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Ireland’s Faithful Father Figure

Oklahoman Gary Davidson is largely responsible for AG growth in the republic.

After eight years of pastoring the rural southeast Oklahoma Haworth First Assembly, Gary P. Davidson and his wife, Wilma, felt beckoned by God to missions.

That call didn’t catch them off guard.

“I always thought I’d end up in England,” says Davidson, 78, born in Great Britain during World War II to an American soldier and an English woman. “I’d often prayed for that area of the world.”

Post-war, the young family relocated to his dad’s home state, Oklahoma. There, at 19, Gary had a dramatic encounter with Christ that eventually led him to become an ordained Assemblies of God minister in 1971.

The couple felt God pulling them to become Assemblies of God world missionaries in the Republic of Ireland, where people viewed Protestants with suspicion. Epidemic addiction, rampant spread of AIDS via sharing heroin needles, and political violence called “The Troubles” beset the nation.

But overarching that malaise was the centuries-old dark history of English landlords’ persecution of Catholics, who composed more than 90% of the republic. This led, at times, to retaliating by attacking Protestants. In 1980, the majority religion still regarded Protestants, including Pentecostals, with mistrust and disfavor. The Republic of Ireland had only two Assemblies of God churches at the time.

The church that the Davidsons planted in their living room with a dozen people began reaching families, children and teens through youth clubs, summer Bible camps, and home groups throughout Dublin, which gave opportunities to share the gospel with young people. The church deepened congregants’ understanding of faith, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit. The couple took in Mary, a homeless teenager whom they informally adopted.

For several years, the Davidsons and their teams visited convents, schools, prisons, churches, and other venues nationwide. They shared the gospel and screened the 1970 film The Cross and the Switchblade, about Jesus’ love breaking through hardened hearts of New York City gang members. The film, adapted from the 1963 book of the same name by AG evangelist and Teen Challenge founder David Wilkerson, opened doors for Davidson’s ministry, which gave away thousands of copies of Wilkerson’s book.

The Cross and the Switchblade profoundly influenced those who heard the message. Davidson says many people not addicted to substances found themselves challenged by the book.

When the growing congregation became too large for the Davidsons’ home, they found in city center Dublin a deconsecrated Church of Ireland sanctuary built in 1746 — the historic St. Mark’s parish. Through the 1970s to the mid-1980s it had been used as a spare college lecture hall and to store maps for Trinity College.

But the area had become the picture of urban blight. Iron bars covered the church’s windows; steel doors protected every entry. “It had been in a nice area in the past, but drugs had invaded and decimated it,” he says.

The church bought the property in 1987, keeping St. Mark’s as its name. Thieves stole congregants’ cars from the parking lot; a dealer sold drugs behind the church.

Under the Davidsons’ leadership, the church set up halfway houses under Teen Challenge, a Christ-centered rehabilitation program for alcoholics and addicts that provided support, counseling, and skills training.

A miraculous move of God followed that not only healed addictions and united Irish Christians across divisions, but also led to creating a new AG district from the larger Assemblies of God in Great Britain and Ireland. When St. Mark’s grew to 200 congregants, it launched the first of seven daughter congregations.

Today, Christian Churches Ireland (CCI) encompasses 42 AG congregations in two countries: the Republic of Ireland, which is the independent southern part of the island, and Northern Ireland, which remains part of Great Britain. Davidson served as the district’s first national leader.

The church’s neighborhood transformed as well. “The drug dealer ended up coming to Christ,” Davidson says, adding that today the man and his family are an integral part of the church and his son is enrolled in the CCI Bible Academy.

More than four decades after moving to Ireland, Gary and Wilma Davidson are semiretired in Oklahoma, where for the past year Gary has served as mission elder and director for the Oklahoma Assemblies of God. He oversees the 100 global workers sent from the network.

Recently, the CCI honored the couple’s legacy at a conference in St Mark’s with 300 leaders from around the nation and Europe. The CCI launched the Gary and Wilma Davidson Church Planting Fund with 200,000 euros.

“We were absolutely overwhelmed by the gesture and generosity of our Irish family,” Wilma says.

“He’s the father figure to the AG movement in Ireland,” says Seán Mullarkey, who joined St. Mark’s staff in 2001 when Davidson served as senior pastor. In 2004, Davidson passed the baton to Mullarkey and his wife, Susan. Today Mullarkey, 53, also serves as the national leader of CCI.

“When you have the kingdom of God as the motive in your heart, then the Lord will bless whatever He specifically puts in your hand,” Mullarkey says. “If you hold onto God tightly and everything else loosely, God will give you that which will last.”

Davidson seemed baffled as to why God blessed his endeavors so much until someone made a surprising observation: “Because you stayed.” That simple reason resonated with him.

“If you stay somewhere 40 years, they figure you’re pretty serious about loving and caring for them,” Davidson says.

The hope of Darryl Wootton, superintendent of the Oklahoma AG, is that in the role of district mission elder, Davidson will impact missionaries and churches in fulfilling the Great Commission.

“He really flows in the Holy Spirit,” Wootton says. “He often has a word that’s right on for people. He’s helping us keep our roots of spirituality and Pentecost in Oklahoma Assemblies of God.”

Today, Haworth Assembly of God, the congregation Gary and Wilma left to follow God’s call to Ireland, is led by their son and daughter-in-law, Mark and Julie Davidson.

PHOTO: Wilma and Gary Davidson are prayed over by Nick Parks (left), chairman of the Evangelical Alliance in Ireland, and Oklahoma Assemblies of God Superintendent Darryl Wootton (right)

Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.