Pastor taps grandfather's farm tool for home church's emotional transit

POCASSET, Okla. (BP)--Jesus lamented in Matthew 13:57 that "a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house," and Oklahoma pastor Chuck Utsler is living proof that you really can go home again -- if it is God's will and you're willing to roll up your sleeves and pitch right in when there's work to be done.

Utsler grew up in First Missionary Baptist Church, Pocasset, Okla., where his parents, Dale and Frances Utsler, are still members and his father is a deacon. On Oct. 1, he led his congregation in planting the seeds for a new two-story, 295-seat, $1.1 million worship center.

Meanwhile, the church continues its faithful giving of 23 percent of its annual budget to the Cooperative Program, verifying, if you will, its original "missionary" name.

"We're a very missions-minded church," Utsler stressed. "We never thought of decreasing our CP giving in order to pay for the new building. Our missionaries deserve our support, and we never thought about trying to build off the backs of what our missionaries are trying to do."

Focusing on Jesus' parable of the soils in Mark 4:3-9, Utsler called on his church to work together in unity -- remembering the work of those who came before them -- to plant the seed of the gospel in Pocasset and the surrounding area.

In line with the theme, the pastor used his grandfather's antique John Deere lister (planter) to break ground for the 27,299-square-foot building. More than 100 members of the congregation each grasped one of two gold nylon ropes attached to the antique plow and symbolically pulled it together through the rich, Grady County soil.

"I wanted this ceremony to be unique, instead of the traditional groundbreaking in which the members of a building committee each grab a shovel and turn over a spadeful of dirt," Utsler said. "I didn't want most of us to have to go out and stand there and watch a few people do something. I wanted everyone to be able to participate.

"It was important, also, for even the littlest of our children to have their hands on the ropes as we broke ground," the pastor added. "Twenty, 30 or 50 years from now, they can look back at the photos we took today and point out to their children and grandchildren they were there to help break ground for the building.

"Ultimately, of course, I know it's the Lord's church, but I wanted all of his people here to be able to participate. This is a once-in-a-lifetime event; we're not likely to build another auditorium in a long time."

In fact, First Missionary Baptist's original building was constructed in 1921, and when the structure had to be torn down to make way for the new one, it was an emotional experience for pastor and congregation alike.

"I grew up in this church and was saved and baptized here," Utsler said. "So, when some of the people said it, 'It's hard to see the old building go,' I told them it was hard for me, too, but I reminded them that we believe this is God's plan and God's will for us."

Still, he acknowledged, "It saddened me as much as anyone else to see the building go, because they were my memories, too."

The old worship center holds a special place in Utsler's heart for another reason. He and his wife, Donnia, were married in the auditorium May 28, 1976. Twenty-three years later to the day, he officiated at the last wedding performed there. It just so happened that the wedding party included Utsler's son, Kyle, and his fiance, Tami.

"It was very special to have been married there and then get to marry my son and his fiance in the very same place on the very same date 23 years later," he said.

Utsler feels that God called him back to Pocasset at just the right time.

"His timing is always right," he said. "I suppose God could have called me here at another time, but he chose to bring me back at the very time we were getting ready to build this building."

Preparations for the new structure, which is expected to be finished in April 2002, included hauling in about 50 truckloads of dirt for the foundation work and several workdays for which an average of between 35-40 members showed up. The people basically stripped the old auditorium of anything of value before it was leveled, and many of the items were later sold at an auction to help raise money for the construction of the new building. Utsler was among those men driving trucks when the dirt hauling was done.

"The construction cost estimate is $1.1 million, but we'll come in well under budget because of all of the volunteer work we're getting done," the pastor said.

At the groundbreaking, no human hands steadied the lister as it dug into the ground. "There are no one's hands on the lister's handles but God's hands," Utsler pointed out to his congregation. "The Lord is really our guide; God is doing the guiding and we're doing the pulling together."

Listening intently in the crowd was a lady who often reminds the pastor of his past and his western Oklahoma roots. "She tells me that I'm the only pastor she's ever had whose diapers she used to change when he was a baby," he laughed.

"That's a humbling experience, and it's gratifying to be back in my home church where I was trained and to be able to help train others for the future."


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