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Comeback Complete

Oklahoma church displaced by toxic environmental concerns purchases new property.

An isolated Oklahoma church that appeared to be destined for closure two years ago purchased a 10,000-square-foot building last week, thanks to help from a Parent Affiliated Church (PAC) 1,000 miles away.

An environmental disaster forced Bristow First Assembly of God in August 2013 to padlock its church and parsonage, valued at a combined $1.3 million.

The congregation, under the leadership of Mark S. Evans, wandered to seven locations in the next 18 months before finally settling in a former tavern in the town of 4,528. On June 9, the church purchased the building for $120,000, less than its appraised value.

In October 2013, Cornerstone Church, led by Mark A. Lehmann in Bowie, Maryland, began helping Bristow First AG with rent as part of a three-year PAC commitment. Oklahoma District Superintendent Frank Cargill heartily endorsed the PAC plan.

Evans and Lehmann dedicated the new facility Wednesday night. Bristow First AG has changed its official name to Cornerstone Church. For the first time since 2013, children, youth, and adults are able to meet in the same location.

Someone on staff from the Maryland church has gone to Oklahoma every month to help teach or train staff and congregants. Next month, two dozen volunteers will make the trip westward as Cornerstone canvasses every home in town in preparation for a Rural Compassion outreach.

In renovating the two-story former downtown tavern, more than 56 tons of plaster and debris have been removed in what used to be a 32-room upstairs hotel. By next year, the second floor will house offices, classrooms, and a fellowship area. Currently, around 200 people are gathering for two Sunday services. About 120 children and youth meet on Wednesday nights.

Lehmann said Cornerstone felt compelled to assist Evans and his wife Christina after the toxic disaster caused abandonment of the church and parsonage. The EPA added the church to its Superfund site list because of evidence of environmental contamination from a crude oil refinery that operated at the location long before Bristow First AG built in 1980.

"We couldn't let this wonderful couple and a good core of people shrink to nothing after all they went through," Lehmann says.

Lehmann believes the turnaround is a result of the financial faithfulness of attendees. The small congregation has donated three times as much to missions already this year in comparison to all of 2014.

"A church that had become introverted because of the junk of the past is now extroverted in reaching the community," Lehmann says. "Their focus has really changed."

"If we put reaching the lost first, God will provide what we need," Evans says.

On the same day as the building purchase, the Environmental Protection Agency fenced off the former 10-acre church property on the edge of town. The EPA now begins the lengthy Superfund site process of litigation to identify and persuade potentially responsible parties to clean up the land. The process could take 15 years, and the church has no guarantee of recouping anything.

"We can't wait 15 years for hope of a settlement," Evans says. "We're moving forward, partnering with Cornerstone Church to make Jesus known in Bristow."

Pictured: Mark Lehmann (left) and Mark Evans (right) in front of the new Cornerstone Church building  


John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.