The Little Tugboat: My Father’s Call to Ministry

I am delighted to feature this memoir penned by my mother, Joy Palma, in honor of her late father, Joseph Rubbo. Grandpa Rubbo (1920-1998) pastored Bayside Church in Queens, New York for thirty-two years. He served for a number of years as the Eastern District Overseer of the Christian Church of North America (with more than twenty churches under his charge) and as the secretary of La voce della speranza (The Voice of Hope) radio program. On this day, August 13, 2020, we join in the centennial celebration of his birth, relishing the life and memory of a dedicated husband, father (and grandfather), and servant of God.

GUEST POST BY JOY PALMA

My dad never intended to become a pastor. He wanted to be a lawyer, but as the eldest son of immigrant parents he was expected to learn a trade in high school and begin helping to support his family, so that is just what he did. He trained to be a printer and by graduation was apprenticed as an offset printer, which at the time (long before the advent of computers) was considered to be an art form. He eventually earned the position of foreman with Robertson Printing on 44th Street in NYC where his expertise in color analysis was highly valued. He loved his work. But he loved something else far more.

He had a passion for Christ and His Kingdom, and youth work especially captivated his attention. It was the 1940s and the concept of youth-focused ministry was just coming of age. His work began at the Herkimer Street Church in Brooklyn, which he had attended since childhood, but it quickly evolved into district-wide endeavors through Christian Standard Bearers, a city wide youth organization. His enthusiasm was contagious! He thrived in promoting youth rallies and programs and in teaching Bible classes. He soon discovered that his trade was a great asset to his ministry. It was not uncommon to hear, late into the night, the whir of his foot-pedaled printing press (housed in a backroom of the church), printing out promotional posters, songbooks, study guides, and certificates of achievement. He loved organizing elaborate Christmas programs and special events to further motivate youth involvement. Eager for in-depth study of the Word, he enrolled in evening classes at Shelton Bible Institute and earned a ministry certificate in 1953.

The following year, his father died at age 60. Married by then and a father of two, Dad also needed now to assume responsibility for his mother and five younger siblings—three still at home, including one who was handicapped. I can remember the painful boils that developed on the back of Dad’s neck in response to the pressures placed on this young man, 34-years-old.

It was also at this time that a small congregation in Bayside, Queens asked for his help. He had often visited the group who worshipped in the basement of a home across the street from the church they were in the process of building, but they were having trouble getting it off the ground. Disagreements between the pastor and congregation brought the work to a screeching halt. Only the foundation was done and there it sat; an eye sore in testament to the difficulties of this fledgling church. Dad tried to help the pastor but it soon became obvious to the parishioners that Dad had the leadership skills and dedication needed to take the helm. The pastor resigned and the church wanted Dad to take his place.

He’d come to love this congregation, but his immediate response was there would be no possible way for him to assume such a monumental task. He wasn’t up to the challenge. How could he assume such a responsibility, especially in addition to everything else on his plate? No way. Not him. But God had other plans.

At the time, there was a tugboat strike in NYC harbor. Commerce and travel relied on these small boats to lead the giant ocean liners out to sea. Without them, economic disaster was a guarantee. With the church’s request on his mind, Dad had a dream. In it, it was as though he was a little tugboat guiding an ocean liner out to sea. He was overwhelmed with joy in seeing what something so small could do. He awoke moved with conviction. God showed him that as insignificant as he felt he was, it was up to him to bring this ocean liner, the Bayside Church, out to sea. He resolved to obey the call but just until the ship was at sea, the building complete.

Tugboat in NYC harbor

Within a year, the church, enhanced by his eye for color, dedication to perfection, and reverence for God expressed through gothic embellishments, was done. The people begged him to stay longer and longer he did. In fact, he stayed 31 years longer.

For 25 of those years he declined a salary from the church, choosing instead to support himself and his family by his printing profession. He said he wanted to be like Paul, the tentmaker. He found his art form and the daily journey into the city enlivened his work in the church all the more, kept his finger on the pulse of things, and caused him to rely more fully on God’s strength. And what strength it was! On Wednesdays and Thursdays I watched him leave for the city at 7 AM, return at 6 PM, and at 8 PM mount the pulpit for services or attend to the needs of his flock. Time not spent with the church found him devoting countless hours to his work as a district CCNA overseer or taping, producing, and distributing La Voce Della Speranza, a radio outreach to Italians.

When cancer struck him in 1975, he was forced to give up one of his full time jobs. He chose his greatest passion over his secondary one and left Robertson Printing Corporation to continue pastoring the Bayside church for another decade. Still the Herkimer Street printing press, now housed in the basement of our home, could be heard whirring late into the night, printing up church bulletins and such. Many were the nights I fell asleep to the familiar rhythm of the press, comforted in knowing that my Dad was busy doing the work he loved, using his trade to enhance his ministry.

Decades later, Dad’s eyes still lit up when he reminisced about those glory years, as he called them, and never once did he regret responding to the call to be a little tugboat!

AUTHOR BIO

Joy Palma is a retired schoolteacher with a passion for teaching her favorite subject, the Bible. With a commitment to in-depth scholarship and interactive instruction, she delights in helping others discover their greatest happiness in a relationship with God that is nourished by an understanding of His Word. Joy is the teaching-director for an area Bible study and a featured speaker at women’s conferences and retreats. She and her husband, Tim, have four grown children and seven grandchildren.

Published by Paul J. Palma

Paul J. Palma is a professor of Christian history and theology at Regent University. His new book, Italian American Pentecostalism and the Struggle for Religious Identity, is part of the Routledge Studies in Religion series. Paul is a contributing writer for CBN.com and the Pneuma Review. He enjoys spending quality time with his family, whether on walks together, going to the beach, fishing, or work around the yard.

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