KENNEWICK -- Mel Haug has always been a man on a mission, whether it is a spiritual directive or a musical journey.
"I've always believed that when I sense God's calling, I shouldn't argue, though sometimes I do try," he said with a smirk.
Haug will go the distance for his faith once again when he leaves next month for a new position as pastor for the Crossroads Christian Fellowship church in Big Fork, Mont.
The move is bittersweet as Haug and his wife Denise will be far away from their two grown children, a grandchild (and another one on the way), plenty of close friends and the Living Room Community Church in Kennewick.
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Haug was co-pastor there with his longtime friend and fellow musician, Monte Ingersoll.
He and Ingersoll founded the church a few years ago and Haug recently retired from teaching to minister full time.
"When Mel first told me he had accepted the Montana position I was shocked, then upset because my best friend was leaving," Ingersoll said. "But now I'm thrilled for him. And besides, it won't be like I'll never see him again. I'll be going to Montana for musical events and Mel will be coming back to the Tri-Cities for concerts."
Ingersoll added that he and Mel will continue to share projects together the same as they always have, only now there will be two congregations to share the love, music and God.
"We also plan to continue to serve the African choir we built together," Ingersoll said. Though Haug's departure is a big loss for the Living Room Community Church congregation, "we'll always be family," he added.
Haug has been teaching music to hundreds of kids in the Kennewick and Pasco school districts for three decades. He grew up in Pasco and graduated from Pasco High in 1977. He went to Columbia Basin College for a short time, where he sang with the Desertones, under the direction of Byron Gjerde. He went on to earn his music education degree at Eastern Washington University in 1981.
He became the music teacher at Stevens Middle School in Pasco in 1986, when he took over as music teacher when Harold Peterson retired. Haug said it was Peterson who inspired his love of music.
"Music has always been a huge part of my life, and I have Harold to thank for instilling that in me a long time ago," he said. "He was a great teacher, and I was honored to sing at his funeral."
In 1993, he transferred to Kennewick High, where he started the school's first vocal ensemble, The Madhatters. From there, he went back to his alma mater to teach music from 2002-10. While there, he founded the 10th Avenue Singers ensemble. He also recorded and produced his own Gospel music album, God's Unchanging Hand, a couple of years ago.
"I sing Christian gospel music because it is who I am, but I love all kinds of music," he said. "I'm as passionate about music as I am about my faith. In fact, music is an expression of my faith."
He earned two Crystal Apple Achievement awards during his career. The award recognizes a person -- not always a teacher -- who has contributed significantly to education in the Mid-Columbia. He also was inducted into the Pasco High School Hall of Fame.
Even though Haug wasn't looking for another job, the Crossroads congregation sought him out more than once.
"The second time I turned them down I had trouble sleeping," he said. "I figured there was a good reason I couldn't sleep because I wasn't listening to God's message. I prayed about it a long time before making a decision."
Crossroads pastor Hal Curtis agreed that it took some time to lure Haug from his hometown.
"I've known Mel for about 30 years. We've ridden motorcycles together many times. We first sought him out to join our congregation about three years ago, and again several months ago," Curtis said in a telephone interview. "In the beginning, he told us he'd be crazy to leave (the Tri-Cities), that he loved it there. But then he called us back and said he was sensing something and that he'd pray about it and get back to us."
Haug said his chat with God gave him the nudge to accept the offer. And even though he might be moving hundreds of miles away to minister in a little Montana town, he's excited to bring his huge repertoire of music with him.
Curtis, 75, plans to retire once Haug is on board, but he will remain with the congregation.
"Mel is a perfect fit for our community," Curtis said. "A slick shine-on preacher would never work here. Mel is a real person, a community person who talks from the heart, a person of faith not religion. And his love of music will blend very nicely here."
Haug and Ingersoll have plans to form a bond between the two churches, spiritually and musically.
"I definitely plan to bring the music with me to Montana, and I will return to the Living Room church for Christmas concerts," he said. "Monte will also come to Montana so we can put on some great concerts there as well."
A farewell party for Haug will be at the Living Room's 9 and 11 a.m. services on Jan. 29.
Everyone is invited.