by Cynthia J Thomas9/6/2023 7:30:00 AM
Decades ago, Rockaway Beach, Missouri, was a thriving resort community along Lake Taneycomo in Taney County, Missouri. The community sits upstream on the White River from the county seat of Forsyth and downstream from nearby Branson. The area blossomed when a wealthy Kansas City family discovered its charm as a summer residence, and resorts sprang up. During the 1950s and early 1960s, it was a favorite spot for high school class trips and family reunions.
Things began to change, however, after construction of Table Rock dam left Lake Taneycomo too cold for recreational swimming, and tourists headed for nearby Branson, drawn by Table Rock Lake, Silver Dollar City theme park, and music shows. Rockaway Beach businesses closed and while trout fishermen still enjoyed Taneycomo, they often turned to Branson for attractions and lodging. Most resorts closed, and some were abandoned to become cheap housing; drugs became a problem.
In recent years, though, another turnaround has been happening. Unified efforts by the body of Christ, including several Assemblies of God entities, are sharing God’s love by improving the community in practical ways.
Anchoring the effort is Bridge of Faith Community Church, planted in 2005 where Jonathan McGuire has served as pastor since 2007. The church purchased a former resort property just uphill from the town’s main street, and began renovating the cabins as a host village for special events, summer children’s programs, and small businesses.
A cornerstone business for Bridge of Faith Village is White River Coffee Co., launched in 2015 by Assemblies of God U.S. missionaries Dean and Sonja O’Bryan. As ordained ministers serving with Rural Compassion, the O’Bryans say they simply answered the call to come alongside a rural church in its efforts to serve and revitalize a struggling community. The coffee shop has become an example of marketplace missions, and multiple faith-based groups have come on board with unity and purpose.
Assemblies of God groups helping at Bridge of Faith Village include Rural Compassion, Chi Alpha, Convoy of Hope, and Evangel University, joining efforts with other area churches and College of the Ozarks. Thousands of volunteer hours have been completed by hundreds of team members. Rockaway Beach was one of the first national field team sites for Convoy of Hope, which continues to send teams as well as resourcing Bridge of Faith Church with products to further the Kingdom.
One group that has served several times is from James River Church, an AG congregation in nearby Ozark, Missouri. James River teams usually stay on site to build relationships. The team has helped prepare a cabin for college team housing and done home repairs. Their most recent work included demolition of a former bar on the main street, purchased by the church with the goal of creating a positive space and a light to the community.
Chi Alpha teams have also helped with construction, and over 100 freshmen from Evangel University participated in a serve day as part of Evangel’s Launch Day on August 19. After moving into dorm rooms on Friday, the group headed by bus on Saturday to Rockaway Beach, In spite of the hot, humid day, they worked hard on another demolition project, re-stained the deck at White River Coffee, and painted furniture. Several students mentioned how much they enjoyed hearing about the goals for the community, particularly one student who used to live in the area and is excited about the progress.
In helping Bridge of Faith Church feed, host, and coordinate teams, the O’Bryans have, themselves, been blessed as volunteers help expand and beautify the White River Coffee space, enabling them to give back even more to the community. A lovely patio allows local artists a space for events; and families can reserve the coffee shop for weddings, birthday parties, and reunions. Monthly during the spring, summer, and fall, the shop hosts an outdoor music night and also a coffee-and-craft event; both have become popular with locals as a community gathering opportunity. A portion of the coffee shop profits goes back into Bridge of Faith’s children’s outreach programs, and the shop strategically hires students from the local community to equip them for future work careers. “It’s definitely a special place with a special purpose,” says Sonja.
One grateful participant in the effort is Marilyn Michel Whetstone, whose parents operated the resort that is now Bridge of Faith Village. The Michel family were early area settlers in the 1800’s, and Marilyn’s book, Our Home in the Hills, describes the town’s heyday and her memories of family fun, favorite summer guests, and waterskiing up Taneycomo to Branson and back.
During Whetstone’s childhood, most Rockaway families drove to Forsyth or Branson to attend church, but Marilyn’s parents grew concerned about families with no spiritual connection, and opened a Sunday school in the upstairs of the village school, adjacent to the resort property. Even after the school was absorbed into Branson as Rockaway dwindled, a faithful handful continued meeting for Bible study, and the school district arranged a favorable transfer of the building to Bridge of Faith, taking the Michels’ dream of a spiritual resource beyond what they could have imagined.
“I often think Dad and Mom must be cheering with joy from heaven,” says Marilyn. A retired schoolteacher, she coordinates teams of area teachers who serve the meal at the Wednesday children’s program; and her home church, Branson First Presbyterian, is a Bridge of Faith missions partner.
Mayor Jim Harriger moved to Rockaway Beach following a career in nonprofit leadership, including 23 years with Victory Mission in nearby Springfield. He serves as discipleship and care pastor at Bridge of Faith in addition to his mayoral duties. With his leadership and experience, the town is again starting to bustle with holiday activities, including Christmas Village at Bridge of Faith, and other businesses are starting to open.
Pastor McGuire and the O’Bryans hope visiting team members and pastors see their experience as a template for what can be accomplished in other rural areas and small towns when churches work together. America is truly a mission field with the lingering impact of COVID-19, economic concerns, and overwhelming needs among children.
“Joining together as ‘the church’ without denomination or ministry labels has been something unique about this mission/ministry site over the years,” say the O’Bryans.
Pastor McGuire agrees, “There is no doubt Rockaway Beach would not be where it is today if not for the body of Christ coming together to share the good news of Jesus through community development.”