Some Kind of Miracle

Pastor Malcolm MacPhail preaches to the congregation at the New

New Hope Community Church Pastor Malcolm MacPhail has seen and
triumphed over hardships
Gilroy – In San Francisco near the Broadway Tunnel, a family lived in a rundown hotel in 1965. Beer bottles and smoke filled the two rooms as a man and woman barely paused between cigarettes and drinks. In one room, a small blonde boy hid while his parents screamed at each other in another drunken rage.

The boy had nowhere to turn – his older half brother joined the Navy to escape. So late at night, when his parents passed out, he climbed out of his window and took refuge in a nearby park.

That is one of the few memories Malcolm MacPhail has of his early childhood. But it is a memory that makes the life he has led even more improbable.

“The welfare (money) went to booze,” MacPhail said. “We moved from hotel to hotel in the early ’60s. We’d climb out the window when the rent was due. I had to move from school to school.”

The chaos of his early life is in sharp juxtaposition to the structured and loving life he leads now with his wife, Kathy, and their four children. They moved to Gilroy in 1992, when he was named senior pastor for New Hope Community Church.

Frank Rodriguez remembers MacPhail’s first visit to the church before he became pastor. At that time, the local branch of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God church was called First Assemblies of God.

“I remember him coming down and having lunch with my new wife and me,” Rodriguez said. He and his wife, Lisa, lived in a small apartment in Gilroy, with their 2-year-old son Nicholas.

“[MacPhail] was so personable … The first meal he had with us was taquitos, rice and beans,” he said. “And he still remembers it.”

Since then, MacPhail has led a name change, an increase in membership, a move to new quarters and, most importantly to him, an increase in the church’s work with the community.

Light From the Dark

MacPhail’s own struggles as a child give him empathy for those trying to get through hard times. He knows; he’s been there.

“I remember the shadows of some of the beatings,” MacPhail said. Though his parents abused each other both verbally and physically, they rarely involved him. Instead, he was neglected.

“I would literally walk the streets for what seemed like hours looking for the bar they were in so I could get a dollar to get candy.”

Welfare checks funded alcohol, but not food. When the family moved into a housing project in North Beach, kind neighbors invited him over for dinner when he was alone, as was often the case.

“We were on the loose all the time,” MacPhail remembers.

Then at age 9, he and other kids from the housing project snuck into a neighborhood shop and stole some candy.

“The shopkeeper caught me and decided to make an example out of me,” MacPhail said.

A Call For Help

It was his first brush with the law, but not the last. Now, one of his most cherished duties is that of chaplain for the Gilroy police and fire departments.

“He has a terrific personality for dealing with very, very stressful situations,” said Police Chief Greg Giusiana. “He has empathy for people. Of course, his theological training reinforces that.”

MacPhail carries a pager so that he can respond to crisis calls at any time, day or night. Most come between midnight and 6am.

“In a fatality situation, the family doesn’t want to see a uniform,” Giusiana said. “He can be a liaison to make sure the communication gets across in a way that relieves some of the pressure for everyone involved.”

One such call came last year, in the middle of the night, when police officers asked MacPhail to step in after a woman died of a heroin overdose.

“I met with her husband, who was a former heroin addict who was still using from time to time,” MacPhail said. “I offered to help with the funeral and met him to pray. I asked if he was open to it and the man said yes.”

That man still attends services occasionally at New Hope Community Church.

“He said how thankful he was for how much I was able to help him,” MacPhail said. “He had a new found faith.”

Despite his years as chaplain, he still finds notifying parents of an infant’s death the hardest.

“The grief and trauma a family walks through for the death of a baby is unimaginable,” he said. “I’m always impressed with how the police department handles themselves in these situations.”

He also serves as a source of strength for police officers and firefighters who need to talk to someone.

“He is a resource for us in dealing with high-stress situations,” Giusiana said.

His work with the Gilroy Police Department and the Gilroy Fire Department led to the creation of a “civil servants banquet” hosted by his church every year. Fifty church members dress up as waiters and waitresses, headed by MacPhail. They feed and honor Gilroy’s police, fire and highway patrol personnel. The local fire department looks forward to the banquet each year.

“It’s a neat little ceremony he does,” said Phil King, a fire division chief. “He does it for all the right reasons.”

For MacPhail, honoring law and safety officers has a more personal meaning. He sees much of his current work in the community as a way to give back to the many people who have helped him in life since a shopkeeper caught him stealing candy that day nearly 40 years ago.

A Different Kind of Childhood

The shopkeeper’s decision to prosecute the young shoplifter changed the course of MacPhail’s life forever. He never lived with his parents again, and only saw them once a month when he took a bus trip with a social worker to visit them. His parents missed court dates or showed up drunk, but they never relinquished their parental rights. A Catholic home for boys, the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma, took MacPhail in for two years where he lived with boys like himself.

“The boys were in and out of juvie or kids whose parents didn’t want them,” MacPhail said. “I was so happy to be there because, you know what, there was food on the table, a roof over my head and other kids just like me.”

At the center, MacPhail found that he was a gifted athlete, excelling at every sport he tried – baseball, soccer and football. He also found a family when the AuClairs took him in as a foster child at age 11.

Lonnie and Tom had four children of their own – an older son away at college and three teen-agers living at home.

“We didn’t want anyone too young. We were through the diaper stage,” Lonnie AuClair said. “He was an easy child to rear, he really was.”

Though MacPhail had lots of friends and success in sports, they struggled to get him to focus on academics. They also worked to keep their teen-agers and MacPhail interested and involved in church – though Lonnie said she had to coax the teens to attend Mass each Sunday.

Just before MacPhail’s senior year, Tom took a job in Los Angeles and the family moved. Though MacPhail made new friends, he returned to San Bruno after he graduated from high school and wrestled at Skyline Junior College until a back injury forced him off the mat. With his main motivation gone, MacPhail soon dropped out of junior college.

Finding God – Slowly

He entered what he referred to as his “partying phase,” though he was cautious.

“My mom, Lonnie, used to tell me over and over, ‘Don’t go out drinking with your friends because both your parents were severe alcoholics and there’s a good chance you could be one, too,'” he said.

On the nights he went out with friends, he could hear Lonnie’s voice in his head and most nights he ended up serving as the designated driver.

During that time, he got work as a salesman and took a class from time to time at a local college. But he started to see a purpose and direction in his life after he began attending an Assemblies of God church in San Bruno.

When he found religion, he started to see how God’s hand had directed his entire life – the good and the bad, he said.

“As a ward of the state, in a juvenile institution, in a boy’s home and in a foster home, I was always cared for,” MacPhail said. “It wasn’t all an accident. I keep surviving and I still have hope of a future.”

Religion helped him cope when both of his biological parents died within three months of each other. He was 20 and had seen his parents a couple times a year since he was taken away from them at the age of 9.

Before they died, “I met with them and forgave them verbally,” MacPhail said. “I was able to do that with both of them and it gave me closure in my life.”

He became increasingly active in the church, helping out with the youth group and starting a bible study group for college students. He was invited to a youth convention, and it was there he says he first felt the call of God in his life.

“I listened to a minister who got up to speak and he quoted a scripture,” MacPhail said. “It was Joshua, chapter 3, verse 5: ‘Sanctify yourselves: for tomorrow God will do wonders among you,'” he said. “It was as if my heart started pounding and God was talking to me.”

Though MacPhail, now 47, felt it was a defining moment in his life, he talked to his pastor for reassurance.

“I told him what happened to me and said, ‘Am I crazy?'” MacPhail said. “He said, ‘It seems like God has his hand in your life.'”

MacPhail waited a year and half before he made the leap of faith and entered bible school. In the meantime, he had taken another leap of faith.

A Family of His Own

He started seeing a petite, brown-haired, brown-eyed beauty he met at church. After only six weeks of dating, he took her to the place his parents had lived in North Beach and the boy’s home in Sonoma where he had spent two years of his life. Later that day, he walked her up a hill at Golden Gate Park and told her he loved her.

“His big line was ‘I don’t believe you can tell someone you love them unless you ask them to marry you,'” Kathy MacPhail said, as she recalled the day 22 years ago. “I started laughing. It was the first day I felt I loved him.”

The MacPhail’s’ started their life together believing that God had plans for them – and it was a belief that proved useful down the road.

Kathy worked as a dental hygienist to support her husband while he studied and took classes at a Sacramento bible college. By the time they moved to Gilroy in 1992, MacPhail took on the challenging position as senior pastor for a small congregation and Kathy stayed home to raise their three sons and a daughter.

Two years after their move, MacPhail went to the doctor complaining of a prolonged cough and weight loss. The diagnosis – leukemia – put his faith in God to the test.

Doctors told MacPhail he had two years to live and the only cure was a bone marrow transplant. With no living relatives except a half-brother who bounced around living on the streets as an alcoholic, MacPhail’s chances of finding a donor where slim.

Their ‘Walk of Faith’

“It was completely a shock,” Kathy said. “We had a 2-, 4-, 6- and 8-year-old.”

But Kathy admits it was the moment when the couple began what she calls their “faith walk.”

“Faith is so supernatural,” Kathy said. “You do your part and God does His part.”

For his part, MacPhail ignored his doctor’s grim prognosis and searched for a donor. It took five years to find a partial match donor, three years longer than doctors had given him to live. But Stanford Medical Center refused to do the procedure, saying it was too risky. MacPhail found Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle – they gave the procedure a 30 percent chance of success.

“I had 100 percent faith, plus the 30 percent chance the doctors gave me to survive,” MacPhail said. “I figured I would have 130 percent to work with.”

Despite his faith, he said he dealt with his illness realistically.

“I started spending extra time alone with each of my children because I was sick,” he said. “I had lots of faith, but the bottom line is, people still die.”

He wrote life manuals for each of the children, what he called his ABC’s for living, complete with family portraits as well as individual pictures of him with the kids.

With Kathy, he said it was harder. For her, he worked quietly and quickly to complete power of attorney paperwork and to sign a “do not resuscitate” order.

“I went into the transplant and it felt like things were winding to a pinnacle,” he said. “I wanted her to be the strongest person she could be.”

When the couple returned home after the transplant, MacPhail’s long recovery put their relationship on hold. He developed graft-versus-host disease, which affected his liver, his skin, his gastrointestinal tract and his eyes. Kathy fed him 55 pills a day, changing his IV and catheter when needed.

“To be a caregiver is another world. Nobody could understand,” Kathy said. “I could see how people could walk out. No one was caring for me.”

To make matters worse, MacPhail developed temporary manic depression from the massive amount of drugs he was taking. He and Kathy fought frequently.

“It was a two-year health issue,” MacPhail said. “That’s an endurance test for a 40-year-old man in the prime of his life.”

When the two couldn’t stand to be around each other, they would take a short break. Kathy headed to Monterey for a weekend away one time and at another time, MacPhail stayed with his foster sister.

For Kathy, the hardest moment during the ordeal came in 2000 when MacPhail returned to Stanford because of a severe allergic reaction to penicillin.

“I never experienced so much fear,” Kathy said. “I was upset with God. If it was meant to be a miracle, why have such a long recovery just for him to get sick again?”

Doctors said MacPhail had a 2 percent chance of surviving a fungal infection as he came in and out of a coma.

“Before, he was coherent. His faith encouraged me,” Kathy said. “This time he was not with me. I was alone and scared to death. I told God if I was holding on too tight to take him.”

A New Beginning

On Easter Sunday 2000, MacPhail woke up in his hospital bed and asked what had happened. Kathy recalled how he was out of bed quickly, shuffling down the hall and clowning with other patients.

“He kept telling nurses, the tomb is empty,” Kathy said. “They were all shocked.”

MacPhail spent six more months recovering before he was able to go back to work.

“Life felt normal again when I came back and preached to my congregation,” he said. “And when I started driving a car again.”

Five years later, MacPhail is off all his drugs, but his one reminder of the leukemia is his constant need for eye drops since his eyes no longer produce their own moisture. But instead of distancing himself from his illness, he has embraced it. He visits the Stanford Children’s hospital regularly to take with families who are struggling with leukemia.

As a member of the Gilroy Rotary Club, MacPhail helped launch “Project Sharelife.” The project registers bone marrow donors and helps find matches for people like MacPhail whose only chance at life is a bone marrow transplant.

“He was very lucky to match up,” said Police Chief Giusiana. “That makes him uniquely qualified to talk about it. He’s the proof that it works.”

MacPhail’s optimism in spite of dire circumstances has followed him throughout his life – from his tough beginnings in a rundown apartment to the joy of family and a fulfilling purpose in life.

“My DNA is that way,” MacPhail said, of his positive outlook. “I’m optimistic to a fault. But it’s amazing how things turn out better more often than not.”

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