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Editor’s note:
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

part 1

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 nation’s most potent geological force, draining, with its tributaries, more than 40 percent of the continental United States.

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 five.

Red Wing, Minnesota
The rains have made for verdant bluffs, trees and grass along the blue, shimmering river in Minnesota.

Clear message: Pastor Tom L. Johnson has no qualms about New River A/G declaring Jesus’ lordship.

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 children’s 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 don’t see the need for a Savior, Johnson tells me. Many of the downtown churches that started a century ago now subscribe to universalism. The city’s ministerial association recently voted to welcome all faiths into its membership because the majority of clergy didn’t 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 isn’t 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 1996.

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.

"We’re 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."

Onalaska, Wisconsin
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 region’s 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 don’t 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.

Sobotta’s volunteer ministry doesn’t 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 the service.

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.

Davenport, Iowa

Outreach-minded: Westside Assembly of God pastor Ray Corlew (center) is aided by active volunteers such as Virgil Wolf (left) and Larry Boeckmann.

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," "That’s right" and "Hallelujah" fill the room.

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 inner-city parks.

"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 aren’t 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

Noted 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.

Keokuk, Iowa

Navigable 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 Assembly’s 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. "We’re 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 temple’s 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 with confidence.

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 doesn’t allow certain types of T-shirts a typical motorcycle shop sells.

"Our normal customers know our beliefs and know they can come to us and talk about their problems," Richard says.

Kennedy part 1

Kennedy part 2

Noonan part 1

Noonan part 2



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