Pastor Avery Dees: A pillar of light for Truelight Church

Pastor Avery Dees outside the Truelight Missionary Baptist Church.

The Desert Review is doing a continual series highlighting local pastors, religious staffers and volunteers, ministers, and others who make an impact in our religious communities in order to highlight their good works.

EL CENTRO — A small, humble but curious-looking church building with a rich history sits along First Street, just across from the Senior Center, like a beacon of light on the east side of El Centro.

The church has undergone the loss of its major church building, shrinking attendance over the years as people have moved or passed away, and the same trials-by-COVID-fires as all have experienced the past few years, yet the Truelight Missionary Baptist Church seems like the little church that could — and keeps — chugging along the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the leadership of Pastor Avery Dees.

Dees, originally from Yuma, moved to the Imperial Valley in 1984 through a job opportunity in retail when he was in his late 20s. He grew playing football for Yuma High School but was “on a path to burning Hell” through his college life, he said.

“I was doing all that I thought I was big and bad enough to do … living a very worldly life without The Lord Jesus Christ,” Dees said.

“I had been ‘raised around church but never part of the church,’” he said. “I used to go to church but never went to learn.”

After high school, Dees earned a football scholarship out of Arizona Western College in Yuma to play at Western State College (now Western State University) in Colorado.

After college, it was at a fitness center in Yuma in May of 1982 during a conversation with an acquaintance who he saw routinely working and working out there that began to change his life.

Dees said he shared a story with the then 19-year-old man about how he narrowly survived a car accident on the icy roads of Colorado.

“I slid around with chains on, and they didn’t do any good, the car was out of control,” Dees recalled. “It didn’t just turn; it was snatched around, and I hit the mountainside and spun in reverse. The rear-drive wheels were close to two feet off the group and some guy came by to pull me off it so I could even move.”

“I realize now, that was God through my mother’s prayers for her son in my waywardness that saved me from falling off that mountainside,” Dees said.

After Dees graduated and moved back to Yuma, he shared the conversation with the young man he had actively avoided because he felt “an aura of anointing” around him, he said, not originally knowing the youngster was a Christian.

“I was talking about those experiences and this young man said, ‘I’ll pray with you and introduce you to The Lord Jesus Christ,’” Dees said, “and at that moment I heard a voice ask me, ‘Aren’t you tired of running?’”

“He introduced me to Jesus in prayer and I didn’t know what to say, he gave me the words,” Dees said. “I knew I was living a lifestyle that was not pleasing to a gentleman, less of all to God. I repented, was sorry for how I had been living, and asked Him into my heart.”

“That prayer that day in that fitness center, something powerful and merciful happened,” Dees said. “I felt a lifting of a burden.”

Dees said he “started a different path” and began attending a few different Christian churches, reading the Bible, and thanking God for his experience and salvation.

The words of the Bible began to make sense to him as he “grew as a baby in Christ,” even as temptations came to go back to his old lifestyle in the form of invitations to bars and the like.

“It became a whole different walk when you’re wanting to know who you are, what are you to do, who you are to be, and I didn’t know,” Dees said.

As Dees grew in knowledge and favor with The Lord, he took the business opportunity to move to El Centro in 1984, two years after he was baptized as a Christian at Union Baptist Church in Yuma.

Shortly thereafter, a Deacon in Yuma invited him to mentor others. At the same time, a former US Marine began to teach him through what he now calls “discipleship training.”

“Graciously, God put people in my path that were very instrumental to nurture me along,” he said.

After the move to El Centro, Dees found Truelight Missionary Baptist Church, and became a Deacon there in 1985. Dees was mentored under then-pastor C.A. Williams.

“There were experiences that were happening that would awake me as a calling to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and at that time, my response was ‘not me because I’m a mess,’” Dees said. “Well, I came to find out God specializes in messes.”

Through some odd-job tryouts in parcel delivery and air traffic controlling, Dees soon began working for Imperial County Social Services in July 1988 as an eligibility worker. He worked in Child Protective Services as a social worker from 1990 to circa 1997.

Dees became licensed to preach prior to 2001 and was ordained as a reverend in February 2003.

“I wanted to be a servant,” Dees said, “and I said, ‘Lord, if I serve You that means I end up serving your people.’”

Dees said as small as the Truelight church building and community is now, “we were never short on folks who needed assistance traveling by … and so I wanted to serve The Lord by serving his people as well as teaching, living, and being an example to ‘follow me as I follow Christ.’”

Long-time Truelight congregants said they keep coming back because Dees is an effective preacher who preaches clearly from the Holy Bible.

“He loves his people and he’s sincere,” said Shirley Hellum, an El Centro resident and 50-plus year congregant of Truelight.

“He tells us where to go find (passages) at and not just take somebody's word for something, to go find it in the Bible and read it for yourself,” she said.

“When other pastors are out of town, they'll get Reverend Dees to preach for the Sunday (in their congregations),” Hellum said.

“He's a pretty good fella,” said Deacon Charles McGee, another long-time Truelight congregant who has known Dees “practically all of my life.”

“He's very giving and caring,” McGee said. “He helps the homeless, the hungry. He's a down to Earth teacher. He's got a good demeanor about himself and carries himself as a respectful pastor."

Though COVID shut down the small church for months, even with a congregation of about 20 families, through Dees, Truelight livestreamed their Sunday morning services until September 2021.

The homeless ministry is still going strong, Dees said, as they prepare breakfast burritos for homeless throughout El Centro regularly even amid the pandemic.

Hellum said that speaks to Dees’ dedication to ministering, speaking of a time when a car hit his parked car and Dees rode a bike to church for months, never missing a Sunday service.

While some might ask why he still serves in such a small congregation, Dees said even though it's "challenging," he's still just following God's orders.

"God hasn't told me to stop doing that yet," he said. "So, I pray through that and ask God to make it clear (to me). Meanwhile, until he tells me not to do that, we'll keep on."

“Wherever he's needed, Reverend Dees is a dedicated man,” Hellum said. “He's just a wonderful, wonderful person and I love his preaching.”

"Sometimes we have to hear the message over and over again until it sinks in and takes root in us," Dees said, "so if that's what it takes, that's what I'll do."

"Do the work," he said.

Reporter

Roman has worked for multiple local news and non-profit orgs including IV Press and VW Mag, IVROP, St. JP2 Radio and is also with The Southern Cross. An El Centro native, he graduated from Marywood U in Scranton, Pennsylvania. rflores@thedesertreview.com

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