Aug 15, 2022 3:39 PM

The Little Church That Endured

Posted Aug 15, 2022 3:39 PM
Elizabeth Sutton, left, and Pauline Sutton, right, stand in front of Lighthouse Ministries in Lomax, Ill. The sisters helped to keep the church alive and purchased the building two years ago. (William Smith/The Burlington Beacon)
Elizabeth Sutton, left, and Pauline Sutton, right, stand in front of Lighthouse Ministries in Lomax, Ill. The sisters helped to keep the church alive and purchased the building two years ago. (William Smith/The Burlington Beacon)

By William Smith
Community Editor

The little church on East Third Street in Lomax, Ill. — once known as Divine Ministries and recently renamed Lighthouse Ministries — has been on the verge of closure for decades.

Those days of strife and worry for the church’s handful of loyal parishioners are over now, thanks to the efforts of sisters Elizabeth and Pauline Sutton. They have been with the church since its inception in the 1980s and were finally able to purchase the building two years ago.

They preach there, too.

Elizabeth’s late husband, Donald Sutton, founded the church and preached the gospel every week — even before the congregation had a building. A recent dispute about the sale and use of the church building kept the Sutton sisters up at night. They feared for the future of not only the building but the congregation.

That’s why they took out a loan to buy it themselves.

“It took everything. Once we took that out, we had no money left,” Elizabeth Sutton said.

A congregation without a church

Lighthouse Ministries started without a church building. However, the congregation grew too large to fit in Elizabeth’s kitchen, and so they moved services outside.

“It was hot. The bugs were biting,” Elizabeth said.

For a while, the church operated out of a borrowed motorhome — until the owner wanted it back. Then it was back to outdoor services until the winter grew too cold.

Elizabeth’s brother-in-law, Roger Sutton, suggested the congregation obtain a church building. So he purchased one himself — a former beauty salon, which still makes up the back half of the church.

Expanding the church

Once the congregation had its own church building, an expansion was in order.

“My husband had a vision that the Lord wanted him to build. There was just a handful of us here at the time. No money was coming in,” Elizabeth said. “We started building with no money. I’m telling you, you talk about faith! People came from all over to help and donate.”

Expanding a church on a shoestring budget was a nerve-wracking experience, Elizabeth said. But God kept providing.

“It scared me to death every time we ordered something. When we needed the money, it was there. We didn’t owe anything. We had yard sales. We had rummage sales,” she said. 

Losing their pastor

Church founder Donald Sutton died in 2010, about a year after he started preaching in his new church. The sisters tried to purchase the church building from Roger Sutton, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He didn’t want to take their money — he just wanted the building to stay active as a church.

Roger, another pillar of the tiny church, died two years later, in 2012. He still owned the building but unable to sell it in his final years because he had Alzheimer’s Disease.

“That’s when we started having problems,” Pauline Sutton said.

The Rev. Kenny Rusher took Don’s place as the pastor and died in 2019. Rev. Kenny Rusher’s widow Leota Rusher is still a vital part of the church. There has been no regular minister since, so Elizabeth and Pauline became licensed ministers and started preaching at the worship services. 

Guest pastors, such as Rev. Fred Starling of Faith Temple Church of God in Christ in Burlington, have been preaching at the church as well.

Fighting for the church

Ownership of the church passed to a family member who wanted to sell it. With no legal recourse and no claims to ownership, Elizabeth and Pauline could only continue services.

“Roger would have never wanted the church sold. He would never want that. But he just didn’t figure he would get Alzheimer’s,” Pauline said.

Elizabeth and Pauline did their best to hamstring the sale in the most Christian way possible — they killed prospective buyers with kindness. Anytime the real estate agent would show up, they rushed to the church to greet them and invite them to church services.

“I asked one woman why she wanted to buy it, and she said she wanted to turn it into a house. I said, ‘But this is already God’s house,’ ” Elizabeth said.

The regular visits caused some friction among the family. But it worked.

“They (prospective buyers) all felt something in this building. They could sense something,” Elizabeth Sutton said. “We just told them they are all welcome to come.”

After not selling for three years, Elizabeth and Pauline were able to buy the church themselves.

“This is a new beginning. A new start,” Elizabeth Sutton said. “We built this on faith.”

A fresh start

The congregation is small but growing, thanks to a partnership with Faith Temple Church of God in Christ in Burlington. Several church members also worship and attend Bible studies in Lomax, consisting of about 15 people.

“These are my sisters,” said Patricia Johnson, secretary for Faith Temple Church of God in Christ. “I’m always available for Lomax. And I love them very much. And I love this church. When you walk in the door, you feel the presence of the Lord.”

The church still runs on a shoestring budget, and the Lord continues to provide. Every time there isn’t enough money to pay a bill, a generous donation or some other happenstance results in the money they need.

Pauline and Elizabeth are looking to grow the church out further. That’s why they have organized a fundraising weekend in conjunction with Faith Temple Church of God in Christ. They want to get the word out — to shout their praise for the Lord so all can hear.

“We’re still here. And I believe the church is going to fill up,” Elizabeth said.