenty residents, most of them in wheelchairs. Her sermons were inspirational; I remember one when she told the residents that she was grateful for their smiles that she knew were important in creating a healing atmosphere among the staff and residents.

You may have heard of the “Holy-Stir?” It was the nickname of an inter-faith group (say it fast and out loud – hear the pun of “Hollister”?) that maybe started with the Christian pastors and Catholic priests meeting for lunch or coffee every so often. Then it evolved into a quarterly worship service, held on a rotating basis in Sacred Heart Church, Four Square Gospel, the Episcopalian Church, and the Methodist Church. The pastors shared roles equally in leading each service; the singing and music was first rate.

My understanding is that she and Barbara Nicoara initiated the Maundy Thursday celebration of Jesus’ last supper. We ate traditional seder dinner foods and read the prayers in English and Hebrew from an abbreviated Haggadah.

I was in the background, but I got the feeling that Ardyss was a master at collaboration and securing the help of other people for projects and programs. Musician and singer John Gay wrote several new songs every year at her request. At Christmas, she worked with social workers to identify the children in foster care and what they hoped to get as Christmas presents. Church and community members would select a kid or two and
fulfill their wishes. It could take Ardyss and Loree Van Bebber two days to wrap all the hundreds of presents. Another Christmas project involved delivering clothing, food, and toys to a migrant farmworker camp.

There are other ways she worked as a community builder, trying to expand cross-cultural relationships and understanding. Not long after 9/11, HUMC sponsored a weeknight panel presentation, “What is Islam?,” with speakers from the Silicon Valley Islamic Center. We were free to ask any questions about Muslim beliefs and practices so that we could see that the religion had nothing to do with the people responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Another night, a Japanese-American couple who had both been interned during World War II, gave a presentation about their camp experience. They weren’t church members but were helping us by directing the HUMC choir. They grew up in different camps and met after the war. Toshi said he had only spoken in public once in fifty years about his childhood in the internment camp. He felt he couldn’t stay silent now because he was so concerned that 9/11 might cause Muslim-Americans to be treated unfairly, just like the Japanese-Americans incarcerated after the Pearl Harbor bombing even though it was conducted by people from Japan with no ties to American citizens of Japanese heritage.

Ardyss told one of Hollister’s funeral homes that if they heard that a family wanted a minister to preside at a funeral, she would be glad to do it, no matter when was the last time they had been in a church or which church or no church. Often after one of these funerals, she told us how she felt honored and blessed to meet the family and friends of the deceased, learn about the life of their loved one, and speak words of comfort and praise.

When the Biker rally restarted, Ardyss embraced the opportunity of having thousands of motorcyclists visit Hollister over the 4th of July weekend. HUMC served the “biker breakfast” for three mornings as a community event. Ardyss donned a black leather vest and helped organize the “blessing of the bikes” with some other pastors.

Ardyss beat back her own cancer, and, before and after, helped many church members on their cancer journey. One of them, Dorothy Lane, was told that she had six months to live. Dorothy was an intense fan of Elvis, and somehow we cooked up a plan to invite an Elvis impersonator (thank you Mike Schurig!) as a surprise guest singing Elvis’ gospel songs. We prepared the church bulletin so it looked like a normal Sunday and we told Dorothy’s relatives so they could fly in, hide, and then accompany Elvis when he entered the sanctuary during the service. The “Elvis therapy” clearly worked because Dorothy lived another two years.

HUMC was active in the 24 hour Relay for Life celebration of the American Cancer Society. Several dozen people camped in a tee pee and formed a team to walk the high school track throughout night. One year, Ardyss suggested combining Vacation Bible School sessions during the Relay event, because church members were getting worn out from a lot of summer activities, like the biker breakfasts.

As a downtown church (corner of Monterey Street and 5 th street), HUMC was positioned on the front lines of seeing homeless people 20 years ago. They would camp in our doorway because they knew we would likely offer them a warm coat, sleeping bag, and a grocery store gift card. The County Sheriff’s office would call Ardyss on her cell phone on the weekend about a homeless family they found and ask for help with a motel voucher and McDonald’s gift certificates. One day, she asked why the Sheriff’s Office always seemed to call her and not another larger wealthier congregation.

The answer was: “Well, you always answer your phone and do something. With the others, we either get a recording or they tell us to call their office on Monday morning.”

One year, Ardyss became a mentor to a young Methodist pastor from Tonga and suggested including him as Assistant Pastor at HUMC to help build his experience. He had close ties to the Tongan members of the Methodist Church in Seaside, which led to a luau to celebrate the 93rd birthday of church member Alice. The Seaside Tongans brought us a banquet of traditional foods and their drummers, singers, and dancers to perform beautifully.

Rory and Robin did a good job of handling Cowboy Church at the Fair this year. It would be extra special at the 2024 Fair if they team up with Russ Wood of HUMC who presented Cowboy Church with Ardyss for many years. Worshipping together there offers an opportunity to express our gratitude for the many blessings of San Benito County agriculture, community, creativity, and faith. Thank you Ardyss for establishing the tradition.