Preston Morter's faith took him from his family's Oregon wheat fields to Southeastern University, to Grace City Church and across the world.

LAKELAND — On a Friday afternoon, Preston Morter opened one of the second-floor windows at Grace City Church, letting the post-thunderstorm air flow into an upstairs planning room.

“I’ve only been here long enough to slightly adjust to this weather that they call Florida,” said Morter, who serves as the church’s director of first impressions. “But not fully adjust.”

Morter may not be a native Floridian, but the 22-year-old is all-American. He was born on the Fourth of July in Tri-Cities, Washington, to high school sweethearts Roger and Carla Morter.

The fifth of six children, he grew up on the family’s wheat farm in Hermiston, Oregon, where he was a quarterback and wide receiver for his high school football team.

Halfway through May, Morter’s father would pull his children from school to work in the fields, sending them back to the classroom two weeks into September.

“It’s 30 minutes out of town,” Morter said of their farm. “Nobody lives out there except farmers. For four months every summer, we’d work the wheat harvest. We had to be out the door by 7 a.m.”

Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served on the field, along with an iced coffee at 3 p.m., every day.

“We worked all the time,” Morter said. “My dad believes in hard work, he drilled it into us kids. It’s what he lives by, it’s what he preaches.”

The family worshipped as hard as they worked. Sunday mornings were for church.

“I knew all the stories,” Morter said. “I used to take football magazines and books out to the field with me, and one day, I took a Bible.”

In the heart of the wheat fields, he said, God came calling.

Finding faith

Morter grew up with faith, but it took root when he asked a question: What if these stories were really true?

“I remember being about 15 at the time and just thinking, ‘What if it was really true? If all this stuff is real, then this is the greatest thing I’ve heard in my entire life,’” Morter said.

As Morter recalls, he had nothing to lose. He went all in.

“I started talking to God,” he said. “I started worshipping more. I just opened up and softened my heart to this God that did all these miracles, and life was never the same.

"I found myself with a peace, a joy, a perspective I didn’t have before," he said. "I had this hope, that outside of God, I knew I wouldn’t be able to develop within myself, by myself. I just began to pour more into God and began to talk to him more.

"I knew that my greatest life was doing whatever God called me to do," he said. "If God’s called you to do it, it’s going to be the greatest life you can possibly live.”

That first inkling of a calling came in the form of a magazine, with pages full of the nation’s Christian colleges. More than four years ago, a picture of Lakeland’s Southeastern University caught Morter’s eye. He wanted to study ministry.

“I just felt good about it,” Morter said. “It ended up being a God thing, but at the time, it was an adventure thing. There was something inside of me that said, ‘This is just right, this is what I need to do.’”

It took time to convince his father to allow him to travel the nearly 3,000 miles to the opposite end of the country. It was a jump into the unknown from how Morter grew up.

“I’d only been to six or seven states before that,” Morter said. “Always to get farm supplies. That was something I used as a tell. I said, ‘God, if you want me to go to school in Florida, I won’t fight for it. My dad is the guy, you have to speak to him.’ And sure enough, my dad let me go.”

In August 2013, Morter headed to Lakeland — with older sister Julie along for the ride. She now lives in Montana.

“We drove,” he said. “Man, did we drive. We left from our other farm in Idaho and went straight down through Nashville and New Orleans. I showed up at Southeastern and didn’t know anyone in Lakeland.”

After Grace City Church was founded in 2015 during Morter’s time at Southeastern, he became involved and found a family in faith.

“I just truly believe in giving my life to the church,” Morter said. “That’s what I feel called to do and that’s in whatever capacity that looks like. Nothing brings people together like Jesus.”

Morter received his degree in practical ministries from Southeastern University last year, joined the church as a staff member in January as the director of first impressions. The church, 730 S. Florida Ave., is in the former Westminster Presbyterian Church building.

“Probably the number one thing for my job is to create an atmosphere where people feel welcome, where they feel comfortable,” Morter said.

He draws inspiration and leadership from his fellow church leaders, including Senior Pastor Andrew Gard and Ministries Team Lead Pastor Jon Laurenzo.

“Preston can talk to anybody,” said Laurenzo, who leads the ministry team Morter serves on. “He’s one of the most kind and hardworking people I’ve ever met before and that’s really valuable. He never has a bad attitude.”

From July 11 to 29, Morter will be leading a Grace City mission trip to Tanzania, where a team will distribute Bibles in the town of Kilindoni, and will engage in construction and improving the mission base in the area.

Laurenzo, who has been on mission trips in Africa with Morter before, said his ability to stay cool under pressure makes him a natural leader for a trip across the globe.

“In a foreign country, leaders have to have people trust them,” Laurenzo said. “He’s one of those guys where his personality and leadership characteristics show well across the board.”

His call to serve has led Morter on six mission trips and through multiple countries, from Canada to Cuba to Holland to Ireland.

“I’m not saying I don’t have goals, passions, desires,” Morter said. “I very much have those, but I think I’m more caught up in, 'What does God want today?' I’m very open to whatever’s next. I learned that my best life is lived living for God, the church and the community.”

His first love stems from his faith. His second stems from motorcycles.

On the road

Michael Mutz, stewardship pastor for Grace City, describes Morter as the kind of person who always has a smile on his face — especially when he’s riding his motorcycle.

“I think he’s a very dynamic, friendly and inviting person,” said Mutz, who got to know Morter well during a trip to Ireland. “He’s a really hard worker. But he’s also just a ton of fun to hang around with. We ride motorcycles together.”

Morter fell in love with motorcycles on the family farm, where he and his brother would ride them to herd Angus beef cows.

When he moved to Lakeland, he found a way to bring that second passion to life when he walked into CC Riders, a motorcycle shop at 3330 Atlantic Ave. He’s worked in the shop as a mechanic since March.

“I went into the shop to get a part,” Morter said. “When I looked around, I just loved the atmosphere of the shop, it reminded me of the farm.

"I told the owner, Kevin (Neff), ‘I’m no mechanic, but I can promise you two things: I know tools and shops really well from being on a farm, and no one will work harder than me.’ Two weeks later, he called me,” Morter said.

He and his fellow motorcycle aficionado friends call themselves the Sons of Thunder, but even they know he was meant to serve.

“Preston is a great communicator,” said Jason Bervaldi, Morter’s roommate and Sons of Thunder member. “The first time I heard him speak was about three weeks ago at Grace City Youth Church. The message came across easily and he was very confident leading the sermon. He’s a pastor, for sure.”

Far from family

Though he’s thousands of miles away from his family’s farm, Morter believes his family is proud of him.

“It’s a little more complicated than that, though,” he said.

Two years ago, his mother was diagnosed with appendiceal cancer.

“She was found at stage three, and they’ve deemed it terminal,” he said. “That’s probably what makes it the most tough, is being here when everything is going on.

"But I think my family is happy for me, and proud of me, and they realize that I’m where I need to be," he said "It’s tempting sometimes to look back, but I know that I’m called to where I’m at."

And through his hardships, Morter said, God’s never left.

“I’ve kept the same mentality and spirit of giving life away to God, and trusting that He’ll guide my path,” he said.

It’s a path that, right now, has him in Florida — a path that, one day, may take him back to a small town in Oregon, where hope is found in harvests and God paints sunsets over wheat fields.