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Couple sparks interest in new churches in remote areas of southeast Arizona

TOMBSTONE, Ariz. (BP)–About seven blocks east of the infamous OK Corral stands a small white building that for most passers-by would barely merit a passing glance. But for Tommy and Elizabeth Stevens, the building — which once housed a church — is a symbol of God’s miraculous provision.

The building serves as a home for Tommy and Elizabeth and the offices of Cochise Baptist Association, which called Tommy as its associational missionary in 1997. But it also has developed into a virtual bed and breakfast for more than 3,000 people from across the country, including hundreds of volunteers who have helped the association grow from just 15 churches and missions when they arrived to 45 congregations today.

“It is just awesome that God allows us to be a part of what he’s doing out here,” said Elizabeth, who serves as ministry coordinator for the association.

“Somebody said there was no place deader than Tombstone or Cochise County before we got out here,” she added, “but we can’t say that it’s because we’re out here that all these things are happening. This is God’s timing for the area. There have been people who have planted a lot of seeds along the way.”

The Stevenses are among the featured missionaries for the 2003 Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 2-9.

They came to Arizona from Tennessee, where Tommy had been in ministry for many years as a pastor, licensed counselor in private practice, and earlier as a minister of music and other staff positions. It was the combination of his ministry experience and counseling skills that prompted several friends to suggest he consider becoming a director of missions. Through a series of circumstances they were called to southeastern Arizona.

They chose to live in Tombstone because it was centrally located in the association. But the idea of renovating the church arose only after they found the building available and began to see what God might have in mind for making use of Elizabeth’s gift of hospitality.

Help came from within the association and around the country. Volunteers renovated the main sanctuary into two bedrooms, two baths and a large living/dining room. The basement houses the associational offices, a conference room, two more bedrooms, a laundry room and a full bath.

“I thought we’d have two or three teams a year, never dreaming what God was going to do,” Elizabeth said. “This building may not have made it as a church, but it is a place of ministry.”

About 20-24 teams of missions volunteers each year have stayed in the home for up to seven days at a time.

The historic location also works well with another part of their personal ministry — opening up their home three times each year as a retreat center for pastors and their families who need a break.

“We felt like if we could have had such an opportunity when our children were young it would have been wonderful,” Elizabeth said. “We have one rule. They can do no ministry. They have to be a family.”

The Stevenses’ core ministry, however, is to the churches around them and ultimately the communities they serve. The area is a rocky, desolate desert, and people often live there because they have opted out of the mainstream of American lifestyles, choosing isolation over community.

The region also has a following of neo-pagans and others with a mixed bag of New Age beliefs.

“The occult is very strong here,” Tommy said. “One of our pastors went into a public restroom and saw a sign that said, ‘Fight evil, kill a Baptist.’ And that’s been the attitude sometimes. Yet there are a lot of people who are open to the gospel.”

Soon after he arrived, Tommy’s passion for church planting became apparent as he began to identify sites for future churches and sharing the needs with the existing churches. It wasn’t long before his passion became contagious within the association.

“When the churches discovered the opportunities that were here they did not say ‘no’ to the Lord,” he said. “They got excited, and pretty soon I had churches starting missions on their own, and saying, “We started such and such mission, can you help us?”

In one case, Tommy shared of the need for a new congregation in the predominantly Hispanic town Pirtleville with the congregation at Iglesia Bautista del Sur Amistad, a congregation in the Mexican-border city of Douglas. And Ben Stevens, one of the deacons at Sunnyside said, “You know, I believe God wants me to start a church over there.”

For eight months, Ben Stevens prayed every day at sunrise and sunset, in the middle of the community and at each corner. Then he formed a Bible study, and it wasn’t long before he was pastor of a new congregation that needed a building.

“I advised him to look for a place in the community, and when he found it, to stand in the middle of it and ask God for it,” Tommy said. “Ben had no more sense than to do as I suggested. Soon he called and said, “I’ve found it!'”

Defying the conventional process for such things, the pastor immediately took out a personal loan for the land and a trailer on the site. It took six months for him to get his money back, but today the church has its own building — one of five constructed with volunteers in the association since the Stevenses arrived.

“I don’t think we can praise God enough for sending mission teams out here,” said Tommy. “They’ve helped us so much. And our own pastors, who have such a vision for expanding the kingdom of God, are just awesome.”

One of the primary areas of growth has been on the Mexican border, where church-planting and ministry by Cochise Association churches have spurred development of a new border ministry involving three Arizona associations, the Arizona Baptist Convention, the International Mission Board and Mexican National Baptist Convention.

Tommy has helped Jorge Herrera, pastor of Iglesia Bautista del Sur Amistad in Douglas, develop a ministry in the cross-border town of Agua Prieta that feeds 1,000 children each day through seven new mission congregations. Amistad started five additional missions in Douglas.

The association also has helped First Baptist Church of Agua Prieta start 10 missions. Similar church planting efforts are under way in Naco, Mexico, where the association also partners in an orphanage ministry.

Other new churches are reaching isolated communities of Anglos in the area. In the small community of Dragoon, for instance, a committed church planter and a faithful group of believers have built a Southern Baptist congregation where none existed before. Volunteers from the University of Arizona and across the country have helped them with outreach efforts and construction of a building.

Tommy’s role is to help plan strategy and gather the resources necessary to make it happen. He also is able to put his counseling skills to use in serving as an encourager and cheerleader for the pastors facing daily struggles on the front lines.

“He gives you that shot of adrenalin that you need to come back out and get into ministry,” said Mark Stevens, the pastor of the Dragoon congregation.

Much of the gains in the association have come as a direct result of Southern Baptists, both in financial resources and in the volunteer groups that have come to help. They might come to build a church, conduct a vacation Bible school or knock on doors sharing Christ. One team, using the FAITH evangelism strategy, led 300 people in one week to faith in Christ.

“Before [the volunteers] came, Mision Cosina Primera in Agua Prieta just had a handful of people in Bible study,” he said. “After they left, as Luis Aguilar and his wife began to disciple people, that congregation just blossomed. They have 40 adults and 210 children attending services now.”

In Tombstone, the Stevens home/associational office is strategically located near the start of the parade for the annual “Helldorado” festival celebrating Tombstone’s infamous past. With a donated water trough for the horses, bottled water for the humans and entertainment on the front porch, association volunteers gain opportunities to share Christ with many of the participants.

Along with the ministry successes have come some challenges, but again the Stevenses are quick to point out how the Lord has been consistent in meeting their needs. The long distance from their family, for instance, has been alleviated by air travel made possible by their son’s job with a major airline.

And in the most recent crisis, early last year Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent multiple surgeries and intensive treatment, struggling with both the long-term concerns for her family and the short-term limitations on her own ministry efforts. But she has maintained a positive outlook, confident that the God that she has seen at work so consistently remains sovereign.

“We don’t ever have time to get bored or find anything dull,” she said. “It’s just one of the most rewarding jobs we’ve ever had.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: ENCOURAGING THE NEXT GENERATION, PLANTING WITH PRAYER, PASTORS’ HUDDLE and LOVING LITTLE CHILDREN.

    About the Author

  • James Dotson