Indiana church celebrates 100 years of hope despite hardships

Greenfield, Indiana

Stringtown Church of the Nazarene was damaged by a tornado in 1974.

The worshippers on this corner have gathered under a tent, within walls of wood or brick, and for short times away from the site.

But when members and friends gather Sunday at New Hope Church of the Nazarene, for many years known as Stringtown Church of the Nazarene, they will celebrate not the building where they meet but what has happened inside it for 100 years. They’ll spend the next four Sundays celebrating the century past and looking to the future.

The church started in a tent, said longtime member Carolyn Pitts, who has heard the story of the church’s beginning.

Those who have been part of the church through the decades suggest the passion that birthed the church continued into the years that followed. They tell stories of intense encounters with God, of calls to life change or to ministry heard and answered and of deep love among the worshipers gathered at the northeast corner of U.S. 40 and County Road 500 East.

‘How they testified’

In the “History of Hancock County,” published in 1916, George J. Richman referred to the fledgling congregation as Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene. “This little congregation was organized at Stringtown in February, 1915 …” he wrote, noting that Grover Van Duyn and his wife had donated land for a church building, which was to be completed in 1916.

Pitts has been going to the church since her family moved to the area when she was 2 years old. She recalls that as a small child she and a cousin would race the aisle once the service ended to see who could reach the kindly pastor first.

“He just loved us and paid a lot of attention to us when we were young,” she said.

Not even tragedy — twice — could keep the congregation down. On Jan. 2, 1960, a fire destroyed the church building.

Pitts remembers a friend calling her and saying if she wanted to see the church to hurry, because it was on fire. She packed up her babies and hurried over.

“The last post fell in when we got there,” she said.

Members met for services in the Memorial Building on North Street in downtown Greenfield, while a new structure was built.

Fourteen years later, that building was ravaged by a tornado that ripped off one side of the sanctuary.

Once again, “the church people held together like a family,” remembers Martha Mae Cooper.

This time the congregation worshipped in the Seventh Day Adventist church’s building while its own building was repaired.

Cooper has been attending the church since the late 1930s, around the time she married Marion Chapman. He was a Sunday School superintendent for the church. After his death, she and her second husband, Robert Cooper, moved to Rushville and worshipped there for several years. They moved back in 1959 and became active at Stringtown again; she taught Sunday School until she was 91.

“God has been faithful to the church, with many people accepting Christ as their savior,” Cooper said.

One of those revivals happened in 1987. Kent Pitcher remembers it, and the path leading up to it, well.

‘He set me free’

Pitcher was a 15-year-old attending high school in Knightstown when a neighbor invited him to the church.

He had been to church before, but when he started attending at Stringtown, “That’s where I first experienced Jesus in a real way,” he said. He remembers thinking “these people know something about God that I don’t know about God.”

He played on a church league basketball team. Doris Sparks, wife of the Rev. Keith A. Sparks, was like a mother to him. He never forgot the way the people of the church “just kind of took me in under their wing.”

Still, Pitcher said for about 10 years, he went his own way, and “it wasn’t really pretty.” Mired in addiction to alcohol and other drugs, he nevertheless agreed to go to church one Sunday with his mom. It was Mother’s Day.

When he got to church, he learned it was also the last day of a series of revival services.

“I realized I’d been set up,” he said, but he’s sort of laughing as he tells this story, as if he doesn’t really mind. “They’d been praying for me.”

Pitcher walked down the aisle at the end of the service.

“That Sunday I got saved,” he said. “I went to the altar that day and … asked the Lord to set me free from addictions, and he set me free.”

Pitcher said he figured if God did that for him, God could do anything. He came back at Stringtown and had once again found a family of support there.

Later, Pitcher went to a district camp meeting in Camby with the church. There, he felt God was telling him to become a pastor. Back in Hancock County, he struggled for two weeks before nervously telling the Rev. Forrest F. Harvey what he thought God had said.

Harvey recommended Nazarene Bible College in Colorado Springs, Colorado. So in February 1989, Pitcher packed his car and left town — but not without one more expression of love and support from the church.

As he drove north on State Road 9 to catch the westbound ramp onto Interstate 70 and his long journey to Colorado, he found some church members parked on the ramp, waving to him as he left. Some even followed him eight miles to the Mt. Comfort exit, where they got off the interstate and headed back to Greenfield.

Pitcher would later transfer to MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas. After graduation he would minister in Missouri before serving on the mission field for six years in Guatemala and Costa Rica. Today, he is senior pastor of Southside Church of the Nazarene in Tilton, Illinois.

Pitcher will speak at New Hope Church of the Nazarene as part two of a four-week celebration of the church’s centennial. The series, in true Stringtown/New Hope fashion, will kick off with a revival. The Rev. Jim Chapman will lead services of spiritual renewal from Sunday through Wednesday. The Rev. Kent Pitcher speaks Aug. 30 and will be followed by the Covenant Players, a Christian repertory theater ministry, on Sept. 6.

Dr. David W. Graves, a general superintendent in the Church of the Nazarene, will speak Sept. 13 about embracing the future.

‘Offer people hope’

The church has embraced some changes in recent years, said the Rev. Josh Robertson, the church’s current pastor. It has transitioned to a more contemporary style of worship and three years ago changed its name from Stringtown to New Hope.

Robertson, who became pastor in 2010, said he knew the church had a fund for a new sign.

“If we’re going to do this, I would like to consider changing the name,” he remembers saying to church members. “The word ‘hope’ kept coming up in our conversations — that we wanted to offer people hope.”

The church also recently launched a revamped Wednesday night children’s ministry and is trying to attract young families.

Dan Tutrow, his wife and two children were among those younger families. They came to the church 12 years ago after a grandmother at one of their children’s soccer games invited them to the church.

“I remember … everyone was very loving,” Tutrow said. “A genuine caring.”

Tutrow said Robertson has a good vision for the church and is encouraging members to dream boldly about its future.

“We’re hoping for a church where we can go on a weekly basis,” he said, “and every week, we come to see someone be saved in our church.”

Pitcher knows what it’s like to be one of those people.

When he speaks to the congregation, he said, “It’ll be ‘Look how God has used this church in the last 100 years’ — the impact that that little local church had on a little country boy from Indiana.”

--Republished with permission from the Greenfield Daily Reporter

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