CommonCall: From a meth house to God’s house

Pastor Bob Cheatheam leads Pleasant Hills Country Church in Abilene—a congregation that ministers to the needs of an often-changing population at a mobile home park. (Photo / Ken Camp)

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ABILENE—Residents at an Abilene mobile home park tend to come and go, but the few who have lived there several years know the property where Pleasant Hills Country Church meets once housed a meth lab. They saw that meth house stripped down to its bare bones, decontaminated and rebuilt as a house of worship.

“That building is testimony to how God can change us,” Pastor Bob Cheatheam said.

Worship services at Pleasant Hills reveal change can be a slow process. Sometimes, a resident may show up under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Pastor Bob Cheatheam preaches at Pleasant Hills Country Church in Abilene—a congregation that meets in a rebuilt meth house at a mobile home park. (Photo / Ken Camp)

When Cheatheam asks for prayer requests, it’s not unusual for worshippers to mention sobriety and legal issues. A praise report about an upcoming wedding may concern a ceremony at a correctional unit 450 miles away involving a trailer park resident and her incarcerated fiancée.

“It takes patience,” Cheatheam said. He describes the Pleasant Hills as “the perfect church for those who aren’t.”

‘My colleagues thought I was off my rocker’

The pastor—a Hardin-Simmons University graduate who grew up in Amarillo—served churches in Southern California and North Dakota after he completed his studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. A serious automobile accident forced him to spend a year and a half recovering and undergoing physical therapy. So, he and his wife Amy moved back home to West Texas.

When his doctors released him to work again, Cheatheam became pastor at First Baptist Church in Mason and later at Elmdale Baptist Church in Abilene.

One day, he was driving down a farm-to-market road just north of Interstate 20 when God got his attention.

“I had driven by the mobile home park there many times, but I felt a tug, and I turned in to see it,” he recalled. “That’s when I knew, ‘We need to start a church here.’”

Amy Cheatheam reads Scripture before her husband Bob preaches at Pleasant Hills Country Church in Abilene. (Photo / Ken Camp)

His wife, Amy, shared that sense of calling, and Cheatheam gave Elmdale Baptist notice he would leave in six months to plant a church in the mobile home park.

“My colleagues thought I was off my rocker,” he acknowledged.

Earning trust

The Cheatheams strongly believed they needed to live on the field where they ministered. So, they purchased a mobile home and moved into the community where they wanted to start a new congregation.

Relocating from a parsonage to a mobile home required significant downsizing, said Amy Cheatheam, who leads praise and worship at Pleasant Hills.

“We had to get rid of about half of what we had, and it’s still crowded,” she said. “We discovered there’s not much storage space in a mobile home.”

Bob Cheatheam knew other churches would “drop in” to conduct mission projects in the mobile home park, but also recognized many residents viewed those congregations with suspicion.

Pastor Bob Cheatheam welcomes worshippers to come as they are to Pleasant Hills Country Church in Abilene. (Photo / Ken Camp)

“In the park, there’s a lot of distrust of churches,” he said. “They know we live here, and that gave us credibility. After four years, we have a small but solid group. But it took that long to earn their trust.”

Initially, Pleasant Hills Country Church met in the dining room of a nearby motel. Later, a donated tent became available, and the Cheatheams set it up next to their mobile home.

“That was great until it got to be cold weather,” he recalled.

The church met in the Cheatheams’ mobile home, but space was tight.

“Then we saw this ugly house that needed to be bulldozed,” he recalled.

Everyone knew the dilapidated mobile home had housed a meth lab. Cheatheam learned it could be purchased for $5,000—the price of the lot it occupied.

“We only had one member opposed. We’re pretty sure it’s because he used to buy his meth there,” Cheatheam said.

‘Lone wolf mentality is not cutting it’

Pleasant Hills gained partners in ministry—particularly First Baptist Church in Ballinger and First Baptist Church in Abilene. Others included Caps Baptist and Lytle South Baptist churches in Abilene, Crosspointe Fellowship in Abilene, and initial support from Lake Ivie Baptist Association, the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, along with some out-of-state congregations.

Amy Cheatheam leads worship at Pleasant Hills Country Church in Abilene. (Photo / Ken Camp)

“A lone wolf mentality in ministry is not cutting it,” Cheatheam said. “We have to partner together. We wouldn’t have been able to do without our partnerships.”

Volunteers from several partner churches worked to make the former meth house into a worship center. They carefully removed outside walls and everything in the manufactured home except the framework to allow it to air out for an extended period.

“When we ripped up the floor, we found needles everywhere,” Cheatheam said.

Once the property was decontaminated, volunteers helped rebuild the house, making it suitable as a place of worship.

The distinctive schedule of Pleasant Hills Country Church made an additional unexpected partnership possible. After discovering the mobile home park residents would not attend a Sunday morning worship service, Cheatheam began offering Sunday worship at 6 p.m. and programs for children and youth on Tuesday evenings.

Since Cheatheam—a bivocational minister who drives a school bus—had Sunday mornings free, he initially planned to provide pulpit supply for pastorless churches in the area. Then members of Builders Baptist Church in nearby Merkel approached him about becoming their pastor.

“I told them I’d only consider it if I could continue to live and minister in the trailer park,” he said. “They told me, ‘We love what you’re doing in the mobile home park, and we want to have a part in it.’”

So, Cheatheam accepted the additional pastorate, and the two sister congregations regularly schedule activities together—a fall festival, a summer swimming party and potluck dinners, among other events.

Youth groups from Pleasant Hills’ partner congregations also join with teenagers from the mobile home community for “12 Hours of Change,” one day devoted to a variety of service projects.

Cheatheam appreciates the ministry of large churches that develop partnerships with small-membership congregations, but he rejects the idea that every church should grow to become self-sustaining within a prescribed time period.

“I’m frustrated with the church growth models, because they don’t fit every church. It’s just like my hat won’t fit anybody else, but it fits me just right,” he said. “If everybody we reached over four years showed up at the same time, the building wouldn’t hold them. But in a mobile home community, people move on.

“Big churches have been a blessing to us, but it’s OK to be a small church. I love the one-on-one relationships and getting to know people. … We just need to be willing to think outside the box.”

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