Pentecostal Evangel editors John W. Kennedy and Kirk Noonan each
spent a week in May visiting communities along the Mississippi River.
They went to 17 Assemblies of God churches in nine states by the river,
which starts as a brook in Minnesota and empties 2,350 miles later into
the Gulf of Mexico.
Journey along the Mississippi
By John W. Kennedy
The mighty Mississippi is steeped in folklore and history encompassing
Indian chiefs, French fur traders, steamboat captains, gamblers and
industrial giants. Risk-taking early American settlers built towns along
the waterway, which, with the nearby railroads that soon followed, provided
the primary source of commerce. The economic importance has diminished
with the advent of interstate highways and jet travel, but the Mississippi
River remains the nations most potent geological force, draining,
with its tributaries, more than 40 percent of the continental United
The river winds its way past fertile farmland, sleepy hamlets and urban
centers. This year melting snow and heavy spring rains caused flooding.
In fact, the May opening of the river in Minnesota to commercial traffic
was the latest ever.
I am visiting Assemblies of God churches between Minneapolis and St.
Louis with my son Zach. We will trek over a part of the country I know
well. I lived in Iowa for 20 years, Illinois for seven, Missouri for
Red Wing, Minnesota
The rains have made for verdant bluffs, trees and grass along the blue,
shimmering river in Minnesota.
Our first stop is New River Assembly of God on the outskirts of Red
Wing. The congregation did not have more than 100 members in its first
50 years. Pastor Tom L. Johnson arrived five years
ago. The church has grown to 300 from 40 since Johnson came to the city
of 16,000. Two building programs have ensued.
Johnson started childrens church, a bus ministry and an intercessory
prayer group. Many young families followed. The youth meet in the roomy
former sanctuary that has state-of-the-art light and sound systems.
Most people in Red Wing dont see the need for a Savior, Johnson
tells me. Many of the downtown churches that started a century ago now
subscribe to universalism. The citys ministerial association recently
voted to welcome all faiths into its membership because the majority
of clergy didnt think it appropriate to declare Christianity as
the only avenue to God. Johnson balked last year when the ministerial
association insisted a Mormon be the featured speaker at a Good Friday
community service at New River.
"In Red Wing we have to get them to realize they are lost before we
get them found," says Johnson, 39. The gospel isnt compromised
at New River, as evidenced by the pointed messages on the church bus,
including the words "Two worlds, One choice" painted on the back around
a silhouette of the crucified Jesus.
Gamblers Anonymous meets at the church, which is only 10 minutes from
a casino. Each person of the 500-member Prairie Island Indian Community
has received thousands of dollars annually since the casino expanded
In the past 13 years, church members Mike and Wendy Buckner have cared
for 30 foster children. Currently they are remodeling their home to
accommodate four American Indian siblings they expect will be living
with them long term. Wendy grew up on a reservation in South Dakota.
Mike, a trainer at the nuclear power plant next to the resort and casino,
is the oldest of nine children. The Buckners have an adopted 11-year-old
son, Michael, who is Native American. The four foster siblings, ages
3 to 7, have been in the home for seven months.
"Were trying to teach them to respect their heritage but to understand
that God is No. 1," Wendy says. The Buckners started at ground zero
with the siblings, who had never heard of Jesus. They also had never
seen a dishwasher or washing machine. The kids ate every meal in a restaurant
or had room service at the resort. They threw away every article of
clothing at the end of the day and wore new attire the next day.
Times have changed. "Now they fight over who is going to pray," Wendy
says. "They offer lengthy prayers at meals."
As Zach and I prepare to leave I pray for the Buckners, who, despite
the disruption in their lives, have allowed God to use them to change
their community. I ask the Lord to give them strength, patience, perseverance
and financial resources.
Back in the car, Zach says, "I love people like that who put themselves
out to give kids a future."
Majestic scenery including bluffs that reach 600 feet into the air bedazzles
us downriver en route to Onalaska, a suburb of La Crosse, Wis.
River of Life Assembly of God is a thriving congregation that has grown
to 360 from 60 since Pastor Doug Graham came in 1993. Eight members
spent Memorial Day weekend cleaning out sand and mud from the flooded
homes of single moms and the elderly.
In 1977, the church purchased eight acres on the present site. At the
time, church leaders had no idea that a generation later the cornfield
would be adjacent to the regions busiest thoroughfare. Despite
several tempting offers from developers to buy the land a regional
mall is located practically across the street River of Life kept
the property. The congregation built the facility two years ago. Immediately
60 new people, mostly young families, started attending.
Yet in a gorgeous recreation area, many young people are elsewhere
on Sunday mornings.
"Our competition is the fishing and boating on the rivers and lakes,"
says Graham, 37.
A couple of days ago, River of Life member Jack Sobotta made one of
his two monthly visits to the county jail. About one-fourth of the 200
inmates regularly attend his Bible study. He often begins by asking
for testimonies. "I dont go in with a structured study," Sobotta
says. "I rely on the Holy Spirit, and the inmates start asking questions."
Sobotta encourages the prisoners to pray for those in authority: judges,
parole officers, the jail guards monitoring their every movement via
cameras while the Bible study takes place. He says an average of five
inmates a month come to Christ.
Sobottas volunteer ministry doesnt end there. With his
wife, Ethel, he has been visiting nursing homes twice a month for 12
years. Jack plays guitar; Ethel plays bass; both sing. Many in the crowd
are in wheelchairs. Some have oxygen tanks. Calling buzzers go off throughout
Before we say goodbye, Jack asks for prayer for his back. I ask the
Lord to touch him so he can be restored to full service.
Westside Assembly of God pastor Ray Corlew (center)
is aided by active volunteers such as Virgil Wolf (left) and Larry
The river is so swollen here that no traffic is operating. Although
the waterway has crested in Davenport, the flooding impact remains.
Davenport, the largest of the Quad Cities (four adjoining cities on
the Iowa-Illinois border) with a population of 98,500, is the only major
city along the Upper Mississippi River without a permanent flood wall.
Whenever flood stage approaches, residents frantically fill sandbags.
Westside Assembly of God is located in a low-lying industrial area
on West River Drive. Several streets leading to the church are closed,
but faithfuls attend the Wednesday night service.
Ray Corlew, pastor for six years, leads singing in
a sanctuary occupied mostly by older blue-collar congregants. He fervently
preaches about expanding horizons, urging members to think beyond their
block for evangelism. "Amen," "Thats right" and "Hallelujah" fill
In a youth building the atmosphere is different. Teens sing contemporary
songs accompanied by drums and guitar. Many young people hug Corlew,
55, as he enters the youth room after the service.
At breakfast the next morning, we meet with the pastor and several
volunteers. Virgil Wolf and Larry Boeckmann, who both have been part
of Westside for more than 20 years, are gearing up for a Convoy of Hope
in September. They also organize monthly summer outreaches in small
"We go to where people are living under trees, where guys are pitching
horseshoes, where there are pimps and gangs," says Wolf, a retired millwright.
Medical services are offered, gospel music is played, a free meal is
served and the gospel is preached. The event is in four hours, but Wolf
and Boeckmann are there early setting up a tent and stage.
"These people arent going to come to a church service, so we
go to them," Wolf says.
"Our church is big on getting people to realize that the church is
not a fort," says Boeckmann, a retired government munitions worker.
Le Claire, Iowa
residents: Bethany and Tim Groves have received
much attention because of their "miracle twins," Mikayla
and Megan. They also have a 2-year-old daughter, Mackenzie.
As we drive, I remember that a decade ago Davenport ushered in the
riverboat gambling craze. Almost half the billboards along the interstates
beckon drivers to head for the slot machines and blackjack tables. Iowa
has changed since I moved away in 1990. Now betting is part of the economy
and culture. Even the welcome center in Le Claire has brochures promoting
riverboats and a neon advertisement on the wall.
Le Claire is a growing bedroom community on the edge of Bettendorf,
the smallest of the Quad Cities. Le Claire is known as the birthplace
of Buffalo Bill Cody and where before the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers redirected the river only experienced pilots could
navigate the treacherous rapids as the river bends west.
At New Life Community Church (Assemblies of God), Pastor Tim Groves
is remodeling for a grand opening two weeks away. A baptismal tank is
being installed, a sound room built, and a new entryway and platform
constructed. The need for a new beginning goes beyond new carpeting
and wallpapering. Groves, 31, wants to reach out to those who left the
church. Attendance at one point totaled 250, but membership had dipped
below 20 when he arrived last December. Bettendorf First Assembly is
partnering with New Life in a revitalization project.
Attendance is now up to 50. Groves wants the church to maintain a higher
profile in the community through friendship evangelism. The grand opening
drew 200 people and included a free outdoor concert with four musical
groups and a catered meal. Five thousand fliers were mailed one
to every home in the area.
Groves wife, Bethany, gave birth to twins
last August. Fifteen weeks into the pregnancy, an ultrasound showed
a clog in the umbilical cord that hindered blood flow. A leading fetal
development specialist suggested abortion or experimental surgery to
save at least one of the babies. The Groveses chose to trust in God.
Although premature, Mikayla and Megan were born healthy.
river: During the 1930s, the government built 27 locks and dams
between St. Paul and St. Louis, making travel much safer.
Bill Hartman is pastor of Keokuk A/G.
Cornfields that usually show stalks popping out of the ground this
time of year have remained fallow. Seed and fertilizer are sitting on
barges in the Mississippi. Fields are too wet for farm equipment. Railroad
tracks between the river and the highway are covered with water.
In the 1890s, Mark Twain described Keokuk as a city of 15,000 "progressing
with healthy growth." Today the population is 11,400 and Keokuk resembles
many small river cities. Empty buildings line Main Street.
However, Keokuk Assemblys youth pastor, Grant Parkki, and his
wife, Heather, are transforming a former music store on Main Street
into a coffeehouse. When remodeling is finished in August, the coffeehouse
will feature Christian bands each weekend.
"Instead of hanging out on the street, kids need something positive
to do," says Heather, who is a Sunday school teacher and praise team
member. "Were trying to build relationships with young people.
Their salvation is our goal."
Pastor Bill Hartman is teaching his congregation
of 135 people the difference between truth and error. A 50,000-square-foot
Mormon temple is under construction across the river in Nauvoo, Ill.,
a town of only 1,500. Latter-day Saints fled Nauvoo in 1846 because
of persecution and trekked to Salt Lake City. Now Mormon retirees are
settling in the area. The temples 165-foot-tall steeple is visible
from Keokuk, where many Nauvoo residents work.
Bolstered by teachings from Hartman, who has been at Keokuk Assembly
for seven years, members share their faith with Mormons and the unchurched
Richard Johnson leads Royal Rangers; his wife, Shawnna, heads Missionettes.
He plays bass guitar on the worship team; she sings. He is a church
board member. For 19 years they have owned Midwest Performance and Power,
which sells everything from motorcycles to jet skis.
Several of their 15 employees have come to the Lord because of the
Johnsons witness. Repeat patrons understand that Performance and
Power doesnt allow certain types of T-shirts a typical motorcycle
"Our normal customers know our beliefs and know they can come to us
and talk about their problems," Richard says.