It was the summer of 2007 when Cathie and I moved from Canada to Akron PA. I had recently transitioned out of a position as a Full-time worship pastor and was looking for a new ministry . . . that’s when the opportunity to work at Mennonite Disaster Service arose. We loaded up the minivan and hauled the family to Lancaster County, where we found a new home. We arrived on Friday and walked through the doors of Petra on Sunday morning.
Our first thoughts of the church were exciting, very friendly and kind people in an environment that we knew we would be able to flourish in. Cathie and I never visited another church after that day. We were home. With my visa restrictions (I was not allowed to be employed, while Cathie was on a work visa) I was able to use my gifts and talents again serving in the Jr. High program; teaching, helping with the worship team, and eventually helping with Local Evangelism.
In 2011, four years after we moved here, we had obtained green cards, bought a house and were settling down in our new roles. I had resolved that God had shut the door on me being a full-time pastor. I remember making the statement at a Jr. High leadership retreat that, “I was finally comfortable being a trophy husband and lay leader.” That was when I had a “AND SUDDENLY” moment, like the ones that you find in scripture. A week later MDS was downsizing and Cathie found herself unemployed.
Our world was turned upside-down. I had just resolved to be happy where God had planted me and here He was uprooting us again. I loved my church, although I always had a passion to be more than a lay leader. The Lord had planted a heart for evangelism, for preaching, and reaching out to the marginalized people in our world.
That’s when I saw the Vision. I’m not a vision type of person. I’m visionary, but not a person who has seen visions. I was sitting on a bench in the park across from my house staring at Ephrata Mountain “Suddenly” I felt myself flying over the mountain like a bird. The sky was black and the forest surrounding the summit of the mountain was even darker. I saw myself and Cathie tending a large fire, throwing logs on it as it gave a bright light. And then I heard them. I heard the cries of many people, looking for help, seeking warmth, crying out in desperation. I heard our voices shouting out into the darkness, “Come here to the Light!” We’re over here!” And then it was gone . . . I was back on the bench.
I was terrified and excited all at the same time, so I ran home and shared my vision with Cathie. We prayed and agreed to talk Pastor Ken Reinford at Petra. We sat down in a meeting a few days later and shared with him our vision. He asked me what I thought it meant and to just say the first thing that comes to mind. Before I could stop myself, I blurted out, “God wants us to plant a church.” I started to tear up because we had helped with two church plants in the past and I knew the sacrifices and work that would be in front of us. Ken agreed and after a meeting with Pastor Lester we found ourselves sitting in the office of Keith Yoder answering questions, ad doing personality profiles. I remember blubbering with my head in my hands, “I don’t know why God has laid this on my heart to plant a church, but I have to do it.” Keith reassured us that if there ever was a couple to plant a church, it was us.
It was shortly after this we were able to meet Gerry Stoltzfoos, a pastor from Gettysburg, who has and continues to work with the Hopewell Network and Dove. He has planted over 107 churches and wrote a book 83 Lost Sheep: Reaching a Nation that has given up on Church. I read his book and contacted him afterwards. Soon we found ourselves partnering with Petra and Gerry in planting the next Petra church plant.
The vision that God had given me was planting a church for those who normally wouldn’t go to church. Cathie and I had held an Alpha program out of our home several years before leading several to Lord. We had tried getting them connected with other churches, but they never landed in a place they fit. I, too, understood their plight and started meeting with them in our home. We started off with just a Bible Study that was starting church-wide at Petra and then grew and grew. We soon began to grow out of our home. We would have 30 people in our home Friday nights and Cathie led a children’s program in our basement. Our neighbors would put up with loud and boisterous crowds that would invade our neighborhood bi-weekly.
At the same time, I was walking around Akron praying for our community and was able to connect with the mayor. He shared a need for people to serve hot food at a New Year’s Eve event and I volunteered myself, my wife, and the Bible Study (without them knowing it) to serve that New Year’s Eve. That was five years ago. We continue to do the food and since then more than half of the committee is from our church. Many families have come to Freedom Path through that ministry and came to know the Lord.
Four years ago, we had an opportunity to move into the Mennonite Central Committee building in Akron. At our first service Johnny Stoltzfus shared a word that spoke to the core of my spirit. He said, “God has made an investment in you! He has entrusted you with his lost sheep and you are called to shepherd them home.” Petra made an investment in us, God invested in us, and this January we were officially inducted as a Hopewell Network Church. Cathie and I were both ordained and this investment is maturing in the lives and souls of our community. In the words of our video that opens our service every Sunday, which speak to the vision and mission of the church, “You have found yourself a safe place to sit down and hear a potentially very dangerous message. Welcome to our church.”
By Pastor Jim Kearsley, Freedom Path