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No reason to slow down at 66

By John W. Kennedy

Orville White agreed to fill in as the preacher at Elm Grove Assembly of God near Chester, Okla., after the rural congregation lost its previous pastor. Most members worked as farmers and ranchers, and White took over at the beginning of wheat planting season — 45 days when it’s crucial to be in the fields virtually every waking moment. The board didn’t have time to interview a full-time pastor, but White agreed to serve in the interim.

That was three decades ago. White has outlived many of the members active when he arrived at the church.

The makeup of the community has changed since then, and White and Sherry, his wife of 49 years, have changed with the times. Now the emphasis is on children, many of them from single-parent families or foster homes.

“Six years ago we began to see a generation growing up in this area with very little direction,” says White, 66. “I sat down with the board, and we determined to increase our efforts to reach kids.”

In 2002, the church had 60 children and youth coming to Wednesday evening services. Now 150 kids attend, most of whom are picked up in church buses or vans.

Church volunteers feed the young people hamburgers or hot dogs, potato chips and homemade cookies. Praise and worship, puppet ministry, Bible stories and altar time follow.

“We round up a lot of kids who didn’t have anybody to tell them how special they are and how much Jesus loves them,” says White, who drives one of the church’s two buses himself. “I look through that bus windshield every Wednesday night to keep the vision fresh.”

The Whites know firsthand the heartbreak of fractured families. Two years ago they adopted their three grandchildren, now ages 10, 9 and 6, as their only son serves a seven-year alcohol-related prison term.

The Whites have a reputation for compassion, so others in similar circumstances are likely to call any time of the day or night.

“We live in a small community where everybody knows your business,” says White, who has been a minister for 43 years. “God has given us the motivating factor to reach out unconditionally to others while we’re on this step in our journey.”

Every morning the Whites ask God to provide supernatural strength as they pray Isaiah 40:31 — “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (NIV).

Sherry says she knew at age 10 that she would marry a minister. In addition to raising three grandchildren, Sherry drives 10 children home on Wednesday nights in a double-cab pickup truck.

“We’ve had hard knocks, but God has brought us through them all,” Sherry says. “Jesus keeps me going — and I take a lot of vitamins.”

Elm Grove AG relies heavily on volunteers, many of whom drive 20 to 30 miles to get there.

Monthly rib dinners underwrite the Wednesday night free meals for kids and the bus ministry. The church smokes 500 pounds of ribs and clears $2,500 in profit because the meals are so popular in the area.

Pay-as-you-go has always been the motto for White. A new church, built with donations from fifth-Sunday offerings, was constructed in 1984, only to be destroyed by fire seven years later. A generous insurance settlement of $877,000 enabled the church to build a 500-seat auditorium. Without borrowing any money, Elm Grove AG also has acquired 188 adjacent acres in what is known as the sandhills for future growth.

Dwain Jones, former national director of Light for the Lost, has known the Whites for 24 years. He preaches at Elm Grove about once a year.

“Having a son in prison hasn’t shaken their faith,” says Jones, now a ministry representative for Mission of Mercy. “I’m sure they’ve had moments of hurt and disappointment, but they never complain.”

Jones also is amazed at the Whites’ energy and servant mentality. He notes that after a day of cooking at the church, Sherry scrubs down the tables and Orville folds the tables and stacks them. 

Every August, Elm Grove AG sponsors a dinner for the staff and support personnel of the nearby Seiling Public School District as a token of gratitude for how teachers are impacting children.

“We have the best commodity in common, and that’s the kids,” says Seiling Superintendent Bob Bush. “I can see the difference in our kids because of the opportunities they have at Orville’s church.”

Bush believes White is able to remain so active because he doesn’t shy away from difficult physical work and he surrounds himself with young people.

“He loves what he’s doing, and that’s what has kept him young and vibrant,” Bush says. “I don’t know that he’ll ever really be old.”

Three years ago the Whites purchased a pair of recliners. The chairs still look new because they haven’t had much wear and tear. Billy Graham, who preached in citywide evangelism campaigns until age 86, is White’s role model.

“I plan to keep on ministering,” White says. “I will never retire. When you love people and you love God, there’s never a getting off place.”

Sherry echoes the sentiment.

“I imagine we will be working until the Lord comes or until He calls us home,” she says. “None of this would happen without the love of our church family and a wonderful community that helps make this vision a success.”

White says he is especially passionate about the souls of children from broken families.

“I want to make sure every one of them is ready to meet the Lord,” White says. “Little kids need someone to look them in the eye and tell them how precious they are.”


JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Midlife Musings (jkennedy.agblogger.org).

E-mail your comments to tpe@ag.org.

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