A converted saloon now serves as a house of worship in Hungry Horse, Mont.
Bibles line the mirrored showcase where amber-colored liquor bottles once stood. A secret gambling room, visible from a steel-shuttered peep hole in the door, accommodates the pastor's office. A horse trough serves as a makeshift baptismal pool.
At least 60 percent of the members of Hungry Horse Baptist Church have been won to the Lord since the congregation began meeting in the renovated bar located on the town's main street.
The congregation previously had met in an inadequate rented facility at the back edge of town. No one seemed to notice it was there and no one seemed to care.
In November 1996, attendance had dwindled to three: Pastor Andrew Goodwin, his wife, and an elderly woman. Then several people to whom the pastor had ministered made professions of faith. The nucleus began to grow.
Five months later, the local bank, which for two years had been holding title to the bar, reduced the asking price from $400,000 to $178,000.
The pastor contacted the bank's loan officer to express interest but learned several roadblocks faced the church, including a requirement that a liquor license be purchased with the building and that $25,000 in earnest money was due within two weeks.
The church had no savings, but for six days the small band of believers marched around the old saloon, praying that God would open the tightly closed door. On the seventh day they marched around the building singing Victory in Jesus.
Miracles began to happen. Just before the bank's deadline, church members raised $27,000 and moved to purchase the saloon. Then the bank agreed to sell the liquor license separately and lowered the sale price to $135,000. The church took immediate occupancy, destroying the liquor still showcased on the wall.
During the process, the struggling congregation attracted visitors and new members, averaging more than sixty people in worship each week.
The location of the building has proven beneficial. Tourists on their way to Glacier National Park stop by for free coffee, soft drinks, tracts, Bibles, and information. The building is large enough to accommodate a community clinic operated by a local hospital. In addition, a community food pantry and a day-care ministry operate in the building. In short, the old saloon has once again become a gathering place for the town's residents.
This past summer, Floridian Vickie Grazett was among seven members of First Baptist Church of Forest City in Altamonte Springs who traveled to Hungry Horse to help renovate the saloon into a church sanctuary. The group painted, mudded the drywall, and provided personal encouragement to the congregation.
"The love in that church is phenomenal," Grazett said. "It was worthwhile to see the difference in the church there and the way we perceive churches here — how little the people have and how happy the people are."
Eddie Gilstrap is retired director of missions for the Greater Orlando Baptist Association. Barbara Denmam contributed to this story.