A Church Birthday

     If you are not of the Pentecostal religious persuasion or at least pseudo-Pentecostal, you’ll be forgiven if you choose to skip this little essay and glam onto one of my more scintillating essays in the index. This essay is an informal observation of a contemporary Pentecostal church…more specifically a church affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church, International, which has headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri. The UPCI, as it is affectionately acronymed, had its official beginnings in 1945 with the merger of two large Pentecostal organizations which dated from the fundamentalist revivals of the 1800s.
     The church in focus is Bethel Tabernacle of which Shirley and I are proud members. Though my wife and I have known of this church in Houston, Texas, for many years, it was only after we retired and moved to the general vicinity that we began attending. The church in recent days celebrated its eightieth anniversary, and it is of the style and content of that anniversary celebration that I would like to offer some observations. The celebration lasted a week, kicking off one Sunday and ending the next, with activities every night except Monday night.
     Bethel Tabernacle has experienced a very unique history. Founded by Rev. Oliver F. Fauss in 1929, the minister arrived in Houston with his wife, children, an old car, fifteen cents in his pocket, and a desire to start a church. Eighty years later, his grandson, Pastor David Fauss, preached a sermon which was entitled “Three Nickels and a Dream,” which stirringly detailed the commitment and spiritual calling which brought Oliver F. Fauss to Houston. To us folks of the current generation, it seems unbelievable that a man could be in a strange city and have a family, and yet possess only fifteen cents, but 1929 saw the beginning of the Great Depression, and the havoc it played on the American culture makes the economic downturn we have experienced in the past few months appear as a minor cloud in the sky. There were no jobs, no money, no welfare, and no where to turn for help. I can remember my dad who grew up during the depression talking about his unmarried days and how he and his date would go out for the evening with absolutely no money between them. They would spend the evening walking, visiting friends, or watching sidewalk shows put on by actors and vendors. If he was able to earn fifty cents he was rich, and he could take his date to a movie and buy dinner. Fast forward thirty years, and when my wife and I married in 1961, I was earning $1.18 per hour and she $.85. No savings, no credit cards, no wealthy parents to borrow from…but we were happy.
     Needless to say, for a person to be willing to pull up stakes and head to a new city while dragging one's family to start something as tenuous and tentative as a church required a great deal of commitment and belief that one was in the Will of God. Such was Rev. Oliver F. Fauss. The early years were hard, but he was able to carve a niche in Houston, preaching the Plan of Salvation according to the Book of Acts. Pastor David Fauss tells of his grandfather in one of his intense prayers during a trying time in the development of his church raising the Bible above his head while he prayed and, placing his finger on Acts 2:38, saying, “Lord, whatever the future holds, as long as this scripture is in the Bible I’m going to preach it!”
     What has contributed to the uniqueness of Bethel Tabernacle is that the same bulldog determination of Rev. Oliver F. Fauss to preach the Gospel according to the scriptures was passed down to his son, Rev. O.R. Fauss, and now to his grandson, Rev. David Fauss. Though each has offered his distinctive ministry, all three have been loyal and nonwavering in their pursuit of biblical accuracy in their preaching. The result of this for Bethel Tabernacle has been an eighty year continuity of commitment. I have been attending Pentecostal churches for nearly sixty years and have seen churches rise and fall with the changing of pastors. Not every word which comes over the sacred desk in the form of a sermon is a message from God, and some ministers have shown their humanity in excruciatingly unfortunate detail in some of their comments which are labeled, “Thus saith the Word of God.” In eighty years, Bethel Tabernacle has never suffered a church split or a congregational exodus, and that fact alone puts it into a very rarified atmosphere. I am sure that if Oliver F. Fauss were to somehow in spirit visit Bethel Tabernacle on any typical present-day Sunday, he would be amazed, aghast, astounded, and overwhelmed at the complexity of a modern service, at the actions and appearance of the church congregation, and at the style and presentation of the music and worship. By the time his grandson, Pastor David Fauss, got up to preach he would be telling himself, “The Spirit seems the same, but it’s so different!” But then Brother David would begin to preach the story of the Gospel and the Plan of Salvation, reading the very same scriptures used eighty years ago by his grandfather, and the founder of Bethel Tabernacle would settle back and say to himself, “Praise God, the things that really count haven’t changed at all!”
     The anniversary services began with two special speakers, Reverends Simeon and Curtis Young, one preaching Sunday morning and the other Sunday night. After a rest night on Monday, Tuesday night we heard Reverend Don Tipton, and on Wednesday night we heard Reverend Gary Wheeler. The main claim to fame for these ministers was that they all came to Bethel Tabernacle years ago, found themselves wives, and left town. More seriously, perhaps it would be better to say that each came to Bethel Tabernacle under a different circumstance, became a faithful member of the church, and was rewarded by God with a faithful wife and then called by the Spirit to go elsewhere and preach the Gospel. Thursday night we heard our first woman minister and another Bethel alumnus, Cindy Miller, who, forgive me for saying so, preached the most powerful sermon of them all. Had I been a young person in that service, I would not have been AT the altar, I would have been UNDER the altar. Her message touched everyone, even us Golden Agers. Friday night it was Reverends Nathan Scoggins and Wayne Huntley, whom Shirley and I had not seen in 38 years. Shirley used to baby-sit for the Huntleys when their child was an infant. Time flies…he still has a mischievous smile.
     On Saturday night we had a big dinner and hullabaloo at a local hotel convention center. Tuxedos and tennis shoes were both well represented, and we even had the traditional erratic sound system and mediocre food. The speaker was South Texas District Superintendent Ken Gurley, who is a historian of early Pentecost memorabilia. He gave a very informative summary of the early foundational days of the UPCI. Ken (excuse me, Reverend Gurley), Shirley and I attended the same church in Baytown as we were growing up. There was a tremendous spiritual display as Reverend Gurley was ending his presentation…most unusual considering we were in sort of a public area. I have been in only two such public events in all my years where there was a speaking in tongues followed by a prophetic interpretation afterward. It was very powerful.
     On Sunday, the week was wrapped up with the General Superintendent of the United Pentecostal Church, International, Reverend David Bernard, giving a stirring sermon of encouragement and a prophecy of a great future for Bethel Tabernacle. His sermon was very detailed, very articulate, very uplifting…and totally read. I have heard only two ministers in my lifetime who could read a sermon and be effective, and Brother Bernard is one of them and Reverend Cleveland Becton is the other. There was no Sunday night service, and I think most of us collapsed for the afternoon. It had been a very exhausting week. To make matters worse (well, sort of) for Shirley and myself, the ministers, families, friends, and hangers-on were fed after services on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday nights, and Shirley and I volunteered to be part of the kitchen duty staff. These preachers and friends were treated royally by Bethel Tabernacle with top quality cooking, china plates, silverware, goblet glasses, and cloth napkins. I washed so many dishes I thought I was back on military KP. We didn’t head home till near each night. By Saturday we were exhausted, but it had actually been a lot of fun. We who slaved in the kitchen while the ministers dawdled over their desserts created a bond, and Shirley and I had more close friends than we did a week earlier. The services and ministry were top level…all the ministers are heavy hitters in the Pentecostal ranks, and every sermon was powerful and specific. The music and worship were lively and blessed, and the Spirit of the Creator seemed tangible at times in the services. It reaffirmed to me that there is still life and spirit in the UPCI. If you have never been in a church service in a United Pentecostal church, you owe it to yourself to visit. There is a spiritual joy and a freedom to truly worship linked to an underlying appreciation of the seriousness of salvation. Pentecostals do not consider their religion a spare tire to go to in an emergency, but rather the engine that powers life itself, both in this world and the world to come.
     More than anything, however, the week's festivities reminded me that Bethel Tabernacle is a special church with special people led by special ministers, Reverends O.R. Fauss and David Fauss. If Grandaddy Oliver F. Fauss could have seen it, he would have been proud.

Visit Bethel Tabernacle at http://www.bethel.cc/.