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The man with the big heart

by: PHOTO COURTESY -- RUSSELL FAMILY - Dan Russell is the lead pastor for a Foursquare Church in Battle Ground that meets each Sunday in a local elementary school. He counts among the highlights of his week, the time his congregation comes together to put together and take down the church equipment.

Gresham High wrestling phenom Dan Russell finds his special calling serving his community and his family


Dan Russell is all heart.

It is how he learned to wrestle his way to four NCAA national championships. It is how he pursued his wife of 20 years. It is how he handles his job as a lead pastor in Battle Ground, Wash.

His heart was shaped early in childhood, spending his elementary years getting trounced at every practice as a member of a premier wrestling club. Stepping onto the mat wasn't so much about beating his opponent, as it was a battle to stay off his back.

"My first three years I couldn't score on anybody," Dan says. "It was an elite group, and I had guys that wanted to run me out of the club. Finally, I realized ‘I'm still here. I'm still fighting,' and it flipped a switch."

by: THE OUTLOOK -- DAVID BALL - Dan and Joy Russell met at Portland State University. The couple has four children  Ryan, Sarah, Dani and Hannah. The wins started coming, and they never stopped. He went unbeaten through his prep career at Gresham High - a rare four-time state champion.

But it wasn't what he did on the wrestling mat that made him popular on campus. Instead, it was what he chose to do each morning outside on the steps leading to the front doors.

"I had a difficult freshman year. I had won a state title, but I felt like a misfit. I had no friends. I was very lonely," Dan says. "I was sitting under a tree one day, and I heard God say ‘Dan, I love you.' After that I decided to shake hands with everyone to welcome them to school. I didn't want anyone to feel alone."

Russell went on to a stellar career at Portland State University where he was a four-time NCAA Division II national champion. After graduating he trained with the U.S. National team in Colorado Springs, attaining the world's top ranking in his weight class during one stretch.

Despite all the honors he found himself empty.

"I remember coming back from Nationals and being surrounded by reporters. It was a great homecoming," Dan says. "But the interviews kept going, my teammates went home and I was left taking a taxi by myself. I got home, set out all my trophies and asked what now? I wanted to be part of something that was going to last longer than my trophies."

The answer came in ministry.

He spent 17 years as the youth pastor at East Hill in Gresham, opening his home to a dozen college students, while moving his family into the detached garage.

"It was ‘How do we walk with Jesus and with each other 24-7?'," Dan says. "We'll take care of the practical needs, and trust God to do the spiritual."

Five years ago, Dan was searching for God's next adventure in his life. There were offers to coach with USA Wrestling and another to oversee East Hill's missionary work. Then there was this tiny Foursquare Church in Battle Ground. Not more than 30 people meeting in an elementary school gym.

"I walked into a blessing that you wouldn't see on paper," Dan says. "I could sense God smiling on this one."

While the church continues to call an elementary school home on Sundays, Dan's real work is done throughout the week serving his town.

"I didn't come here to pastor a church, I came here to love a community - that's not a bad thing to give your life to," he says.

He has also given his life to his family - his wife is Joy Lammert - a Gresham High grad who helped Portland State to a national volleyball title her rookie season on the Park Blocks.

Dan first noticed her in college. Being largely a commuter campus, the athletes were a close-knit group at Portland State.

"I told all my buddies that number 3 on the volleyball team was off-limits. I was going to date her," Dan says.

He gave himself three months to find a way to get her number. The deadline came and all Russell was getting was grief from his teammates.

Never slow to make a move on the wrestling mat, Dan was dragging his feet when it came to asking for a date.

Finally, a moment presented itself. Joy invited Dan and his wrestling teammates over for a party to celebrate the end of the first semester. But somehow when she opened the door, it was only Dan standing on the other side.

"He ends up coming over himself - no teammates," Joy says. "But he was easy to talk to, and we stayed up until 3 a.m."

Good conversation, but no romance - yet.

Dan had an obstacle bigger than simply asking for a phone number.

"I was engaged, so nothing was brewing at that time," Joy says. "He had an uphill battle."

But Dan knew what he wanted in his heart - he wanted Joy.

"I think she was created for me," Dan says. "I asked her out every day for six months, and she said no every time."

Meanwhile, Joy was wrestling with something herself - being engaged to a military man and the constant travel that goes with that life.

"I had to work all of that out before I could entertain the idea of something new," Joy says. "My heart was pretty weak, and I had no intention of getting into another relationship."

Finally, Dan got a ‘yes' - kind of.

The two agreed to see a production of "The Whiz" together, although Joy made it clear from the start that she would buy her own ticket and that it was not a date.

Dan heard ‘yes' and not much else.

He arrived in sharp clothes and brought her a ceramic drama mask with their names engraved on the inside.

"He showed up all dressed nice and made it clear that he was treating this as a date, so I went along with it," Joy says. "It became clear early on for me that this was a divine set up."

Six months later, the two were married.

Last fall they celebrated their 20th anniversary. The couple has four children Ryan, Sarah, Dani and Hannah.

"He makes the most of every opportunity," Joy says. "I've been able to enjoy some pretty amazing adventures with him - he has this ability to just keep pressing into things."




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  • 24 Jul 2014

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  • 25 Jul 2014

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