One of the expectations of any pastor is, of course, to skillfully deliver a weekly sermon – and often at least 30 to 45 minutes at a time – to an audience of many. But when Parkinson’s disease weakened Pastor Steve La Farge’s speaking voice and led to his difficult decision to step down in 2016, Grace Community Christian Church also lost Barb as the pastor’s wife and office secretary.
Their loss of income – and being turned down after multiple applications for other employment involving less talking – led Steve’s life to take the unlikely detour down the path of an Uber driver. Because life is often stranger than fiction, imagine a former pastor turned Uber driver taking drunks home from a night of partying; or ferrying prostitutes to seedy places to ply their trade. Some of those ironic experiences are shared in La Farge’s new self-published book, “1000 Strangers in My Car: Adventures of a Pastor Turned Uber Driver.” Released on July 28, the book sells on Amazon.com for $13 paperback or $5 for the Kindle version.
La Farge was urged to write his book after his short-lived internet blog developed a following. The blog and subsequent new book offered him an outset for his habit of wordsmithing since his days of writing sermons had come to a screeching halt.
“I put in the first chapter of the book, ‘I’m writing this book so my head won’t explode,’” said La Farge, who drove for Uber for 18 months until he was hired fulltime by a major local manufacturer to provide security. “So you can imagine they never issued me a gun,” said Steve, cracking a humorous reference to his quaking hand.
Steve approached the driving gig like a regular fulltime job, starting at about 4 p.m. and working until midnight. His car became a secular classroom where he was schooled on the ways of life far distanced from a pastor’s. His “most frequent flyers” were drunks who needed to get safely home. He learned about the practice of “pre-drinking” for many passengers got tipsy at home on expensive booze to launch them for social drinking were drinks cost more. Steve generally ended the night of driving at midnight to avoid having early morning drinkers spewing barf into his backseat.
God provides every time
“God provided exactly what we needed, every time,” said Barb of the income Uber provided. She shared how Steve decided to take several nights off from driving to spend time with his visiting brother and how they both feared that they’d be short of money for that month’s expenses. Steve made up for it by accelerating his Uber driving schedule, and in particular, a single drive to Firebaugh involving a prostitute meeting up with a customer. The story is included in his book.
“You have to read the book – the stories are incredible,” interjected Barb.
The ride began at the Tiki Lodge in Modesto when he picked up the young woman, dressed in a leather mini skirt and wearing stilettos, who needed to go to a west Merced County motel. La Farge said Uber doesn’t let drivers know the destination beforehand.
“She was on the phone arranging dates for later in the afternoon so it was pretty obvious what she did for a living,” Steve remembered. Normally he didn’t pry into the passenger’s life but this time he mustered up the courage to ask how she got involved in prostitution. Her mother – a Ninth Street hooker – introduced her to it, she explained. “Her mom arranged her first tricks.”
Steve reluctantly consented to her request that she wait for a ride back to Modesto. Twelve minutes later they were on road again. He expressed sympathy that the woman felt she had to sell her body, to which she replied, “It is what it is.”
Because of the ride was offered during surge timr – in which Uber drivers are given extra pay during heavy demand – the fare was exactly what the La Farges needed to make up their budget shortfall
La Farge said he wouldn’t always share with riders that he was a former pastor because it would result in awkward silence. But if he was asked about his life he was honest. One rider called him “father,” all night; another time a person apologized profusely for uttering obscenities during the ride. But once he urged another prostitute who took one of Steve’s Uber rides from the Apex Motel on Yosemite Boulevard to read the Bible in her motel room.
Upon learning that he had been a pastor, riders would occasionally lob difficult questions from the back seat about God or life. More than once he was asked for advice how to handle problems in relationships.
In the book Steve relates how he picked up a couple at a local hospital where they had just watched his mother being removed from life support following a severe stroke that incapacitated her. When the ride came to an end Steve asked if he could pray with them. “Moments like this were rare but no one ever said no,” wrote La Farge in his introduction titled “God’s classroom.”
La Farge says his book avoids a preachy tone because the professional editor who cleaned up his collection of short stories felt readers wants to “learn with me not from me.”
Life has vastly changed
Parkinson’s has vastly changed life for the couple, who met at San Jose Bible College and married 37 years ago. Their ministries together have taken them to churches in Florence, Ore., Seattle, Wash., and Pasco, Wash. He left 17 years of ministry at a Pasco church to assume the Ceres pastoral role at Grace in 2008, replacing Wayne Unger who started the popular Journey to Bethlehem Christmas program with wife Sue Unger.
Shortly after coming to Ceres, Steve suspected something wrong was going on with his body. Eventually the tremors and muscle pain could no longer be ignored. A doctor ruled out carpel tunnel syndrome and said he was displaying signs of the early onset of Parkinson’s. After being diagnosed Steve’s first question for the doctor was if Parkinson’s would prove fatal. His doctor point-blank told him not usually but “it just makes you miserable until something else kills you.”
The news was hard to take in but reality set in when gradually his voice became hoarse under the strain of delivering a sermon.
“The church made a valiant attempt to change some things to keep me there. They kept taking away responsibilities on Sundays so I’d have enough voice to get through the sermon and eventually I was just preaching the sermon and that was it. The church wanted me to stay. Even when I resigned they said they’d find a place to put me. But Grace isn’t that big so I knew that financially they couldn’t afford it.”
Grace had about 150 to 175 members.
Life has slowed down
“Our life has slowed down a lot,” said Barb. “Being in the ministry we were gone sometimes five or six nights a week and having people over a lot and he just doesn’t have the energy for that anymore.”
The couple has been worshiping at Ceres Christian Church, which has been offering drive-up services during the COVID-19 restrictions.
“People just sit in their cars,” she said. “Instead of clapping they honk their horns. It’s kind of fun, actually.”
Barb helps Steve around the house, such as making sure he takes his four rounds of medication daily to control tremors.
“It’s affected his balance,” said Barb. “He used to be an avid bike rider and had to stop doing that. It’s affected his sense of smell.”
Big move ahead
Steve has had to battle the depression associated with the reality of Parkinson’s – partly because of the negative effect on life but because his brain isn’t producing enough dopamine, the neurotransmitter that affects mood and plays a role in how we feel pleasure.
Both are hoping the downer moments subside by living closer to family a son and two grandchildren in Portland, Ore. They received an offer on their Eastgate home within days of listing and plan next month to leave behind their 12-year experience in Ceres to build a granny flat home on their son’s lot. But on Friday they said those plans could change if rioting does not settle down in the hotbed of social unrest.
“It’s going to be hard to leave,” Barb said. “We’ve got a lot of friends here. We’ll miss the people and I’ll miss the mild winters and warmer summers. Steve likes it not so hot.”