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Moving Forward Toward Reclamation


Moving Forward Toward Reclamation

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Mark S. Evans, pastor of Bristow (Oklahoma) First Assembly of God designated “moving forward” as the theme for the church in 2013, six months after his hiring. Little did he realize the accuracy of his prophetic pronouncement. Since then, offices for the church have shifted seven times. In the interim Bristow First AG — displaced from its property by an environmental disaster — has experienced a nomadic existence not only for the staff but for the congregation as well.

On the first Sunday of January this year, Evans selected Exodus 33 and “reclaim” as the annual theme for the church. However, unlike, the ancient Israelites, Evans doesn’t expect the congregation to wander in the desert for 40 years.

But it might take 15 years for the church to be able to reclaim the property it abandoned in August 2013 when Evans decided to padlock the church and parsonage doors. He feared for the health of congregants because of evidence of environmental contamination from a crude oil refinery that operated on the site long before Bristow First AG’s construction in 1980.

By the end of 2013, the church not only lost its liability insurance for the 12,000-square-foot building, but the Environmental Protection Agency added the land to its national priorities list, also know as the Superfund site list.

The Superfund toxic declaration made the acreage, the church, and parsonage — valued at a combined $1.3 million before the revelation — useless, at least in the short term.

A year and a half ago, Evans had no inkling that the church today would be meeting in a former tavern. Sunday morning and afternoon services attract about 140 adult attendees together.

Half a block away, the United Methodist church in the town of 4,528 has opened its building for around 35 AG children to gather at the same time adults meet in the onetime bar. On Wednesday evenings, 50 kids meet in the previous pub, compared to only five a year ago.

Evans has been scouting property in the area to buy and build a new church, but he says everything available is way overpriced. In the meantime, Evans is content that Bristow First AG is leasing four properties within a block and a half of each other in the center of the town.

“Right now we don’t have an option to buy land and build, but I don’t believe God wants us to be in a permanent holding pattern,” Evans says. “We’re not just here to survive, but to thrive.”

Few attendees have left in the wake of the property fiasco.

“Our people recognize God’s presence transcends four walls and that it’s not about a building,” Evans says. “We don’t want to seek God’s favor more than God’s presence. An old, rundown building that once dispensed alcohol is now dispensing God’s grace.”

Bristow First AG might not have survived the ordeal without the assistance of Cornerstone Church, an AG congregation in Bowie, Maryland. Cornerstone Lead Pastor Mark A. Lehmann long had supported Evans’s parents, Stephen and Glenda, as AG world missionaries. When Lehmann saw Evans at General Council in August 2013, he learned of the oil contamination catastrophe.

Since October 2013, Cornerstone Church has been paying $700 in rental property fees on behalf of Bristow First AG.

“Mark made some incredibly brave choices,” Lehmann says of Evans. “I couldn’t stand by to watch a viable church go by the wayside.”

“If we hadn’t had those funds from Cornerstone to keep us going, we would have lost momentum,” Evans says. He notes that concerned readers of a Pentecostal Evangel article last year sent enough money for the church to renovate the erstwhile tavern.

In an unusual agreement wholeheartedly endorsed by Oklahoma AG District Superintendent Frank Cargill, Cornerstone Church in Maryland has taken Bristow First AG in the Sooner State under its wing as a parent-affiliated church. Evans remains a credentialed minister in the Oklahoma District.

“It is an extremely unusual if not unprecedented move,” Cargill says. “We are pleased and thankful to Pastor Mark and his congregation in Maryland for sending support.”

Under the shared partnership, Evans has conferred with Lehmann in Bowie and Lehmann has brought ideas to Bristow. In February, Cornerstone’s children pastor will be staying in Bristow for a while to help the church reconfigure its children’s ministry.

Lehmann, who has pastored Cornerstone for 21 years, has made a three-year commitment to support Bristow First AG with financial and staff assistance. He says Cornerstone is on board to eventually help Bristow First AG purchase a building.

“Bristow is small enough that one church could make a huge impact,” Lehmann says. “They are great people to invest in. The potential future for this church is great.” Lehmann and Evans both commend Cargill for his trust in agreeing to the long-distance blending of the congregations.

Cargill will remain the liaison with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) regarding legal concerns over the Superfund.

“I’m in continual communication with the church in Bristow,” Cargill says.

In the meantime, the Oklahoma DEQ has given five different oil companies a five-year window to respond to a site cleanup request. If the corporations agree to rehabilitate the 10-acre church property it would be done quicker and for less money than if the government takes over. If the EPA oversees the cleanup, it could cost as much as $20 million and take 15 years, Evans says. Even after that, the church might not see any compensation. At this stage whether Bristow First AG could return to use the site is unknown.

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