‘I think what this church are doing here is great,’ says *Steve as we share tea in Bethel’s Thursday morning café to the backdrop of a steady buzz of activity. A food bank and fareshare project had been open all morning; downstairs the church’s worship band was practicing while a craft group was running in the other room. But ten short years ago, Bethel Baptist church in Pembroke Dock had dwindled to a group of eight or so elderly members meeting in the vestry. The transformation that has taken place is down, above all, to faithful prayer.
‘Things aren’t easy!’ says Mike Bave, pastor of the church since 2013, ‘we’re all working hard here! But we’re so thankful for what God is doing among us and in this community.’ Fifteen years ago, when local boy Mike was still pastoring in the USA, there were conversations taking place as to whether the church had a future, and what closure might involve.
The small congregation was getting older and the chapel building large and in a worsening state of repair. But one of the deacons, Maggie, had gone home after a meeting feeling that pressure was being put on them as a church to close. She got in and turned on the radio. There was a preacher, speaking from Haggai, and in particular the verse that says ‘my house is deserted’ (Haggai 1:4). Challenged, Maggai decided to pray – and the rest of the church joined in.
There were several obstacles, but two obvious ones were the decaying building and their need for a leader – not that they could afford to fix the latter or hire a pastor. But they prayed into these and applied for a £40,000 loan from the Baptist Building Fund for Wales, which along with miraculous discounts from builders and doors opening unexpectedly with the chapel’s listed status, meant things were suddenly happening. At the same time, Mike and his wife Mary were happily leading a church in Boston, never thinking God would lead them to Wales again. ‘I had actually been preaching from Genesis on mission,’ Mike recounts, ‘and expositing God’s command to ‘return to the land of your fathers’, which of course is also the Welsh national anthem. I repeated that sermon three times this particular weekend and then realized the third time that this was meant for us!’
But they had no idea what a move to Wales might look like. For Mary it would involve dealing with UK immigration, and Mike’s US denomination had no churches in the UK. A series of unexpected events and seemingly chance conversations later found them being shown around Bethel’s building in Pembroke Dock and realizing dumbfounded that God seemed to be leading them here. The practical obstacles gradually fell away – the VISA granted, denominational questions discussed and settled, and even the finances provided for by God. And in 2013, Mike was inducted as minister of the church.
‘Since then we have been slowly building,’ Mike reflects. ‘A lot of our ministry has been built around food’; as well as the café and foodbank the church also runs a pay-what-you-can restaurant serving a roast dinner each week, and holiday events for children from the town, which include plenty of food. ‘This is a deprived area, but with a strong community. We’ve had to do a lot of work to make the building more welcoming for people who are just not used to an old-fashioned chapel setting and have put in a lift for easy access to the upstairs, massive cupboards for the food bank and more.’ And there’s still a need for prayer – a 3-year process to apply to remove the pews may be nearing its completion, with key meetings happening this autumn.
‘Of course it’s a joy to see the church grow’, says Mike with a gentle smile as he tells me they are now usually over 40 people on a Sunday. ‘But the greater joy is seeing people come to faith – that is what it is all about really for us.’ It is humbling to think that the faith of some of these new believers is due in no small part to the faith-ful and persistent prayer of the little group that Bethel had become fifteen years ago – and what God has done with that.