PERRY -- In 2004, when Assembly of God officials sent evangelist Billy Thomas to sell a parcel of land it owned at the corner of Todd Road and U.S. 41, Thomas got the distinct impression it was the wrong thing to do.
He said he believed God wanted a church there.
The Assemblies had tried starting a church in Perry for years, but nothing happened, Thomas said. When I told them I believed God wanted a church there, they said, OK, we wont sell it if youll be the pastor. They said they had no money to support it, but if I wanted to start a church, go ahead.
After years as a traveling evangelist, a four-year stint as pastor in Chicago, then more years as an evangelist, the Kansas City, Mo., native and his wife, Valerie, who grew up in Warner Robins, started The Refuge church with their two children, LaNita and B.J.
We really had nothing to start with except knowing it was what God wanted, Thomas said. We started meeting in a run-down white house on the property and grew from there.
Thomas said since those early days almost 10 years ago, the church has built four times. He said they began by building a 99-seat sanctuary. Two years ago, they added a 250-seat sanctuary built for easy expansion to 450.
Were not a rich church, he said. But we are a family church and a giving church.
Prior to construction on the first building, Thomas said a member said they believed if each member gave a penny, God would do the rest. They took a penny-offering where members gave spare change. Thomas said God indeed did do the rest, bringing in unexpected funds and getting the project completed.
Weve seen miracles every step of the way, he said. We strongly hold to Gods ability to do miracles today.
Thomas said those miracles go beyond offerings and buildings.
We have a large number of people whove been healed of cancer, literally, he said, Were an Assemblies of God, Pentecostal church. Were not overly emotional or loud, but I believe in teaching Gods word and we believe in miracles. We have people who were told three or four years ago they wouldnt leave the hospital. In a service not long ago I asked everyone whod been healed of cancer to stand -- about 20 stood up.
Thomas said The Refuges slogan is Faith, Family and Missions.
That says who we are, he said Were serious about trusting God. Were very family-oriented, too. The fact we have a lot of people who have no family in the area has helped draw us together as a church family. We enjoy each others fellowship and do life together. Families live life together, and that means loving one another, sharing, forgiving one another and truly caring for one another.
As for missions, Thomas said his experience as an evangelist and involvement in U.S. and foreign missions helped the church grow its own commitment to missions. He said though the church is not large, its in the top 300 Assembly of God churches for missions giving.
The Thomases traveling and the churchs giving have touched such nations as India, Sierra Leone, El Salvador, Ukraine, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the Philippines, just to name a few.
I just spent three weeks in India, and B.J. was in Mexico for two and a half months, Thomas said. Weve even done work in my favorite foreign country -- California!
Thomas said after finishing a degree in education at the University of Georgia, B.J., 23, has returned as the churchs youth pastor and administrator.
Locally, some of the things we do include our food pantry ministry, being a host church with Family Promise. I serve on the board of Perry Volunteer Outreach, and we participate in their work and were involved in nursing home ministry here and in Savannah, Thomas said.
He said December is the churchs biggest outreach month, including giving gifts to those in the residential womens programs at Perrys Grace Village. He said the church is even a best-float winner in Perrys Christmas parade.
Thomas said Valerie is the churchs worship leader.
People talk about how great our music program is, he said. We have one of the strongest around for a church our size. When you have a musician as great as Valerie, it tends to draw other musicians.
Thomas said the church has a blend of traditional and contemporary worship. He also said they believe in discipleship with an emphasis on small groups.
Thomas is pursuing a doctorate from McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University. Among other degrees and certifications, he holds a Georgia teaching certificate in language arts.
I guess my overall message, the one that comes out in everything, is that Jesus can do anything, Thomas said. I believe when we stand in faith in him theres no limit to what he can do for us and what we can for him.
Contact Michael W. Pannell at email@example.com.