Transforming Grace
By Susan Fikse

When Dick and Liz Kaufmann started Harbor Church in San Diego, they began each meeting by sharing stories of gospel renewal — answers to prayer, transformation in people’s lives, God advancing His kingdom. “I know there are churches where it’s all about numbers and the bottom line. Telling these stories kept us aware of what God was doing,” explains Liz. And God was doing — building a movement of churches in a city with one of the country’s lowest rates of churches per capita. “The vision was to see the binational city of San Diego-Tijuana transformed through filling that area with gospel churches that would lead to spiritual, social, and cultural renewal,” says Dick.

But not long after they arrived in San Diego from New York, the athletic and active Dick Kaufmann started experiencing strange symptoms — disruption of his sleep and difficulty with balance. An injury prompted a visit to a sports therapist. “He told me to stand on one foot and close my eyes,” remembers Dick. “As soon as I did, I fell over so quickly, he could hardly catch me.” After the scary uncertainty of that fall, Kaufmann visited a neurologist in hopes of finding an explanation. “When the neurologist said, ‘I want to do exploratory surgery on your brain,’ I knew it was time to get a new neurologist!” laughs Dick. Eventually, he received the diagnosis of Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type 8 (SCA8), a rare genetic disease that first affects balance and coordination because it deteriorates the cerebellum.

Liz believes that the practice of focusing on stories of God’s transforming grace prepared them to confront this crushing diagnosis. “Grace-renewal stories are such a part of our DNA — even more so than the SCA8. We’ve heard so many stories about how God turns the tables on evil.” All those stories of God transforming tragedy into beauty convinced them He would do the same in their lives.

Despite the challenge of living with SCA8, Dick served as senior pastor of a two-site congregation and oversaw a church-planting center. The stories of God’s transforming work that continued to characterize Harbor bolstered their confidence that He was in control of all things, even when they felt inadequate. “There’s this excitement that God works in spite of ourselves,” says Liz. “It’s sometimes embarrassing, but exciting. We really can’t make a mistake; no matter how much we mess up, God’s going to make it work!”

But almost as proof that everything was going well, colon cancer visited Dick on an errand of destruction. The stage 3B cancer demanded immediate surgery. Liz faced the worst after hours in the waiting room: “When the surgeon came out, he thought it was really bad.”

Dick remembers fear ravaging his mind as he lay alone in his hospital bed after the surgery: “Being a Christian, you believe that when you die, you’re going to heaven. I believed that, but at times I would be gripped with fear of death. I’m gonna die! It would catch me, and I’d get shortness of breath.”

Answering this suffocating fear and depression, God uniquely revealed His mystery to Dick, comforting him with His presence. “The only thing I can say is that God gave me a vision in the hospital one night,” he remembers. “It was a beautiful thing and a terrifying thing. It was life-changing for me. Since that night, I just have the greatest peace about looking forward to being with the Lord.”

After Dick’s bout with SCA8 and colon cancer, onlookers would have understood if the Kaufmanns exchanged their ministry garb for bathing suits and beach chairs. But if they were the type to be easily deterred, Harbor wouldn’t exist. “Dick was raised in the kind of mentality where you do it all, and if one thing didn’t work, you tried another,” says Liz. “Our lifestyle has always been flexible and seeing life as an adventure,” she explains. “We get uncomfortable when we get too comfortable.” And that’s clear from their trajectory. From the day Dick came to know Christ, he felt called into ministry, and that ministry led the couple to urban centers crisscrossing the U.S. They first used their home in rural New Jersey to invite friends and colleagues to hear the Gospel but left that idyllic farm life to help plant a church in urban Philadelphia. They traversed the country to start a church in Escondido, Calif., and then joined Tim Keller in New York City in Redeemer’s early days. And then it was back to San Diego in the late 1990’s.

Knowing how difficult it would be to live in Manhattan with Dick’s illness, they are thankful to be in the mild climate of relatively easy-to-navigate San Diego. “I am constantly reminded of how God directed our steps back here, even though it wasn’t our agenda. It was His agenda,” says Liz. And this is where they will continue to serve God in the city. “For me, I’m going to continue in ministry as long as the Lord allows me to,” says Dick.

But the suffering Dick has endured means that ministry will look quite different from what he planned. Dick was the visionary and glue for the Harbor church network since its inception, but his ability to continue this role is compromised by SCA8. “In the past I’ve been a strong trainer and coach,” he explains. “I didn’t ever see myself as a mentor.” Thinking of three categories — “know, do, and be” — Dick says his strength previously was in the first two. “I knew stuff and could tell people about it. I told them what to do. Now that my cognitive abilities have messed me up, I can just be. Now I can have an impact as a mentor.”

Although Kaufmann may not have characterized himself as a mentor, many considered him pretty good at the “be” part of mentoring all along. Paul Kim, one of the Harbor pastors since 2001, says that his decision to plant a church in San Diego was influenced largely by the mentoring and support he would receive working with the Kaufmanns. “Looking back, I am incredibly thankful to have learned so much. Not only about Gospel-centered ministry and mission, but also what humble, Christ-like leadership looks like, in God working in and through Dick.” Dick’s presence with the Harbor pastors is different now but even more insightful as a result of his experiences. Kim says, “He is affectionately (but respectfully) considered to be Yoda or Gandalf by the church planters. I know of no one else in my life who models such grace and humility, and strength through weakness, than Dick.”

As Dick and Liz were cultivating the work of gospel renewal in others, God was sowing His own story of transformation in them. They point to I Peter 4:12-13 to help explain the purpose in their pain: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” Dick says, “When God allows us to suffer for Jesus’ sake, we are advancing God’s kingdom. That gives me courage and confidence that God is going to turn the tables on evil and use it for good.”

Despite the devastation of SCA8 and colon cancer, Dick says, “I would not have wanted to miss this season of my life. When I think of what God has done, I am filled with great joy but also with great humility. It is not what I have done; it is that we had the opportunity to follow along with Him.” As Harbor churches across San Diego continue to grow and multiply, Dick’s faulty DNA is not what will be inherited by thousands of people. Rather, the DNA of grace renewal and God’s transforming power will be the legacy of Dick and Liz Kaufmann.

Scroll to Top