'Our Lady of the Freeway' 

The First Pentecostal Church's new sanctuary on Interstate 40 in North Little Rock, its steeple shining 193 feet in the air, held its first service on Easter Sunday. It took more than two years to build the new building, which is next to the first building on the 20 acres that the church owns facing the interstate. The first building was completed in 1992, and now it is being used as church offices and the church's K-12 school, Calvary Academy, which has 200 students. All teachers and students - they include blacks, whites and Hispanices -- are church members. Pastor Joel Nathan Holmes, 54, who replaced his father who died in 1985, didn't seem surprised when a newspaperman came to see him last week. "We know we are high profile out here on this freeway," he said with a smile. He told me the first building cost about $7 million and the new one, $13 million. They would have cost much more if many of the church members -- roofers, painters, etc. -- had not done a lot of the work, according to Charles Matson, the contractor, who said that his company in its 87 years had never built anything quite like them before. The buildings are among the most impressive I have ever seen. The new sanctuary has 69,000 square feet covered in marble. The dome is 52 feet in diameter and 75 feet high. According to Michael R. Hahn, the architect, it can hold more than 2,000 people, which it did and then some (on chairs brought in) on Easter. Nestled in the marble floor is a collection of what's called "Biblical stone," which came from Jerusalem and is 2,000 years old. An elegant, 25-foot statue of Gabriel with his trumpet hangs above the baptistery. The seats in the new pews are 24 inches wide instead of the standard 18 inches; the church gave its old pews to churches in Batesville, Sheridan, Mayflower. Jackson, Tenn., and Hattiesburg, Miss. The rotunda is 3,364 square feet. It has concealed doors in walls that can be drawn out to separate the rotunda from the rest of the building, allowing funerals, weddings, meetings, etc. to be held there. There's a memorial room that holds the Bibles of church members who have died. All around are more than a dozen, huge stained-glass windows -- Daniel at the lion's den, Rebecca at the well, Moses and the 10 Commandments, the Good Samaritan, etc., all designed by Patrick Cunningham of Little Rock. There's a huge painting of the Pentecost above the front doors. This church (the "first Pentecostal" north of the river) began in the 1930s in a storefront on East Washington Avenue with maybe 20 members. Holmes' father, A. O. Holmes, came from his native Mississippi to become its pastor in 1946, and the church began to grow. He had to use one of the lakes in Lakewood to baptize people. As more persons joined, the church moved to a two-story house at Second and Buckeye and later built a church on the property, where it stayed for 20 years until the building burned down. Then it constructed a building in Park Hill (now owned by the Fellowship Bible Church North) and stayed there for 22 years until the congregation increased, and it used the money it had saved to buy the land along the interstate. Some people have grumbled about the church. For example, those who live on the edge of Park Hill don't like the church's lighted steeple sticking up in their neighborhoods. Many refer to the church as "Our Lady of the Freeway," as they tread through traffic that's increased on Sundays, Wednesdays and Friday nights when the church holds services. A rumor circulates that the church belongs to Pastor Holmes and his family. Holmes laughed when I asked him about that. "That's hardly correct," he said. "In the first place, the church would be paying property taxes if it belonged to me. [Churches are exempt.] A lawyer in Little Rock wrote me that he had heard that rumor, so I sent him a copy of the deed. It's the most erroneous story ever told. I'm just an employee of the church, and I get a W-2 form at the end of the year and pay my taxes just like any other preacher. We have trustees who hold the property in trust." Are there many rich people in his congregation who can give enough to build buildings like these? "Well, the congregation is good enough that we have paid for all this stuff. We've got people who have done very, very well and some who haven't done so well." Most of them tithe and give offerings, he said, and his church is totally independent so that it doesn't share its income with national Pentecostal organizations. "We're not an arm-twisting church. People have to get it in their hearts." The church has put a billboard on the interstate outside of North Little Rock, and Holmes said that he regrets that he didn't add one more word. "I wanted to put 'Hungry' with a question mark," he said. "That's what we are all about. We're not a social club ... We want people in search of the Lord and whatever the need is in their lives. We've got people that were drug addicts, alcoholics looking for help, and their lives have been changed here ... It has made good citizens out of them." The door to the First Pentecostal Church is open 24 hours a day so that anyone can walk into the sanctuary and pray. They are asked to sign a register, and at 10 a.m. the day I got to the church more than 30 persons had already signed. Three people were still there, scattered around the room speaking in tongues. "People may think we're just a wild mushroom that's grown up here," Holmes told me, "but let me tell you that's not been the case. It took a lot of sweat, labor, toil and pain to get to where we are."

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