Father walks through fire
by Jim Boyle
Billy and Michelle Sanderson of Zimmerman have lost nearly all their physical possessions in a Feb. 15 house fire.
But the couple — a youth pastor in Rochester and a marketing professional for Great River Energy in Maple Grove — have managed to keep things in perspective.
“We have lost everything, but in reality we still have what’s important,” Billy said Saturday over coffee at Dunn Bros Coffee in Elk River. “We have our family and we have Levi.
“We’re grieving our losses, but we’re grieving with hope. We’re keeping an eternal perspective. None of the things we had were going to last.”
Things could have turned out drastically different. The Star News reported in last week’s edition how Billy smelled smoke while rocking his teething son. When he put Levi down and went to check, he found the living room where he had been reading his Bible and preparing for an upcoming church retreat was filled with smoke and fire. He darted back upstairs.
“He told me he hit like two steps going up,” Michelle said. “I’m sure his adrenaline was running.”
Billy grabbed Levi and came barrelling down to realize his only option for exiting was to go through the flames to reach the front door.
Firefighters estimated another minute and they would not have made it out of the fire without serious injury or death.
“To know I was just seconds from losing my entire family, it’s horrific,” Michelle says.
“I don’t think about that too long, because it won’t get me anywhere.”
After the fire at 11605 261st Ave., Billy and Michelle debated how to handle that weekend’s youth retreat, a haven for 200 youth and young adults from two churches. He decided to attend and draw upon his life experiences.
He had little choice. His notes burned up in the fire. He gave sermons on how God is with you — even in times of trials.
He has been clinging to several verses in the Bible, including Isaiah 43:2.
It reads like this:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
“When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”
Billy and Michelle met briefly in 2005 at River of Life where Sanderson was a youth pastor, and then she left for New York to nanny for a year.
The Elk River native lived in Queens and cared for two boys for a family. And quite honestly she forgot about Billy over the course of the year she was away.
He did not forget about her.
“The first time I met her I knew I was going to marry her,” Sanderson said. “She didn’t know it, but I knew.”
They married in May of 2007 and moved to “the farm,” a 54-acre parcel of land that came with a home and pole shed. They bought it with youth events in mind, and they had plenty of bonfires and games of capture the flag with church youth groups.
The couple was told in October of 2008 that she would not be able to conceive a child due to medical problems she had over the years, but God apparently had other plans. She was already pregnant at the time of this declaration, but the Sandersons and her doctor didn’t know it. A pregnancy test on Nov. 7 uncovered the news.
“We were surprised and blessed,” Michelle recalled.
As it turns out she had an easy pregnancy, easy childbirth and a healthy boy in July of 2009.
A week later Billy was let go from his position as youth pastor at River of Life. Turmoil had led members of the board to resign and Sanderson said he became a casualty of that movement.
He didn’t, however, stay unemployed long. He was hired at the Quarry in Monticello. He helped them develop a youth ministry, putting into place some of the foundational components that were needed.
Then late last year he got a job offer in Rochester at Autumn Ridge Church, a 2,500 member church with two youth pastor positions. He has been making the two-hour trek, staying there for four or five days and returning home for two to three days a week.
At least he likes to think it’s three days, but Michelle corrects him, noting it is more like two.
The couple had put their house up for sale, and they are now more eager than ever to re-locate in Rochester, as there is nothing left of their home.
They are staying at Michelle’s parents home in Elk River, and exploring temporary housing their insurance company has mentioned it offers.
The process so far has been overwhelming, Billy said. “I never knew there is so much to do,” Sanderson said.
The Sandersons say it has been humbling to be on the receiving end of so much generosity.
There is a fund set up at Autumn Ridge in Rochester and Elk River Dunn Bros is accepting clothes, household items and gift cards.
“We have had some surprises in the few years we have been married,” Michelle said. “Some good, some bad.”
The fire falls into the latter category, of course. But she’s thankful not to be planning a funeral.
There’s already more good on the horizon, as Michelle and Billy are expecting their second child.
“Our faith keeps us from panicking through all of this,” Michelle said. “It’s not that I don’t cry. I do. But I know everything’s going to be OK.”