News Articles

Baptist association has hopes beyond yearly groundhog event    

PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. (BP)–A group of seven people started Henry Blackaby’s “Experiencing God” Bible study last fall, not knowing what God had in store. While watching for how God was working around them, they were given an offer to purchase the site where Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog emerges from a tree stump every Feb. 2 to “predict” whether winter will stay for six more weeks.

Gobbler’s Knob, known worldwide as Punxsutawney Phil’s home, is part of a 93-acre sportsman’s club that wants to relocate in order to move farther into the wilderness of western Pennsylvania. The owners contacted Doug Pilot, director of missions for the Conemaugh Valley Baptist Association in the Baptist Convention of Pennsylvania/South Jersey, to ask if the association would be interested in purchasing the property.

Pilot, one of the seven who began the Experiencing God study, joined the group in praying about how they should respond. The group had started meeting in the absence of a local church committed to preaching the Word of God.

As Blackaby teaches in his study, the group confronted a crisis of belief when they realized God wanted them to proceed with purchasing the property. The price was set at $530,000, and the owners challenged them to raise 5 percent by June 20 in order to enter a sales agreement for 90 days.

The group began sending letters and making telephone calls in order to raise money, and by June 20 they were still $7,258 short.

“When we met with the owners that night, we thought it was over. We told them we had $19,242 and could only promise we would try to raise the balance if they’d let us,” Pilot said.

The next morning, the association received a call from another local association reporting that they had voted to give $5,000. Then the property owners called to say they would extend the sales agreement deadline to July 18.

“We had been praying, ‘Lord, if this is not of you, please close the door,'” Pilot said. “When we left that evening before, it felt like that door was closing. The next morning it opened very wide.”

The group is led to pursue the opportunity because of the various ministries that could result, particularly a thrust in church planting. The property includes a 3,100-square-foot building that could immediately be used as a church building for the group that began as seven people studying Experiencing God and has now grown to 17 people eager to reach the community.

Also, the 93 acres could be used for a Southern Baptist camp/retreat center, according to the group. One aspect that Pilot emphasized was getting Campers on Mission, a joint fellowship linked with the North American Mission Board, to establish RV sites where volunteers could reach campers and also use the RV park as a center for a church-planting network within western Pennsylvania where there is very little evangelistic outreach.

“There are at least 15 places in a 45-mile radius where we need to start a new work,” Pilot said. He also noted that the RV sites could be used for vacation sites as visitors are attracted to nearby points of interest such as the hometown of Jimmy Stewart, the Christmas tree capital of the world and Drake’s well, the first oil well in America.

Pilot made clear that the group is not interested in purchasing the property solely because it’s the home of Punxsutawney Phil, but the annual Groundhog Day festivities do present an incredible ministry opportunity.

Last year there were 43,000 people from around the world gathered there for Groundhog Day, he said, “and there was no evangelical witness present.” He said they could change that by next Feb. 2 if they are able to purchase the property, which would continue to allow the Groundhog Day festivities as usual.

Some have questioned Pilot and the others for connecting Southern Baptists with a pagan event that involves using an animal to predict future weather.

“It’s like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny or leprechauns,” Pilot said, indicating that those are typically acceptable stories to tell children and Punxsutawney Phil is no different.

Gobbler’s Knob’s reputation as a center for alcoholic activity in celebration of Groundhog Day is also something people pose as a reason not to purchase the property, but Pilot said that alcohol possession was made illegal on the grounds five years ago.

“I see that as another sign that God wants us to do something with this,” Pilot said. “He has already cleared that up for us.”

The Punxsutawney Phil angle has already been used in the community to point people to Jesus. The local Salvation Army passed out T-shirts that read, “Without a shadow of a doubt Jesus is Lord,” playing on the adage that the groundhog seeing his shadow indicates six more weeks of bad weather.

Pilot envisions many more uses for the property, including outdoor concerts and speaking engagements to show Christ to the local community and worldwide visitors.

It would also “raise the visibility of Southern Baptists and showcase our commitment to missions and evangelism” in an area of the state where Southern Baptist presence is limited, Pilot said.

Pilot has helped build both a church and a senior center debt-free, and he is confident that if God wants these plans to succeed, the group will be able to purchase the sportsman’s club property and begin new ministries.

To date, the group has raised $34,000. Twelve weeks ago, they started with $500. One Baptist association in the South voted to pledge $100,000 from their state. Four state conventions have contributed $1,000 each.

If the monetary goal is met by October, the Conemaugh Valley Baptist Association will own and manage the site through an oversite/development board. Ground will be set aside for the church to construct a new building as it continues to grow, and the daily operations of the property will be jointly shared by the church and the CVBA, according to Pilot.

“As long as God keeps opening the door, we’re going to keep walking through,” Pilot said. “This is really one of those times when we talk about churches doing together what we cannot do alone. Churches are sacrificing. We need help from our brothers and sisters.”
More information about the association’s efforts can be accessed at www.byhisgrace.com/cvba.

    About the Author

  • Erin Curry