Guiding light of AWANA in Streamwood dies at 99
When Art Rorheim became involved with the weekly club program at the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle, following the religious urgings of his late brother Roy, little did he realize the instrumental role he would play in growing a youth ministry that would reach hundreds of thousands of children and teens around the world.
Rorheim, the co-founder of AWANA, headquartered in Streamwood, died Jan. 5 at age 99.
Granddaughter Kim Ahlgrim said his final days in hospice were precious ones, spent listening to his family singing songs he loved, including one of his favorites, "Wonderful Grace of Jesus."
"He couldn't really talk much, but he had a big smile on his face." His final words, she said, were "praise his name," the last three words of the song.
Born to Norwegian immigrants who settled in Chicago, Rorheim's early years were not religious.
That changed shortly before his brother died of spinal meningitis in 1928. Rorheim overheard his brother plead with his parents to lead his brother to Christ.
At the club program that was a forerunner to AWANA at the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle, he would meet Lance Latham, his mentor and pastor. He followed Latham to a new church, North Side Gospel Center, as a volunteer and later youth director.
The collaboration led to the founding in 1950 of AWANA. The name is based on the Bible verse 2 Timothy 2:15: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and correctly handles the word of truth."
Under Rorheim's leadership, first as executive director and then as president from 1992 to 1999, AWANA expanded to 9,000 churches in 90 countries, involving 700,000 children and youths in a given week.
On the AWANA website, Rorheim is quoted as saying, "I had no idea what God had in store for me. My mission field was strictly the mission field of the church and the neighborhoods. In fact, I always say that if I had known what was in store, I probably would have been scared. I would have run away."
Among those he inspired was the Rev. Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, who said in a statement, "Art Rorheim was a major influence in the first 25 years of my life. So much so that he co-officiated our wedding in 1974.
"Art was both a daring visionary and a meticulous administrator. He could be tough-minded and tenderhearted. He cared for young boys and girls in every country and culture and turned over heaven and earth to serve them. Art leaves behind a breathtaking legacy."
The AWANA formula involved not only evangelizing children through handbooks and Bible memorization, but also through such elements as outreach events, a system of awards and badges, uniforms and games.
As Rorheim explained on the AWANA website, "If you're to win kids to the Lord, they've got to have fun! We developed AWANA to draw kids from the community through our church doors by providing games, prizes, awards, special events, excitement and a sense of belonging. We also were intentional about then getting kids plugged into the church."
Granddaughter Kerrybeth Gwaltney said his philosophy of making learning fun was ahead of its time. "My grandfather, without going to college or a seminary, was able to create this club that accentuates community," she said.
She said he has influenced his granddaughters career choices.
"We're all in education, and we try and make our learning fun," she said.
Ahlgrim remembered her grandfather as a man who enjoyed playing the harmonica and playing games and who was devoted to his Norwegian heritage. He created programs into his 80s and 90s, including a youth ministry for the children of inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest maximum-security prison in the U.S. Ahlgrim said the prisoners at the Angola, Louisiana, prison handcrafted a casket for Rorheim.
The memorial service for Rorheim is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 27, at the Quentin Road Bible Baptist Church, 60 Quentin Road in Lake Zurich.