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Montana church undaunted by fire

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (BP)–The smoke alarms worked just after midnight on Sunday, May 24, enabling the three people staying in Set Free Ministries’ oversized building in downtown Great Falls, Mont., to flee to safety.

The uninsured, historic building burned to its outside brick walls during the Memorial Day weekend, pastor J.T. Coughlan said.

“We don’t know how it started but we’re 100 percent burned out,” Coughlan said as he waved his hand back at the destruction on the other side of a half-block of yellow caution tape. “We only missed one food pick-up. All our ministries are going right on.”

Set Free Great Falls ministers to people who don’t feel comfortable in most churches, providing a variety of Jesus-focused assistance to people who live on the edge. Its ministries include food, clothing, household items, support groups, children’s activities and a year-long in-house rehab program for those who choose Jesus over various crutches they’ve previously used such as drugs, alcohol and sex.

“The outpouring from the churches and the community has been amazing,” said the pastor, who founded Set Free Ministries in Great Falls 14 years ago. “Pastor [John] Duckworth of First Baptist Church opened those church doors for us to have our Saturday night worship services. A bar down the street has said we can distribute the food there that we usually distribute twice a week from this building.”

The three-alarm fire — which means all on-duty and all available off-duty firefighters were mobilized — is not likely to have been an act of arson, said Randy McCamley, fire chief for the city of Great Falls. Firefighters were at the smoldering scene for 36 hours, dousing hot spots as they flared, after an initial four-hour pitched battle to keep the fire from spreading to adjacent buildings.

“We’re not ruling anything out at this point, but we’re not having any indication that raises our suspicions,” McCamley said. “This was a very big building –- four stories, and six at the back, plus basements. A part of the roof collapsed over the sanctuary, and it was a multi-floor collapse.

“We’ll be days or weeks getting to the bottom of it,” the fire chief continued, referring to the cause of the fire. “With an old building, there’s plenty to burn and of course they stored a lot of things there; they had a big clothing ministry, for one.”

As to rebuilding at the church site, Coughlan said. “I’m just trusting God.”

An inebriated man stopped by the scene Thursday afternoon and gave the pastor 50 cents. Residents in a neighborhood ministered to by Set Free went door-to-door for whatever they could collect in this, the last few days of the month.

“We’ll go out again after everyone gets paid,” said the woman who handed the pastor an envelope of mostly change.

Set Free Ministries in Montana got its start 10 years after Coughlan found a new direction in life.

“I wasn’t living right,” he said. “Being raised in a Christian environment, I knew better. We just had our first child and things weren’t going the way they were supposed to.”

Coughlan gave his life to Jesus Christ on March 13, 1985, after watching ESPN television and seeing a commercial with legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry advertising a free book -– “Power for Living” -– that would change his life.

Within 10 years Coughlan was a firefighter at the Malmstrom Air Force Base fire station and children’s pastor at a nondenominational church. One night, watching a Christian cable network, he became intrigued with ministry led by Zonelle Thompson in inner-city Los Angeles. Coughlan started taking vacation time to help and came to realize that the type of people being reached in Los Angeles likely would not be comfortable in the church in Great Falls where he was serving.

Four months later, on Feb. 5, 1995, Set Free Great Falls was birthed, meeting first in a strip mall. It’s church lore that Coughlan lay praying on the concrete in front of a downtown building he wanted, and from that position saw the building God wanted him to have. He and his wife Nona sold property they’d been given as a wedding present and used the money — with another $50,000 ‘miraculously’ provided by God, the pastor says — to purchase the six-story building that also includes three basements.

“It’s His,” Coughlan says God told him concerning the building as firefighters were manhandling hoses while they climbed ladders soaring above the corner of Sixth and Central. “It’s all about sharing the love of Jesus, wherever and however He wants to do that. We’re open. Our building may have burned, but we’re open. We’ll do whatever He tells us to do.”

Set Free’s building opened in 1914 as “the lavish Pantages [vaudeville] Theater,” according to an article in the Great Falls Tribune, and was designed by one of the city’s “most noted architects.” Also in its early years, the building contained the offices of the Rocky Mountain Fire Insurance Company. Its president: Paris Gibson, founder of Great Falls. The $200,000 cost of the building in 1995 was fair market value in Great Falls for the long-neglected structure, Coughlan said.

“It was a wreck when we moved in,” he said. His longtime secretary, Pam Altman, wife of associate pastor Jerald “Rev” Altman, recalled stepping straight out from a second floor door -– there were no stairs at that point during the renovation process -– onto a two-story mound of discarded material.

For more than 13 years, the Set Free Ministries building included — in addition to a 6,400-square-foot, three-story-high worship center — a food room, clothing room, prayer room, and offices. In addition, people lived there who were from pre-release or jail programs or the streets as they worked through a year-long intense discipleship training program.

The building wasn’t insured, Coughlan said. “We just never had the money to insure it,” he said. “Everything that came in went out almost immediately for ministry of some kind.”

Set Free’s ministries also include the Set Free Bread of Life Food Ministry, a seven-day-a-week pick-up of day-old bread as well as canned goods and other non-perishables from area grocery stores, which were delivered by Set Free to its building and are continuing to go to other food providers across Great Falls to benefit people without access to transportation.

“We lost a small food pantry — most of it goes out as quickly as it comes in — and freezers and basic things like that,” Altman said. “We had just cleaned out the freezers. We had several turkeys so we delivered [items for] turkey dinners to the people at one church.

“It’s amazing,” Altman said on Wednesday, following the weekend fire. “Nothing has slowed down. We’re just doing it out of several locations instead of out of our building.”

Set Free’s equipment trailer for its summer-in-the-parks STITCHES children’s program was unharmed by the fire. STITCHES, which stands for Saving The Inner-city Through Christ’s Hope: Eternal Salvation, offers an hour-long series of activities for youngsters, with games, prizes, candy and a Gospel segment using puppets, skits, object lessons and the like. Coughland, his wife Nona and four daughters serve alongside him in STITCHES, as do others from Set Free Ministries.

“We’re out and about all the time,” Coughlan said. “We feed the homeless, walk around, go to the hospital, have lunch at school with kids — we just come in and hang out with the kids and try to encourage them.”

Worship for Set Free starts with a 5 p.m. Saturday barbeque for upwards of 150 people, maybe as many as 300 each week. The invitation to meet at First Baptist Great Falls is open-ended, Coughlan said. Worship -– heavy on music, testimony and preaching –- starts at 6:30 p.m., providing an additional way to train those men called into the ministry through Set Free.

Coughlan leads the men twice a week in Bible study and once a week for “pastor school,” which is comprehensive training in things a pastor should know: doctrinal issues, plus how to do marriages, funerals, baptisms and more.

Since Set Free’s worship service takes place on Saturday nights, Coughlan often is called on to fill pulpits on Sunday mornings in churches affiliated with Treasure State Baptist Association and the Montana Southern Baptist Convention. He’ll take two or three pastors-in-training with him; they talk there and back — Southern Baptist churches in Montana often are at least an hour from each other –- about the sermon and the service.

The pastors-in-training first “public speaking” opportunities come as they give their testimony and introduce their listeners to Jesus. That starts in the first hours after they give their lives to Jesus, Coughlan said.

“JT [Coughlan] is a phenomenal leader and has a heart to reach men and woman who are very difficult to reach: addicts, bikers, street people and others who may feel uncomfortable in a more traditional church,” said Fred Hewett, executive director of the Montana convention. “I found him to be a man who loves the Lord and is sold out to Jesus and willing to minister in a place where few are willing.”

B.J. Hallmark, area missionary for the Baptist association, is a “very good friend,” Coughlan said. That’s why he -– and Set Free Ministries in Great Falls and the two missions it has spawned, in Helena and Missoula, have become part of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“It sounded like a great idea to join forces and work together,” Coughlan said. “Southern Baptists have a good thing going, what with the Cooperative Program and all. We’re after the seven major cities of Montana [for a Set Free Ministries church] — those who don’t attend church….. It’s not just bikers. All sinners are welcome. But that’s just here in Montana. The Cooperative Program goes worldwide, and that’s something we want to be part of.”

Still, he said, “We’re not your mama’s church. We’re out there, touching those the church doesn’t reach. We’re not the bad guys. We’re kind of the sheep in wolves’ clothes.”
Karen L. Willougby is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message and the Montana Baptist newsjournals.