We had just crossed into Arizona, and we left Interstate 10 to travel US 60 toward the beautiful mountain community of Prescott.  The route through the desert valley ahead of us seemed very bleak.  Then suddenly, we saw a sign that simply said “Hope.”  It was announcing that at the intersection with AZ 72 there was a town of that name.  Well, as I found out later, Hope is really just an unincorporated portion of rural La Paz County.  Wikipedia describes it as consisting of a church, an RV resort and a gas station.  We didn’t see any houses when we passed through.  Later on-line, I learned that the census area of 143 surrounding square miles had a population of 591 in 2010, down 8 from ten years previous.  That number included people in the 177 RV resort sites, who were mostly seasonal or transient.

As I was driving, Judy pointed out the picturesque church building, located right at the highway intersection.  She misread the sign to me: “The Church of Little Hope.”  She quickly corrected herself with an accurate reading: “The Little Church of Hope.”  We laughed about that over the next couple of miles (It doesn’t take much to amuse couples who have been together 56 years).  But the alternative titles were indelibly imprinted in my mind as a conundrum (more below).

As we left the tiny community behind, their closing statement came into view; a sign said: “Your Now Beyond Hope.”  I looked right past the missing apostrophe in “Your” because I was so amazed that someone who lived out here had such a sense of humor.  However, on second thought, I realized that a sense of humor was essential to survival in a place where most people don’t want to live.  Who was the person who came up with that sign?  Why did it matter to them to entertain passing drivers like Judy and me?  I heard them saying, “Hey City Folk, get down off your high horse and play with us a little bit.”  It felt warm and inviting.

Three weeks away from our experience of Hope, I still have that church in mind.  I went on line this morning and found they actually have a website.  I couldn’t discover anything about their leadership, their history or their beliefs, aside from the statement that they are “nondenominational.”  The website did have audio access to some recent sermons, so I listened to one entitled “Salt and Light,” based on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:13-16.   I was prepared to hear a loud, ranting country preacher, but was surprised by a well-thought-out, Biblically-sound exposition. The unidentified preacher obviously had some degree of theological training and had done his homework.

There were hints throughout the sermon that he was coming from a more fundamentalist background than I’m comfortable with, but he didn’t go overboard with “fire-and-damnation” or judgmental legalism. It was only toward the end, when he challenged people to be “salt and light” through specific actions in society that I parted company with some of what he was advocating. He encouraged the people to fight against abortion clinics, gay marriage and sex education in the schools, using some misapplied Bible verses in support.  To be fair, he also challenged them to get involved in a nearby homeless shelter and to volunteer with community youth programs.  Yet, I realized that many of my attempts to be “salt and light” in my community have involved advocating things he may oppose. Toward the end, he said, “We need to take our Country back,” and I found myself saying, “Not if I can help it.” Our votes in most elections will probably cancel each other.

So here’s the question I’m left with: Is this “The Little Church of Hope” or “The Church of Little Hope“?  Part of me says that there is little hope in this church, little hope that people who attend worship there will emerge into a more enlightened faith that will enable them to express the Gospel in a meaningful way to twenty-first century Americans.  But the bigger part of me is glad that there’s a little church in Hope and in virtually every corner of America.  If these folk are being exposed to God’s self-revelation in the Bible, sooner or later they will hear what God wants them to hear, and they will be able to live out the Gospel in a loving and truthful way.

— Pastor George Van Alstine