Amid RVers in the Ariz. desert, church offers faith

by Karen L. Willoughby, posted Thursday, November 30, 2017 (12 days ago)

QUARTZSITE, Ariz. (BP) -- At least 400 vendors for the nation's largest RV show plus nine major rock/gem/mineral shows and 15 general swap meets gather each balmy winter in the Sonora Desert of southwestern Arizona.

Desert diehards and winter snowbirds -- through a Baptist church launched by seniors -- take their witness to the nation’s largest gathering of RVers in Quartzsite, Ariz.
Photo from quartzsitervshow.com, used by permission
The vendors see more than a million visitors between December and March who park recreational vehicles, campers, fifth-wheels, vans and sometimes just tents on the flat desert floor around the former mining town of Quartzsite and its 4,000 people.

The Arizona Bureau of Land Management permits camping on its lands in the desert for $180 for six months, according to its website. This makes for an economical -- and pleasant, weather-wise -- winter base for those seeking relief from the cold and snow in northern parts of the United States and Canada.

And it makes for an extraordinary mission field for Quartzsite Southern Baptist Church of mostly senior citizens.

To hear the story of seniors starting, nurturing and expanding a church when nearly everyone is on a meager retirement income, and establishing a ministry that could reach more than a million people a year, is to hear of a God who does amazing things with obedient and faithful Christians, said Lou Ella Ayers, the sole living original member of Quartzsite Southern Baptist Church.

"God has blessed our church," said Ayers, whose husband Lloyd died in 2002. "It's been one miracle after another."

A yearly revival is part of Quartzsite Southern Baptist Church’s outreach among thousands who trek to the Quartzsite Sports, Vacation & RV Show and adjacent Tyson Wells Sell-A-Rama in Arizona’s Sonoma Desert each January.
Photo courtesy of Quartzsite Southern Baptist Church
It's also been one challenge after another, Ayers wrote in an unpublished history of the church. "Often we think we're doing God's will, and perhaps we are," she wrote. "But God allows us to be caught in the web of the world perhaps to remind us that He is the only one in the church who isn't expendable. We must look to Him for help rather than our assets."

From its first exploratory meeting, Quartzsite Baptist has been the combined effort of local desert diehards and visiting winter snowbirds.

At the initiative of River Valley Baptist Association, locals Bud and Betty Botoroff met with visitors Ed and Edna Bond from Georgia in the spring of 1987 to consider starting a Southern Baptist mission. The first service took place that November. A month later, 11 people organized the mission with a commitment to give 10 percent of undesignated income to missions through the Cooperative Program and another 5 percent to the River Valley Baptist Association.

In 1994, the mission constituted as a church and, in 1999, began meeting year-round. Today, attendance retracts to 30 in the summer when temperatures can hover in the triple digits between June and September and expands to 300 in the winter when temperatures moderate to the mid-70s.

Bottles of water and Gospel conversations make the "Prayer Stop" of Quartzsite Southern Baptist Church a friendly oasis during an RV show and swap meet that attract thousands to the former mining town of Quartzsite in the Arizona desert each January.
Photo courtesy of Quartzsite Southern Baptist Church
Quartzsite Baptist's ministry at two nationally prominent events during the third week of January -- the Quartzsite Sports, Vacation & RV Show and the adjacent Tyson Wells Sell-A-Rama, which together are called "the largest gathering of RVers in the world" -- started in 1996 as a weeklong series of revival meetings, which have become an ongoing outreach spanning 21 years.

In booths at both events, "Project Quartzsite" volunteers from the church, other churches in River Valley Baptist Association and Campers on Mission from Arizona and Colorado distribute cold water and warm smiles, plus evangelistic tracts and Bibles, while offering the use of chairs for weary shoppers and visitors.

Darla Farella, president of the Arizona chapter of Campers on Mission, a Southern Baptist fellowship, said, "We man the booth, hand out water, tell them about the Gospel and about the revival [at Quartzsite Baptist]."

About 4,500 water bottles were distributed last January, each with the ABCs of salvation printed on the label, Farella said.

"We're there to project the love of Jesus to the people we talk with," Farella said. "We want to share the Gospel with them and to invite them to a church that would mentor them."

Retired pastor Dale Kronemeyer, a longtime volunteer from Mesa, Ariz., who is coordinating this year's revival services, noted, "We'll have a million or more people here that week who might need to hear about Jesus. When you have that many people, it behooves us to have a ministry to try to reach them with the message of the Gospel."

Larry Walker, president of the Colorado chapter of Campers on Mission, said the 12-person team he worked with for eight days last January talked with about 400 people, three of whom made professions of faith in Jesus.

"We'll talk with people we've never seen before in our lives," Walker said. "They're all kind of happy because they're on their own time. Most of them are retirement age. It's not a youth festival."

However, a contingent of nomadic "rainbow people" perhaps 40 or more years younger than senior adults often are seen at the Quartzsite venues, said Farella, a four-year event volunteer.

"They're today's hippies," Farella said. "These kids are searching for answers to life. We have a lot of discussion at times with these young adults, who are 25 to 30 and sometimes younger."

The acres of displays at the Quartzsite shows include parts for RVs as well as the newest gadgets and, for that matter, entire RVs of varying sizes and luxury levels. Booths display knickknacks aplenty, kitchen, garden, auto and motorcycle tools, handmade and imported jewelry, items related to health and wellness, a wide variety of clothing from head to toe, mining equipment and an unending variety of multi-colored rocks, gems and minerals, especially quartz, the second-most abundant mineral -- a combination of silicon and oxygen -- found on earth.

"A lot of us will walk around the shows and swap meets doing prayerwalking, asking God to guide us during that week of ministry to touch the lives of people while we're there," Kronemeyer said.

"One of the things I have found is that people who don't want to talk to you about God would love to have you pray for them," he added.

"Lots of time they're at a turning point," Farella said. "Maybe it's health issues, losing a loved one or being far from their kids and grandkids. They're open to pray, so you give them the Gospel in the midst of the prayer."

Jan. 18-27 are the dates for Project Quartzsite 2018. For the first time, the church will sponsor an antique and classic car show on Saturday, Jan. 20. This, like the revival services -- to become known in 2018 as "Celebrations" -- will take place on the church's five-acre property at the west end of town, 100 N. Kofa Ave. This year's revival speaker will be retired pastor Byron Banta, former acting executive director of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention.

"Basically we become a huge outreach event and encouragement for the saints who are traveling and away from their home church," Kronemeyer said. About $6,000 for Project Quartzsite comes from the church budget. Another $3,000 comes from Cooperative Program dollars distributed by the Arizona convention.

"This is a small church project with limited resources," Kronemeyer said, "but in my six years serving as a volunteer, I have seen and heard of many wonderful blessings that have resulted from Project Quartzsite."

Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press.
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