By Debbonnaire Kovacs, Jan 4, 2017

“One thing I really appreciate about both of them is that they don’t feel they have to control everything, but they are very supportive.” Kathy Garrett was speaking to me of her pastors—the one she has now, Alicia Johnston, and the one who had served her church for fourteen years before that, Stuart Harrison.

The church we were talking about has only had the two pastors so far in its history. Foothills Community Church was begun as a church plant in 2000, by six families from the Tempe, Arizona Seventh-day Adventist church. According to Garrett, who was not one of the original families but joined later, they wanted a church that would be progressive, include drama and the arts, and be community-oriented. “Less liturgical,” Garrett said, by which she meant, among other things, not following the traditional order of service. “After song service, it’s different every week,” she told me. “You never get bored!”

At first, the company didn’t have a pastor. When they were ready to hire one, they told their conference that even though they were small, they did not want a pastor who had a multi-church district. They wanted the pastor to be able to give full nurturing and guidance. In order to do that, they promised they would themselves pay the pastor’s full salary as well as sending full tithes to the conference. It was on those terms that they hired Harrison in the fall of 2001, just after becoming an official Seventh-day Adventist church in the Arizona Conference. At this point there were 47 charter members.

Foothills membership now, according to a denominational directory, is 184 as of August, 2016. Garrett says the growth when it came was fairly sudden, and she sees two factors in that growth. First, the ministries have become mature. Secondly, they now have their own permanent home. “At first, we were like the Bedouins in the desert, moving around, trying to find a permanent home.”

It was the tale of those ministries that first drew me to write about this church. The majority of our hour-and-a-half phone call centered on them. I’m only going to list basics; you can learn more from the church’s website.

  • The Clothes Cabin—About ten years ago, Garrett said, a woman named Caryn Shoemaker started something she called a “sock ministry.” She collected socks and toiletries to give to homeless people. Garrett explained that because of its weather, Arizona has a large homeless population. This ministry has now grown into a full-fledged 501 (c) 3 ministry that gets some financial assistance from the Foothills Church. This broad ministry includes clothing, laundry facilities, and help for those trying to get work, such as good clothing for interviews or steel-toed boots for physical laborers. Garrett says they were cited as one of the top five or ten charities in Arizona a couple of years ago. Learn much more about this amazing ministry here.
  • Caring Hands Ministries was begun by Garrett and some others, and loans durable medical equipment for temporary use, such as for people coming home from a hospital stay or recovering from injury. They now have a storage unit that was donated to them, where they store a large amount of equipment, and one woman will care for pets while their owner is in rehab or therapy. “Even up to horses,” said Garrett. “She has a ranch. We haven’t needed that yet, but she’d do it! It’s a beautiful ministry; we feel God has really blessed!”
  • Transportation Ministry—Member Dennis Rizzo has a transportation ministry in which volunteers, including Garrett’s husband, take people to doctor’s appointments or to get prescriptions, etc.
  • Compassion Visits–Other volunteers visit and sit with the elderly or others who are lonely. “We had one woman who died recently. She was in her 90s and nearly blind. People took turns visiting her. It’s lovely!”
  • Arizona SonShine—The church is “very heavily involved” in Arizona SonShine, a ministry that is run by the Arizona Conference, providing an annual two-and-a-half-day event of free medical care. During this time, Garrett emphasized, “We don’t proselytize, and we require that volunteers, no matter what they believe or don’t believe, which is up to them, not say anything about Christianity or Adventism. We want to minister exactly as Jesus did—he didn’t ask if you were Jew or Gentile or anything else. He just met your need.” She told a story in which the Lions Club, which provides free eye care, wanted to screen for poverty level. When they were refused on the grounds that Jesus didn’t ask such questions, they left. Immediately thereafter, “by a miracle of God, we had an ophthalmologist surgeon call us and ask to bring his entire team down. They brought everything, all their equipment, hundreds and hundreds of pairs of single vision glasses to give away…it was amazing!” Garrett reported.
  • The Bridge “This is a fascinating ministry,” Garrett said. She told the story of a man passing through several years ago, on his way to a job. He had been homeless himself, and was so impressed by the sock ministry, that he wanted to expand the church’s ministry to the homeless. He told of them of the 7th Avenue Bridge in downtown Phoenix. Several railroads go through there, and there is water, so the homeless congregate there. “Let’s go one day a week and feed the homeless,” suggested the man, whose name Garrett does not remember. Fifteen to twenty people grew to crowds. The police moved them, but they still call it The Bridge. Other churches began to get involved. “We still have Sunday morning,” Garrett told me, “but other churches do other days, and now I believe they have it seven days a week. That man was only here briefly, but he had planted a seed, and Christine Ellis [a Haitian-born registered nurse] took it to a whole new level. One Sunday morning she had a new idea. She wanted to do a foot washing. I said, “This will fail, this is a terrible idea,’ but she was determined. She did a foot washing. People were so grateful to get their feet bathed and attended to, they cried! One man does toenails and gives massages… they wept—they couldn’t believe strangers would care so much. I went up to Christine and said, ‘You were right, I was wrong.’ The Bridge now feeds 3-400 people and has been featured several times on a local Christian radio station.
  • Hawthorn Court Ministry is a group of volunteers who visit Hawthorn Court, a residence offering “creative and adaptive memory care.” The volunteers visit people with various forms of dementia on the first Sabbaths of every month. “They visit and sing old-style hymns and music they would know. Stuart Harrison always said, “To minister to someone who cannot give you anything in return, that’s real ministry. That’s what Jesus did.”
  • Businesspersons Leadership breakfast meets once month, run by Drew McSherry, where they share business tips of various kinds, as well as counsel on how to maintain one’s Christianity and faith in business.
  • Book club—This group studies all kinds of books, not just religious ones. “These are all community events” Garrett explained. “They are bringing believers and community people together.”
  • Phoenix Fasola—The church is active in this shape note singing group which meets the second Sabbath of every month. Fasola refers to the old four-shape note-singing system, in which each note of any scale has a special shape, and is sung “fa sol la fa sol la mi fa.” (I myself belong to a shape note singing group here in Berea, Kentucky and I highly recommend it. One of the main books used is the Sacred Harp, from which many Adventist pioneers sang. If you check your hymnal, you’ll find it listed as a source frequently in the “Early Advent Hymns” section.) You can hear the Phoenix group singing in our Music Department.
  • Good Life –This new ministry has just begun. On second Sabbaths after the service, qualified speakers give presentations on health topics such as vegetarian cooking, exercise, and heart care. “We just had a whole series on planting winter gardens in Arizona,” Garrett told me. “I actually have a good garden, and it’s because I followed her advice!” This, she says, is also open to the community and is advertised and beginning to grow. She told me it was started by Marlene Wolverton—“a brilliant woman!”

There is more to come. Garrett herself is working with some others to start “Story Time in the Park,” where there will be face painting, balloons, and “Bible stories, Christian stories, and just fun kids stories. Then we’ll give snacks and a flyer for Sabbath School.”

Meanwhile, retired Pastor Harrison leads a men’s Bible study group, and his wife, Patty Harrison leads a women’s Bible study group, which brings us to the story of the two pastors.

Like more than a few Adventist pastors, Harrison had already retired once before—quite a few years before! Back in 2001 he was in Colorado, Garrett says, and some of the original church plant group heard of him and went to interview him. She calls him a “remarkable, godly man.” He came back, and served fourteen more years. A couple of years ago he got sick. The church decided to get him some help, and hired Alicia Johnston to be his assistant.

Johnston had grown up nearby; Garrett says she’s known and loved her since she was a child. Her parents were active in the local academy, and even as a teenager, Alicia was a leader among the youth, though not in a formal way. She obtained an MA in clinical psychology and worked as a counselor for a time. Later she went to seminary and earned her MDiv, and during the months after graduating, worked with Harrison at Foothills.

In this position she was, Garrett said, “so dynamic, so on-the-spot creative, and she preached a few deep, spiritual sermons that everyone fell in love with her.” After some months, Johnston received a call and went to work doing church planting in Carolina Conference.

But Pastor Harrison was diagnosed with cancer and last year made the decision that retirement was necessary. (Garrett says he is doing well, and that in her opinion, retirement was something of a cure.) The church needed a new pastor.

“We looked and looked, and didn’t even think of Alicia. She was working back east. Then her dad became ill. She left that church and came back. I saw her, learned what had happened, and I didn’t even wait for the next board meeting. I emailed everybody, and at the next meeting, said, ‘We need to hire her!’”

Pastor Johnston has now been serving Foothills for about a year, and is also writing for Adventist Today. Garrett told me, “She believes in everything and everybody and wants to support what you want to do [in ministry]. She focuses on her role as pastor. She doesn’t say ‘I know everything and I’m going to tell you what you should do.’ She has a beautiful humility and dignity and is deeply scripturally based. But then she’ll quote Nietzsche and say, ‘Let’s take that quote and see what Jesus says.’ I love her sermons! I’ve never heard anything like them.”

Garrett herself was raised in a very rigid form of religiosity, by parents from two competing faith traditions. She said, “I tell people I was raised confused. When I became an Adventist, it was so freeing—so light… It was so filled with grace, light, and hope. There are important principles that we as Adventists need to hang onto but that’s not the same as culture. And there are important cultural things that we need to respect but don’t necessarily need to adopt. Both Stuart and Alicia can tell the difference. They know what is truly important as a spiritual principle, and what is just cultural, and they are very respectful of both ends of spectrum.”

Garrett is fortunate; there are plenty of Adventist churches where she would have been trained in the same kind of rigid religiosity. Her present church home is a shining example of a group of people who are truly following in the footsteps of the Christ. God bless your work, Foothills!


Debbonnaire Kovacs is a senior editor of Adventist Today

To comment on this article, click here.