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They will know we are Christians by our love,” sang 40 gray-haired members of Blue Ridge Community Church in Happy Jack on a brisk Sunday morning. The refrain could be the motto of the church, but it wasn’t always so.
Happy Jack, an unincorporated area in rural northern Arizona, is home to about 900 year-round residents (mostly retirees or semi-retirees), not including the hunters, campers, and snowbirds.
Blanketed by a pine forest on the side of a rocky mountain, Happy Jack might seem an idyllic setting for the golden years. Yet when Pastor Danny Allen arrived as a fill-in preacher in 2008, he found a divided community. Members of subdivisions with homeowners associations looked down on subdivisions without HOAs. Residents disagreed over how the fire department should be run. Worst of all, Blue Ridge and the other Protestant congregation in town, Calvary Bible Church, were at odds with each other.
Much of the trouble had started in 2003, when Blue Ridge hired as pastor a charismatic, likable man who brought new members into the congregation but clashed with church officers. That pastor led a church split, started Calvary Bible, then two years later resigned and left town amid scandal. The fiasco left hurt feelings between Blue Ridge and the new congregation, Calvary Bible Church.
When Allen took a full-time pastoral job at Blue Ridge in 2010, he and his wife, Janice, found members of the rival congregations avoiding and gossiping about each other.
The Allens were no strangers to adversity and mending broken relationships. They had experienced a personal tragedy in 2003 when their teenage son pleaded guilty in a different county of attempted molestation of his younger adopted siblings. Janice Allen says that after that incident, her family felt like outcasts. She and Danny had to rebuild relationships with their children. The experience taught them everyone has challenges to overcome.
Danny Allen decided to contact the new pastor of Calvary Bible, Mike Owsley. Owsley also desired healing between the congregations, so the two pastors concocted a plan: For Christmas Eve and Easter, they would hold joint services. They both preached hard-hitting sermons about love and putting away strife.
At the time, Blue Ridge was meeting in its original church building, while Calvary was renting from a Mormon congregation. Both churches bought property adjacent to each other and intended to build new facilities, but lacked funds. By 2011, Calvary had an unfinished building shell, and Blue Ridge had held a groundbreaking ceremony.
Happy Jack residents who knew about the split watched the two projects and saw rivalry. Who would “win”?
That summer, the Allens spent their vacation on a cruise. But the weather turned bad, and there was little to do but read and pray. During that time, Danny felt God was prompting him to offer his church’s building fund to Calvary.
He wrestled with the idea for weeks. When he proposed it to his church board members that October, they were surprised but embraced the idea. The following Sunday, the congregation voted to give the money. It also took up an additional special offering for Calvary. The total funds weren’t much—about $2,000—but Blue Ridge congregants further helped by volunteering time and skilled labor: Together, it was enough to finish Calvary’s building before winter.
Suddenly, members of the community were seeing the two rival churches working together. Some called it a terrible business move. Others began to reevaluate their assessment—and some even visited.
When 2012 arrived, Blue Ridge had zero dollars in its building fund. Soon, donations and workers arrived seemingly from nowhere: When the church needed a plumber, a retired plumbing inspector from Phoenix moved into town. So did an electrician, a general contractor, and an ornamental stoneworker. When Blue Ridge needed a concrete finisher, the county sheriff’s office called to say a man on probation needed to complete over 600 hours of community service—and all he could do was finish concrete. That man came, finished the concrete, taught others how to do it, and started attending Blue Ridge himself. The plumber began attending Calvary.
By Easter 2018, the two congregations held a joint service in Blue Ridge’s almost-finished building for the first time. One hundred and eighty people attended, including visitors, an unusually high number for the small town.
One month later, the congregants had an opportunity to serve their community together when a disaster hit Happy Jack: A wildfire swept through the area and destroyed 32 homes. Blue Ridge’s new building became a base camp for over 20 relief agencies, and church members volunteered every day to hand out food and supplies. Calvary helped by supplying port-a-potties.
At Happy Jack Lodge, where Blue Ridge and Calvary members often gather for food and fellowship after church on Sundays, server Denise McGuire described the town’s change in attitude as like “night and day.” McGuire has lived in the community since the mid-1970s, when she was 7. Five to 10 years ago, she said, members of the two congregations would say of the other, “Oh, that’s not our church.” Now, she noted, they cooperate and hold joint events. Some people even attend both churches. (Church services temporarily closed earlier this year during coronavirus restrictions, but have begun meeting again.)
Church members I spoke to agreed the old rift is history. Pastor Owsley said, “It’s completely healed.”
Pastor Allen attributed the change entirely to God. “It’s all about the kingdom of God: God working through disaster, doing bigger things than us.”