Since 2000, these full-time motorhomers have proclaimed the Gospel through song.
By John Johnston, Associate Editor
It’s mid-January, and Carl and Ruth Engstrom, F257319, are in Yuma, Arizona, ensconced in their Newmar Dutch Star motorhome. Carl has a cold; he’s coughing and his voice is raspy. But that didn’t stop him or Ruth from performing a mix of traditional hymns and gospel songs at a Yuma church the night before.
“The people were just so responsive and so enjoyed the music,” Carl said.
The Engstroms call themselves The Classic Gospelaires (www.crengstrom.org). Since 2000, they have been bringing traditional Christian worship music to churches in every U.S. state except Hawaii. Canada, too. A pastor friend even arranged to have them perform in the Philippines.
Using music as a means to minister to others comes naturally to the couple, who have been married for 57 years. “It’s a personal conviction for us both, the relationship to Jesus Christ,” Carl said. “I’ve been in church since I was born, and Ruth, too. It’s just part of our lives.”
They met as students at Omaha (Nebraska) Baptist Bible College, where they sang with the touring choir. After graduation, Carl embarked on a career in education that has included teaching vocal music in elementary school; serving as teacher and principal in Christian schools; and teaching primary grades in public schools. Ruth, in addition to helping raise their two children, was always employed full-time, usually doing secretarial work. She also assisted Carl when he taught in Christian schools.
During their working years, the couple took short trips in RVs. When Carl retired in 1997, they spent three months traveling in California and Arizona and considering their next steps. “I couldn’t just be bouncing around with nothing to do,” Carl said. “So, I said to Ruth: ‘What about putting together a musical program?’ She said, ‘Just the two of us?’”
Soon they sold their California mobile home, as well as most of their belongings. They bought a brand-new 2000 Fleetwood Bounder motorhome and became full-time RVers. A few years later, the Bounder gave way to the 2004 Dutch Star, a 40-foot motorhome they live in today.
Behind it, they tow a 20-foot enclosed trailer that contains their towed car, an organ (which Ruth usually plays), a keyboard (which Carl plays), benches for both instruments, music, microphones, and extra clothes, which include their Sunday finest. “We dress up for our concerts,” Carl said.
From 2000 to 2016, the Engstroms performed 759 concerts. Audiences might consist of fewer than two dozen people, several hundred, or something in between. “We’re not particular about the size of the church,” Ruth said. “We do a free-will offering. We don’t expect anything special from them.”
Congregations can expect to hear both Carl and Ruth sing, although Carl handles most of the solos. Baptist churches seem particularly receptive to the Engstroms’ repertoire of hymns and gospel songs. “A lot of churches don’t do those anymore,” Carl said.
Most of their concerts include “It Is Well With My Soul.” The Engstroms always share with their audience the story behind the hymn, written by Chicago businessman Horatio Spafford in 1873.
Spafford’s wife and four daughters were bound for Europe on an ocean liner. While crossing the Atlantic, the ship collided with another vessel and sank. Spafford, who had stayed behind in Chicago to finish some business, wrote “It Is Well With My Soul” after learning that his daughters had perished. His wife survived.
Reflecting on the meaning behind the song, Carl said: “God allows experiences and trials for our good. We learn patience, and learn how to trust him more, and not give up.” Those traits have defined the Engstroms in the 16-plus years that they have performed as The Classic Gospelaires.
In 2000, just as they were starting their music ministry, Carl was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent successful surgery. Two years later, he had back surgery to alleviate pain caused by a bone pinching a nerve.
Then in 2010, Carl, who has never smoked, learned he had tongue cancer. Two surgeries were needed to remove the tumor. In between, “I called the churches where we were going to perform,” he said, “and I asked if they would be happy with just instrumentals, no singing. They said ‘yes.’” As it turned out, he and Ruth were able to perform almost their entire program.
Last year, after Carl experienced laryngitis symptoms, three nodules were discovered in the back of his throat. The Engstroms did not schedule any concerts for three months. After the layoff, Carl saw a doctor, expecting a recommendation for surgery. Instead, he learned that the nodules were gone.
“That was a blessing,” he said.
As for Ruth, “Nobody can seem to fix me,” she said. A couple of times in the past year or so, she has suffered a transient ischemic attack, sometimes referred to as a “warning stroke.” She takes medication and has her blood tested regularly.
Despite the health challenges, “In all the years we’ve been doing concerts, we’ve never had to cancel because we were sick,” Ruth said.
And so the mobile music ministry goes on.
“Our journey and adventure have been incredibly wonderful and the best 16 years of our lives,” Carl said. “We hope to continue our ministry until our heavenly father takes us to our heavenly journey.”