JOHN DAY - Moving to a new town halfway across the nation from familiar stomping grounds can be difficult, but Pastor Daniel Benson and his young family seem to be taking the changes in stride.
Benson is the new pastor at the United Methodist churches in John Day and Prairie City. He and his wife, Karen, and their twin one-year-old sons, Jeremy and Nathan, moved to Grant County in late June from Evanston, Ill., where he had completed seminary and was a student pastor at a Methodist church in Maple Grove, Ill.
"I like it quite a bit," Benson said of living in John Day. "My wife and I met while living in northern New Hampshire, a town called Colebrook, and it's a fairly remote town. It's essentially in the corner of New Hampshire, Vermont and Quebec. There's not much out there, and we enjoyed living there.
Benson and his wife enjoy visiting the mountains and hiking the many trails in the area.
"We enjoy going for long drives. We enjoy all sorts of the outdoors sports that we could do: hiking, skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, things of that sort. And it's a very pleasant place to live. I can walk to the grocery store, which is better than I could do living in Evanston," he said.
"It's fantastic seeing the high places, the river running through. The being surrounded by natural beauty; it's much nicer than living in corn fields or in a flat city. Much more like what I grew up in. That is wonderful," he said.
The family tries to hike often.
"We were really stunned with the view of Strawberry (Mtn.) from Strawberry Lake. It was fantastic. It looked like some of the Alps we had seen while we were in Europe. We spent a few weeks one summer in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. And it was just stunning mountains," Benson said.
Benson was born in New Jersey, and grew up in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, south of Portland. He attended college in Chicago before moving to New Hampshire to work at a camp for juvenile delinquents.
"It was a year-round camp. It was a pretty intense place," said Benson. "We lived in tents through the winter. It had pot-bellied stoves so that we could stay warm. Yeah, it got cold. There would be several weeks on end each winter where we wouldn't get to zero, and it's not unheard of to get to 40 below. It was an interesting place. But it was just a place both of us were passing through to spend a few years to figure things out."
Benson felt called to serve God while attending a reconciliation service during high school.
"And with that experience, I was touched by God's grace and love. All the experiences, the knowledge of God's love and forgiveness, and what it meant, suddenly became real in my life. I felt it directly affect me," he said. "And it was an amazing experience. That evening, I couldn't go to sleep. And while I was there, trying to go to sleep, I discovered that I was hearing God call me. And I said, 'Yes, I will try, I will follow.'"
He also felt a calling to raise a family. In the Roman Catholic Church, the denomination in which he was raised, the two callings aren't very compatible. Catholic priests aren't allowed to marry.
"I wrestled with that for a long time, until I met Karen, and then said, 'Ok, I've got part of it. I want family. And I'll figure out the ministry part,'" Benson recalled. "Karen did grow up in the Methodist Church, so that was the first church we looked at. And I agreed with most of its theology and its approaches to things. It was an easy transition.
"I struggled for a long time myself with it. But that's the way things go sometimes," he said.
Benson attended seminary at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., where he received his Master's of Divinity. He is still working on his Master's of Theological Studies, but he doesn't have a timetable for completing it.
"My wife has joked that we need to take turns getting our degrees. She got her master's (a Master's of Arts in Teaching), and now I've done mine, and she's been joking that it's her turn next to get her doctorate," he said.
The biggest challenge for Benson has been trying to serve two congregations with different needs. He spends most of his time in John Day, but does spend at least one day a week in Prairie City. He says that both churches have been supportive of his efforts.
"Both congregations have been very happy to see the boys, and sometimes I think they're happier to have twins in the church than a new pastor," he said.
Benson said he's noticed the cultural difference between growing up in New England and living in the wide-open spaces of eastern Oregon.
"There is a difference in the ranching culture, and that's more prominent in Prairie City than I what I encounter here in John Day. And it's hard for me to put my finger on it, on exactly what the difference is," he said. "I would say that would be another factor, when you're pressed on by the elements, you've got to depend more upon yourself," he said.
Benson looks forward to serving his congregations for quite a while.
"We've enjoyed the communities; we've enjoyed the resources that have been available to us. The work here has been rich and meaningful, and I said before, we're surrounded by great beauty," he said. "It's just a fantastic place to be. I'm in no hurry to leave."