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Mount Moriah AME hosted a ceremonial groundbreaking Saturday morning for its planned church on Gunsmoke Road. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

After 12 years as a congregation and six years of accumulating a building fund, Mount Moriah Community African Methodist Episcopal Church broke ground for a sanctuary of its own Saturday morning.

Officially recognized as AME in 2007 under its founding pastor, the Rev. Sheriolyn Curry Lasley, the congregation has been meeting in the Maricopa Veterans Center since 2013 with the Rev. Arnold Jackson as pastor.

The opportunity to acquire a piece of land for a new church came about shortly after Mount Moriah started its building-fund campaign that same year. The property, however, appeared to be a weed patch in the middle of nowhere off Honeycutt Road.

Jackson first saw it in the pouring rain when Gunsmoke Road was pure mud and the lot was a lake. He was not impressed.

“You can’t tell me you like this,” he told real estate consultant Judy Berry that day.

“I love it,” she responded.

Berry saw the tedious purchase process ahead but saw all the benefits of the property given Mount Moriah’s financial situation. “The church had extremely limited funds and little if any credit.”

Jackson still wasn’t sold on the 1.25 acres at 19275 N. Gunsmoke Road tucked between the Arizona Storage Company and what is now the campus of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church. But the unexpected was in store.

“They wanted $5,000 down, and we had $3,000 in the building fund at that time,” Jackson said. “An individual was here, and he didn’t know this was going on … and he said, ‘I just got a big commission check, and the Lord has led me to tithe $5,000 to present to your church.’”

Mount Moriah leased to own until it was able to purchase the lot, which included a mobile home. The building fund eventually accumulated $370,000. The church brought in Gilliam Architecture and Schifferer Built to start planning construction. That’s all part of the official history.

But founding member Barbara Hatcher said there’s more to the story. “What’s not in the history is that Mount Moriah’s congregation marched around this land, from Gunsmoke to Santi to White and Parker to Honeycutt and back to this property, all the while offering prayers of hope, prayers of promise, prayers of thanksgiving and prayers of praise.”

The congregation adopted as its building theme Psalm 127:1: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”

Dean Schifferer of Schifferer Built said he would like to see the Mount Moriah congregation hold another service at the site in a couple of months when the first slab is poured for the new building.

Youth Trek pulls a loaded handcart through a sandy wash on its first day. Photo by Jim Headley


This week about 180 Maricopa 14- to 18-year-olds are re-creating the handcart trek of western pioneers across the country.

The re-creation, called a Youth Trek, is sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The teens are hauling handcarts 17 miles over three days as a connection to history and their forefathers.

Katelyn Dayley, one of the participants in the trek, said at Christmas Camp, “Right now we just loaded all our gear onto the wagon. It took a little bit of work just to get the tarp over everything. We got our boxes of food for our lunch. We’re getting ready to go on the trail.”

Those participating in the trek are from the Maricopa Stake, which compromises seven units in Maricopa as well as two from Ajo and Gila Bend.

Youth Treks have been done for many years in various locations along the original “Mormon Trail,” from Iowa to Salt Lake City, as well as other locations convenient to the participants.

The Maricopa Stake Youth Trek is particularly unique because it follows a portion of a trail taken through this area by the Mormon Battalion, a group of 500 LDS men recruited by the United States in 1846 to leave their refugee families in Iowa and walk to Mexico as a military resource during the Mexican War.

The group went on to California, on the way spending the Christmas of 1846 encamped west of modern-day Maricopa, in a campground now called Christmas Camp. Using portions of native trails, the route had been established by the excursion of Juan Bautista de Anza in 1775-76. John Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company later used the trail for its stagecoaches before the Civil War.

One of the handcarts is loaded for the trek, which is organized every four years. Photo by Jim Headley

“We get together every four years and have this handcart trek,” said N. Emery Layton, high councilor and 2018 Maricopa Stake Trek director. “We help these kids have the opportunity to get out in the desert and do some hard things. Most stakes will do this in our church in the summertime. We choose to do it in the wintertime because of the historical significance of this location.”

Layton said in 1846 his great-great-great-grandfather was one of the Mormon Battalion who camped at Christmas Camp.

He said the trek selected the Christmas timeline due to the historical significance of their ancestors that not only traveled west during the 1846-47 expedition but chose to do such on the historical Anza trail. The Mormon Battalion camped Christmas Eve in “Maricopa Village,” a location just west of Maricopa, off the 238 about halfway to Gila Bend (about three miles west of 99th Avenue and two miles north of State Route 238).

“It was a place they were coming through and they stopped here for a couple days. They cut buttons off their clothes to trade with the Indians, so they could get food, beans and things. As they travelled all the way across the West, [his ancestor] was one of them who dug wells and did things for future pioneers,” Layton said.

The trek takes place on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land known as the Sonoran Desert National Monument. The BLM issued the group a special use permit to have the event.

“It is a good time,” Layton said. “Let them get out here and walk the trail. Let them hit their knees on a rock and things like that. Experience the fact that life has bumps just like this trail does. They can look back and say, ‘Hey you know, I can do hard things.’ It’s not going to be easy.”

The historic trail is on Bureau of Land Management property. Photo by Jim Headley

The goal of the event is spiritual growth.

“We’ve asked them to think about what their role is and why are they here. It is something that will help them build their love for Jesus Christ and the ability that they have to share with other people and to be an outstanding citizen within our country,” Layton said.

While the event is clearly a huge learning experience for the young men and women participating in it, “it is for us, too. We’ve all had a part in this. I’ve never directed it. This is my first time,” Layton said.

During the program, participants learn about camping, wilderness survival, first aid and how to pack the carts.

“It is a self-reflection type journey. They push themselves and learn they can do something hard that you are being asked to do,” Layton said.

Cody Wilson, a parent of some of the participants in the Youth Trek, said, “It is a time that we have to get together a group of kids and experience some of the activities that took place 100 years ago when the pioneers were coming through this area.”

Wilson added his wife’s great-grandfather and great-uncle were part of the Mormon Battalion that came through the area in 1846.

“For my kids, it is a good experience. I’m just helping a little,” Wilson said. “After it’s over, I hope it means a lot more. They’re just getting started. I think they are a little intimidated and probably a little tired. Once they get going, I think it will take on meaning for them.”

By the time they reached Christmas Camp the first day, Dayley and her group had traveled 3.5 of the 17 miles on the course.

“It wasn’t too bad,” she said. “It will be fun with everyone working together. We have six people pulling. I’m looking forward to lunch – always – and dinner – and breakfast tomorrow.”

Community of Hope Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Honeycutt Avenue displayed a live nativity and nativity sets Saturday in a side-by-side event. It was the 14th year for the live nativity, which included a donkey and goat. The creche festival included around 150 sets from around the world.

Workmen install new AC units at First Baptist Church. Photo by Michelle Chance

One of Maricopa’s oldest places of worship received an upgrade Thursday.

First Baptist Church replaced three ageing air conditioning units with help from a local business. The historic church was built in 1954 and has overcome many obstacles over the years.

First Baptist survived a fire in 2016. It also would have been demolished if early designs for the State Route 347 overpass had been approved.

The church was remodeled after the smoke and flames, and a new plan was drawn up for the bridge to bypass the church.

The most recent impediment facing the church now is the upcoming heat. First Baptist’s 17-year-old AC units that cool the congregation below were deteriorating.

“It was at a point where something needed to be done,” said Bruce McLaughlin

A crane and a crew of six uninstalled and replaced the old units March 1 at around half the cost of a typical installation.

Pastor Kevin Treacy met McLaughlin, owner of McLaughlin Air Conditioning and Heating Service, when he needed service to his personal AC unit at his home over the holidays.

That’s when McLaughlin said he volunteered to service the church’s units.

McLaughlin is not a member of the First Baptist congregation but said he wants to be “all about the community.”

The local business owner said he and his company are not seeking recognition for the help and said although they cannot assist everybody in need, “We do give a discount to some of those organizations that are very impactful,” McLaughlin said, adding, “We like to help out.”

Pastor Kevin Treacy said the high-efficient, electric units will save the church money and keep the congregation comfortable.

“We obviously have things that go on here due to the age of the building, but by God’s grace he continues to provide for us,” Treacy said.

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Cheryl Johnston of Maricopa shows off one of the Bug-A-Boo baby blankets she made. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

Maricopa Community Church hosted its annual Fall Fling Arts and Crafts event Saturday. Vendors offered holiday hand-made gift-giving ideas and nonprofit organizations like the Salvation Army and Blue Star Mothers took the opportunity to explain their services.

Waypoint Pastor Andy Shurson. Photo by Mason Callejas

Tennessean Andy Shurson moved to Maricopa with his young family during the summer to assume his first role of lead pastor at Waypoint Church.

Shurson, 33, relocated from the Seattle area, where he led a youth ministry for three years.

The Southern Baptist congregation meets at Maricopa Elementary School every Sunday. Its congregation has been eager for a “steadying presence” behind the pulpit since experiencing a transition period spanning years between lead pastors who seem to come and go, Shurson said.

For that reason, the young pastor plans to sow his seeds in the desert church long-term.

“Most research says it takes five to seven years for a pastor to really impact the culture of a church,” he said. “I plan to make an impact.”

Shurson grew up in Nashville. While attending seminary in Dallas, he paid for his education by walking dogs and performing odd ministry jobs. He was a hospital chaplain, a writer and a researcher for customized curriculum for mega churches.

While writing for a second company, Shurson married Lauren, a nurse practitioner, in 2013. Soon after, he felt an urge to be in church ministry.

That’s when the newlyweds moved across the country to the Pacific North West for Shurson’s youth ministry position in rainy Seattle.

After a few years, he felt the push to do adult and preaching ministries. He soon found Waypoint.

The couple, now a foursome, moved with their sons, 2-year-old Haddon and 1-year-old Lewis, to the sunny Southwest.

“They love being outdoors and going to the pool,” Shurson said of his tots.

For the new pastor, it was important for the family to live in the city where he leads church. Shurson said Waypoint’s kinship and passion was apparent from the first conversations he had with elders during the interview process.

“I really had fallen in love with Waypoint. Church is meant to be in the community that it’s in, so I want to live in the place that I’m doing ministry,” he said.

As his family settles into their new community, the young pastor is feeling the excitement – and the weight – of his new role.

“I’m shepherding a congregation of 70 people, many of whom are older than I am; Many of whom have been at this church for five or six years and have gone through a lot. It’s not something I take lightly,” Shurson said.

Attend a Shurson sermon at Waypoint, Sundays at 10:30 a.m., at 18150 N. Alterra Parkway. For more information visit the church website or Facebook page. 

City of Maricopa Fire crews suppressed a fire at the First Baptist Church on Aug. 20. It was determined to be accidental. Photo by Brittany Paige Anslow

A fire last month at First Baptist Church has been determined to be an accident caused by faulty wiring.


The report by investigator Chazz Dupree found the origin of the attic fire to be wiring between an air conditioning unit on the roof and an electrical junction box, likely causing the power source to overheat. A hole was burned in the front of the junction box.


The Aug. 20 fire was first spotted by an off-duty firefighter with Ak-Chin Fire Department who reported smoke coming from the attic at around 8:30 a.m. When the first unit arrived from Maricopa Fire Department’s Alterra station, only light smoke was visible from the west gable.


The building was empty and locked at the time, which was a Saturday morning. Firefighters breached glass doors on the west side and double doors in the courtyard to get inside.


A thermal imaging camera located the heat source – an electrical box on the attic ceiling.  There was heavy smoke in the west wing but no indication of fire in the rest of the building.


Damage caused by the fire was limited to the path of the wiring from the south wall of the attic toward the peak of the gable roof, approximately eight to 10 feet long and 12 to 16 inches wide, according to Dupree’s report.


There was also smoke damage in the attic, water damage in the attic and drywall damage to the west end of the building “where crews pulled drywall to access the fire area.”


First Baptist Church has been in Maricopa for 62 years. Since the fire and the damage in the sanctuary, the congregation has been meeting in a combined worship service on Sundays outside in a white tent.

Luke Panter "planted" Grace Fellowship Church in his living room, and now the church is ready to open publicly in Maricopa High School. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

“God specifically wants us here.”

Age: 35
Occupation: Pastor, GCU adjunct professor and church planter
Hometown: Emory, Texas
Resides in: Maricopa Meadows
Maricopan since: 2015
Family: Wife Emily, five children
Education: PhD, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Pastor Luke Panter has faith in his family’s decision to move to Maricopa last year. They quickly “planted” a church in their home in Maricopa Meadows.

Aug. 14, Grace Fellowship Church will launch to the public, meeting in the cafeteria at Maricopa High School at 10 a.m.

“When we plant a church here, we are not trying to create another church for church-goers to attend,” Panter said. “We want to engage people who don’t believe and we want to have these conversations.”

Grace Fellowship is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Panter, 35, has been married to Emily for 17 years. Emily Panter is a teacher at Maricopa High School. They have five children. Three girls attend Maricopa Elementary School. Their son attends Maricopa Wells Middle School, and their oldest daughter attends Maricopa High School.

Originally from Emory, Texas, Luke Panter has been a pastor for 11 years in Texas and Oklahoma. He came to the ministry rather reluctantly after he started attending Bible Study at 19.

“I sensed God was telling me he wanted me to tell others,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to be a pastor,’ and I fought that for many years. But I know he wants me teach people about him and give my life over to that.”

Panter came to Arizona in 2014 to find a good area to plant a church. He said he felt strongly the family was supposed to move to Maricopa. He brought Emily out in June 2015 to have her tell him whether it was God or his own wishes that caused the promptings.

“She’s from the Midwest. She loves the rain. She loves the cold. She said, ‘Yeah, I believe this is where God wants us to be,” he said.

Planting a church in Maricopa meant opening up their living room. Around 25 to 30 people have been attending Bible study.

“The high school cafeteria can hold hundreds,” Luke Panter said. “We have all the stuff for worship meetings. We have a worship leader [Frank Wade] and a children’s ministry.

Rather than sermonizing or lecturing, the adjunct professor at Grand Canyon University uses a teaching style in his preaching. He stresses fellowship and grace and growing the ministry through relationships and coming through trials together.

One of the Panters’ darkest days was, ironically, two days after their youngest daughter was born in 2008. Seeing Emily recovering well, Luke left her in the care of her mother to take care of important matters. However, he soon received a call from his mother-in-law that Emily was in trouble.

She was rushed to a hospital with an aneurysm as Luke tried to get home again. He was met at the hospital by two pastors who could offer more solace than assurance she would survive.

“I was 27 and a pastor, and this was a side of ministry I had never seen before,” Panter said. “It was a testing time. It was a tough time for my kids.”

He slept 40 nights at the hospital during Emily’s slow recovery from what is often deadly. But the Panters also learned the strength of church fellowship and relationships.

“The church is not here to fix anybody,” he said. “Everybody needs the same amount of God’s grace. I need Christ just as much as everybody else.”


This story appears in the August issue of InMaricopa.