Growing Pentecostal church tries to ‘bring things back into focus’Published 9:20am Monday, October 19, 2009
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
Dowagiac “is a city in need right now,” says Liberty Chapel Pastor Mark Saylor. “People think to be rich is what you can hold in your hand, what you can drive or what you live in. I don’t know where this materialistic thinking comes from. I don’t know if it’s the result of being constantly bombarded by TV and the influence of movie stars. It’s not real life, but they see it and think, ‘Oh, if I could look like this, be like this, it would fulfill me as a person.’ And (those stars are) in rehab and not happy at all.”
“This community isn’t going to come back to life unless we bring it back to life,” he said Friday evening. “God holds communities accountable. This is our hour. We’re going into the holiday season, when somebody who lost their job isn’t going to be able to provide. We’re in Dowagiac. We see that. What’s going to happen to them? My viewpoint is that God requires us to not only see things on a personal level, but on a higher level. We’ve been blessed to live in America. Let’s leave a mark on Dowagiac that people knew we were here. There’s a big vision in this little building.”
Saylor finds personal fulfillment working with young people, not just in church, but coaching Little League baseball and basketball in Decatur.
The father of four has taken his children to Walt Disney World and EPCOT Center, but also just to play in a park or fish or swim in a river while eating hot dogs off the grill because it’s quality time spent with Dad.
“This could save a lot of people if they only knew,” he said.
“That’s our message with the church here. We’re trying to bring everything back into focus.” The night before he brought the message, “Sometimes it takes a woman to do a man’s job.”
“That’s a lot of what’s going on,” he said. “There’s not a dad in the home, a husband, a strong man. Women are put in the position of rising to the challenge of being both mom and dad. Look what it’s doing to our community. We don’t need a lot of theology in Dowagiac. We need to get right back down to families and address the real cancer. We need dads with their children. We still need moms and dads around the dinner table, helping with homework. God’s placed intelligent people around us – teachers, professors, businessmen who have made it.
“We don’t have to reach out. Let’s reach in and grab what God has placed around us here in Dowagiac. We’re a town with a powerful community college. We’re a town with some fundamentally sound city leaders. Look at what they’ve tried to do for downtown Dowagiac. The people of Dowagiac put in a new middle school. They want to see something happen here.
“Dowagiac needs its spirits lifted, but what it needs most is going to start from the ground up. It’s going to start with the families at the dinner tables. It’s going to start with our city leaders, our school teachers and our churches, bringing it down to a level people can understand. You may not understand one thing about the life of Moses, but you can understand economic struggles, depression and hardships, and how faith can give you hope and a family of support.”
As a weightlifter, he knows he can always hoist more when someone’s there to exhort, ‘C’mon! You can do it! You’ve got it in you! Just because you make it to the top of the mountain, if you brought no one with you, what have you accomplished? I’ve been in this town since I was a boy and it had an A&W root beer stand where they set it on the window. I’ve walked downtown to Woolworth’s. I know the people in this community and what they’re capable of.”
Saylor has a step-daughter, 19; a son, 17; a daughter, 14; and a son, 12. His wife, Laura, works for Bronson’s nursing home in Lawton. Mark works at Kalamazoo Valley Community College as an electrician.
“I work on wind turbines. They have the new technician academy because of the green push. A wind farm can have a couple hundred of these things setting out there and you need people who know how to run them, regulate them and harvest the most potential,” he said. “The guys teaching our classes spent time in Germany.”
“As God blesses us, it’s going to be great to see what He can do here in Dowagiac to take this to the next level,” Saylor said, “and to incorporate a house of worship where anybody, from any situation or background, can walk through the doors and feel at home. We’re trying to make a difference. It’s a tough time for a church to be successful because it operates off donations to keep it going, and with everything that’s closed in Dowagiac, people are leaving. A real estate agent told me the foreclosure rate is unprecedented. But if we change our habits as a church, we can be a vital part of bringing Dowagiac back.”
In a year and a half, since Easter 2008, Liberty Chapel, its name inspired by his mother from the bell steeple at 112 N., Mill St., where it started, has mushroomed from six members to almost 150, pushing the nursery to the lower level.
That’s why when he looks at the vacant block where Jessup Door stood on E. Railroad Street he sees a potential location for a new, larger Liberty Chapel seating 300 to 400 worshippers.
Inside such a structure, Saylor envisions a “church without walls” free of “any preconceived notions. You need to come as you are because we’re all human family in this together. You may have your thoughts. I’m not here to pass judgment on you, I’m saying let’s come together and work for the good of our community. That’s what Jesus was all about. Not coming to be put down, but coming to church to leave edified. He always reached out.”
By “changing habits,” Saylor means “being concerned by what happens to families Monday through Saturday, as well as on Sunday. If you can offer life skills and information on jobs or even group meetings to network the unemployed and “compare resources.”
“If we can change the way we have church and reach out the way Jesus originally intended and be a part of the community, we can prosper,” he said. “I believe if we get down to the street level, God will bless us … If you continue to have a humble attitude and thank God for every day, and you take time to reach down to every one you can, God will let you prosper.”
“God blessed us to outgrow the N. Mill Street facilities,” Saylor said, “and we saw this” at 309 Dewey St. “It was pretty desolate. The ceiling was hanging down. There was a strip of carpeting on the floor and old theater-style seating” instead of pews.
Now, thanks to Saylor’s music ministry, the sanctuary looks as though a concert is about to begin.
“We came in here with a lot of elbow grease and backbone” and a desire for diversity,” he said. “We revived it and brought it back to life. Some of the old members who came to this church before came back. When they came in, they were just excited to see that God was blessing in this building once again. Some who came back made this their home church again.”
“God has given us a great problem,” Saylor continues. “He’s given us too little space, but we’re trying to take what He’s given us and make the most with it and be good stewards. What’s amazing about our growth is that it’s not a result of pulling some church members from over here or somebody’s membership over there and trying to glean from other churches to build this church.
“We got involved with Chaplain Ross at Forgotten Man Ministries. Carl’s awesome. I love Carl. And Capt. Rick Affriseo, awesome. He’s going to come speak here. I worked years ago with his first wife, Barb, who was killed by a drunk driver. God has made him a messenger of mercy to this community. He has opened the doors and allowed so many lives to be changed in the Cass County correctional facility. I’m sure he doesn’t get many kudos for it, but Sheriff Underwood has supported him.
“Week before last, we had the annual Forgotten Man Ministry dinner at the Cass County Fairgrounds. There were like 400 people who attended. It was packed. We got to listen to testimonies from inmates who changed their lives. Tears running down their faces. Churches work, ministries work, if you do it right, because they bring people together and give them hope. We support wholesome things like Rocket Football, Little League, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, soccer. Shut down the video games and get outside. We do camping trips.”
“We got involved in (the Dowagiac Summer in the City festival). We had a booth down there. We’ve got people coming to church as a result of that work, out meeting people. We go in the streets,” Saylor said.
“Young people, young families, who have never been affiliated with a church before” respond to his hopeful message.
“It’s been amazing. We have very powerful church services. The praise and worship team, the young people who are involved. It’s dynamic every Sunday morning. We’ve got a Hammond organ when we begin to lift up praises to the Lord. Young people find peace, some guidance in their life and strength. You can see their demeanor change as they can lay down some burdens. Do you know how powerful an embrace can be or just to see somebody smile?”
“In Dowagiac, with all of the loss of industry and economic downturn and people going through financial struggles, it affects mothers and fathers and kids. We have some fathers come in here Sunday morning who looked like they aged 10 to 20 years in those dreaded words, ‘I lost my job.’
“People need a place to come to resecure direction for their life. They can get refocused and say, ‘There’s hope for my community, there’s hope for my family, there’s hope for my children.’ We can come here and get a sense of belonging and come to the understanding and knowledge that God has not forsaken us. Even though we’re going through a hard time right now, everything is going to turn out for the best. We look to empower people with hope and faith and belief that Jesus Christ will give them strength. They leave here renewed and enthused. They want to do more. Matter of fact, we’re supposed to take eight people when we go over to be with Carl at the jail ministry. I announced it. Instead of doing a sign-up sheet, which I’m definitely going to do this month, I just said, ‘Pray for us because we’re going to be at the jail.’ We showed up with 20 people. I had to send church members home because so many wanted to be involved. It’s overwhelming. As a pastor, how much more could you want?”
At the jail, “We hold an actual church service,” he said. “We take our singing and I take my keyboard. We take the Word of God and the testimonies. Some of the people here now are former inmates. They came out of that situation, got their feet on the ground, got grounded in God and the church family and got a sense of purpose to their life. Now they go back and say, ‘Hey, listen. I was where you’re at. This isn’t the end. There’s hope. Dig in the Word of God, find some strong values and get some strength to pick yourself up and change your situation. You can pilot yourself, with God’s help, right out of where you are now.’ We have seen over the last year probably 100 to 150 inmates receive the Lord Jesus Christ.”
“When you see people in their worst moment,” he said, “that could have been you, but for the grace of God. If we had made a left instead of a right and got involved in this situation instead of that one, we could have been the ones in need of help. A lot of times, we needed help, but we had a strong foundation of friends and family who kept us from falling to our lowest point.
“There are people who don’t have what me and you have as far as somebody to give a sense of direction. We can be that to people and be there for them. Stories like (President Barack Obama rising from a single-parent family in Hawaii and Kansas to the White House), even though they’re on a huge scale and I’m on a small scale here in Dowagiac, Mich., the Lord works in mysterious ways. We’ve got a college professor who attends here and she wants to start mentoring classes and parental classes for young parents. Sometimes you just need a support system. My sister attends here,” and she’s a Bronson pediatrics administrator.
Saylor particularly remembers a young man approaching him at church who asked, “Do you remember me?”
“They always look different in street clothes” instead of orange jail jumpsuits, Saylor said. “He came back the next service and he’s got his mom and his sister. Then he comes back with his aunt and his grandma. Then he comes back with his grandpa, who had been fighting cancer and felt all hope was gone. We were able to baptize him when he got out of the hospital. There were two or three rows of people who had their lives impacted by this one young man. It’s contagious when you get one person who’s enthused or excited and they begin to spread the Word. Word of mouth is the most powerful form of advertisement.”
This interview came about from a contact by Jennifer Pletcher, a Marcellus businesswoman whose husband Jeremy’s grandfather, Ralph Pletcher, pastored at Coulter Chapel in the Niles area for 35 years.
“The atmosphere here, with the singing and the music, took him back home to where he grew up. She is a go-getter, a very determined young lady. We have got a group of young families here and a mixed crowd. We have diversity in age, diversity in race, diversity in backgrounds. (Dowagiac varsity basketball coach) Danum Hunt has preached here. He’s a great speaker. Next Thursday Brother Blackamore is going to be here from Mt. Zion.”
Saylor grew up in a family of pastors attending Hamilton Chapel, in the country between Dowagiac and Decatur.
His Uncle Boyd pastors Keeler Church of God, helped by cousins Jamie and Scott.
“There are ministers throughout our family,” he said. “I broke away from the pizza, but I hung on to the ministry.”
Saylor’s preaching wasn’t preordained, however.
“When I first came to the Lord it was in the Hartford Church of God under Pastor Kenneth Manning. God blessed me with the talent to play music. I play several instruments (another cousin, Steve, was a recording artist; Steve’s brother, Walter, who lives in the neighborhood, plays bass for Liberty Chapel).
Liberty Chapel holds an annual Ryan’s Revival in memory of the 21-year-old DUHS 2006 graduate who was Walter and Tracy’s son. Ryan lost his life in an Aug. 10, 2008, auto accident on Rudy Road near Gage Street in Wayne Township.
“That young man was amazing. He impacted so many people in this town. His funeral was standing-room-only at the Apostolic Lighthouse, even though he attended church here. Pastor (David) Helmuth is an exceptional man. I honor the work he’s done. He opened up the doors to Apostolic Lighthouse and allowed us to come out there. There were 1,100 people there,” Saylor said. “I couldn’t say enough good things about how accommodating he was. We’re looking to be in a position one of these days when we can do the same thing.”
“I gave my heart to the Lord when I started going to Pastor Manning’s church,” he recalls. “I knew something had to change. It came out of conflict in my own life. I had a young family, times were hard. I couldn’t find direction. I couldn’t find a good job. When you’re having financial problems, it affects your relationship with your wife. If you don’t have money to go to Wal-Mart and get dryer sheets and diapers and formula for the baby, there’s bickering.”
Hearing a nervous 16-year-old with knocking knees giving his first revival and posing such questions as setting goals for life “and are you really where you want to be?” touched Mark.
“God’s just laying it on me,” he said. “That’s when I changed my sense of direction. Pastor Manning gave me my first position, minister of music.
Saylor, 37, graduated from Decatur High School in 1990.
He has a nephew playing for Coach Joe Groh’s Raiders.
Groh’s assistant, Dowagiac teacher Russ Barnes, “deserved” his Hall of Fame induction. “He was always out there with a positive attitude to help the kids. I really respected him. He and Coach Groh were really dedicated to that program. They worked us.”
Three basement rooms in addition to a kitchen and congregate dining area are in various stages of repair. One has been painted and carpeted for use by youngsters. Tables donated by Boyd Saylor are reminiscent of the restaurant seating that they were in a previous life.
“Right now, this is what we’ve got so our kids are utilizing them and making do,” Mark said. “We’ve got a white board in here and this classroom is being used by our 8- to 12-year-olds.”
The third “rough” room in the 1940s church will be outfitted with library shelves and made available as a study. There will be a desk for the donated computer and a round conference table for women’s or men’s meetings and Bible study groups or counseling.
“You go from Good to Bad to Ugly,” he chuckled at the progression.
What appears at first glance to be a green door is actually a folded-up puppet theater. A church member who works at Special Lite in Decatur “is checking on some doors for us,” he said.
“A lot of work needs to be done. I believe God’s going to give us our next facility, but at the same time I believe He expects you to take what you’ve got now and make the most of it.”