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Dillman retiring as Place of Refuge pastor
Pastor Mike Dillman during a Memorial Weekend Commemoration event at Woodward Park. - photo by Bulletin file photo

Sundays are special days for Mike Dillman.

For the best part of the last 50 years, he has spent them sharing the Word with the faithful knowing that among those in the pews are some in pain, some who are hurting, and some that are facing fears.

Giving people comfort and hope has been Dillman’s calling.

On Sunday, June 20, The Assembly of God pastor is stepping down from the pulpit he has occupied for the past 11 years at The Place of Refuge. A farewell tribute to Dillman and his wife Jan is scheduled for that day at the church from noon to 2 p.m.

It doesn’t mean he’s retiring from his faith — far from it. Although at age 67 he decided it was time to try new ventures, he isn’t straying from his outreach effort that has involved him in a wide repertoire of things in the community not of which the least is the Memorial Weekend Commemoration that just finished its 10th year.

Dillman has no regrets.

“I would tell people it is worth it,” Dillman said of being a pastor. “Any occupation is worth it that can lift the hearts of people.”

Dillman has nothing but praise for The Place of Refuge congregation, its staff and his replacement — Dave Bliss who once served under him at the 486 Button Avenue place of worship where he had a dynamic youth ministry. Bliss is currently serving as pastor at the Oakdale Assembly of God.

“They (the congregation) were willing and supportive of allowing me to go out into the community,” Dillman said. “They have been big supporters of making the Memorial Weekend happen and have pledged to continue doing do.”

Dillman also plans to continue his work with the Memorial Weekend.

“I’m the dreamer and they (the congregation and staff) are the people that make the dream come true,” Dillman said in reference to Memorial Weekend and other undertakings of The Place of Refuge.

Wasn’t looking for

a church to pastor

11 years ago

Dillman wasn’t looking for another church to pastor when he returned to the area after serving in Grass Valley. His mother in Ripon had recently become widowed while his first grandchild was on the way. Dillman and his wife Jan simply thought it was an opportune time to return home.

The Place of Refuge, unbeknownst to Dillman, was looking for a pastor. He was contacted by a member of the congregation that had attended a church that Dillman led for years in Modesto who asked him to interview. Somewhat reluctant at first, Dillman agreed to an interview.

It was at that interview that he said his vision for serving in a ministry wasn’t simply contained within the four walls of a church building. The congregation agreed.

Dillman said he wished he had bought a sign that he saw once and placed it above the doors leading from the church that read, “You are now entering your ministry field.”

To that end Dillman has been involved in efforts to help the homeless, serves on the Valley Community Action Programs board and is a strong member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion.

Put faith to work

in foreclosure crisis

He has also led other ventures that served as a beacon of sorts in times of darkness,

The most high profile was the church embracing Dillman’s proposal at the height of the foreclosure crisis to purchase a home on Grant Street that had become the Manteca poster home for all that was wrong at the time.

The home had become a magnet for the homeless, druggies, and vandals that thoroughly trashed the inside. Because the mortgage had been split between banks and resold numerous times, the police were powerless to do much of anything since they couldn’t determine who owned the home.

At the same time when someone in the community read of what Dillman and the church were preparing to do, they wrote letters to the Bulletin saying the pastor was a fool that was jeopardizing the church’s hard-earned money.

Six months later, the church had bought the home, repaired it, sold it, pocketed a tidy profit they used for mission work and brought stability and a sense of safety back to the neighborhood.

Dillman noted the foreclosure project was symbolic of the outreach ministry to give people hope and to combat negativity. It also underscored the fact that even in darkness there is hope and opportunity to serve.

Dillman, who delivered his first message at 17 and got his credential to preach at age 22, said he is “perplexed by the world we live in.”

“I never expected that churches would become a marketing conglomerate where so many churches find it necessary to be a marketing enterprise to fill the pews (instead of relying on) simple faith and devotion to worship,” Dillman said.

There was a time Dillman said when the church’s competition was “the bar” and other worldly pursuits that fought for the attention of man.

“I think our message has been greatly diluted,” Dillman said of the need to market churches. “It’s not to say the World is being lost but now it is all about the packaging.”

That said, Dillman notes “my faith is still intact but I’m not without my wounds. Sometimes I do get disillusioned.”

Based on his last 50 years, Dillman has one piece of advice for someone who has the calling to serve as pastor: “If you can avoid it, do it.”

“That means the calling has to be so strong so great that you literally can do nothing else but embrace it. . . . The cost is so great that the commitment has to be that great.”

Dillman grew

up in Stockton

Dillman grew up in Stockton. His grandmother got Dillman to go to church as a young boy.

He’d get out of school at 3 p.m. and then go deliver the Record when he was 12 years old.

He’d swim in canals in the summer to stay cool.  During his high school years he’d hang out with friends at the A&W Root Beer Drive In that once stood near where Weberstown Mall is today. After graduating from Stagg High in 1965, Dillman had his heart set on a career as a minister.

It wasn’t a dream his parents shared.

So when he went to Bible college there was no financial support from his parents. The money he saved lasted about a year before he had to dropout. That same day he dutifully went to the Post Office to have his student deferment changed making him eligible for the draft.

As a 19-year-old in boot camp at Fort Dix, New Jersey, he was among the soldiers a chaplain approached to see if anyone was interested in being a chaplain’s assistant. Dillman thought that sounded like a good way to avoid Vietnam.

He passed the interview and was accepted for chaplain assistant training at Fort Hamilton in New York.

His orders caught him off guard. Of the 35 men being trained as chaplain’s assistants, 34 including him had orders to ship out to Vietnam.

Dillman termed his initial time in Vietnam as “very quiet” until the first chaplain he was assigned to returned stateside.

That changed when he was assigned to Chaplain Russell with the 82nd Airborne.

“He was gung-ho and wanted to be where the men were fighting on the front lines,” Dillman recalled in an interview last year. “We’d hitch rides on helicopters to go from fire camp to fire camp. Russell (as a chaplain) was not armed. I was his body guard, his sole protector plus I had to protect myself.”

Dillman saw a lot of action. Then one night the fire camp they were at experienced incoming fire. In the confusion he became separated from the chaplain.

“I lost track of him in the fog of war.” Dillman said.

The chaplain was seriously wounded and was sent stateside.

His third chaplain was a Catholic priest who insisted on visiting the large morgue three to four times a week at Cam Ranh Bay.

There Dillman accompanied him as they unzipped body bags so the priest could touch the flesh of the men and administer the last rites.

“Sometimes there weren’t bodies in bags, it was just body parts,” Dillman recalled.

Dillman then would dutifully type out letters of condolences assuring grieving relatives that last rites had been administered for the priest to sign.

War in Vietnam

changed his life

“Back then we were losing 600 men a week,” Dillman. “That compares to 600 we have been losing each year in the war on terror.”

The war in Vietnam changed his life.

“You try to put it behind you but you can’t,” Dillman said.

Dillman, who later was diagnosed of having posttraumatic stress disorder, kept his demons from his congregation. He had nightmares, would sweat extensively suffered from constipation and period of fainting.

“I keep waiting for God to help me,” Dillman said.

Finally in 1992 an ultimatum from his wife of 26 years helped hem start to turn the corner.

“She told me that she loved me but she couldn’t go on living like this,” Dillman recalled in 2014.

Dillman accessed Veterans Administration support groups and got help.

As Vietnam veteran he saw fellow Americans die in the jungles of Southeast East Asia. Then he came home and almost lost his wife, his ministry and his family to post-traumatic stress disorder.

He credits extensive work staging the Memorial Day Weekend Commemoration that he has undertaken with the help of hundreds of volunteers so the ultimate sacrifices of men and women serving American will never be taken for granted or forgotten as being his therapy.

“It is what has saved me,” Dillman said.