HAWLEY, Okla. — The Oriental Arborvitae tree has been outside Bethel Hawley Baptist Church as long as anyone can remember, and Pastor Gary Lillie believes it goes back to the church’s founding. This particular tree is listed on the National Register of Champion Trees, as it’s the largest of its species in North America. The tree, though, is only one of the 124-year-old church’s stories.
The original deed
“We have the original deed for the land that Dan and Catherine Russell gave the original members in 1895 when they ceded the land to the congregation,” Lillie said. “They were a black couple who attended a Black Baptist Church in Anthony, Kansas, but they wanted a Baptist church in their hometown, too, so they donated the land.”
Terms of attendance
Lillie has been in active ministry for 44 years, and 41 of them have been at Bethel Hawley. He and his wife Annette moved to Hawley after seminary, assuming full-time duties in 1978. Very little of the town was left, even then.
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“The town dried up in the ‘40s,” Lillie said. “Now, it consists of the church and two houses, one of which is the parsonage and one that’s vacant. We started a volunteer fire department in 2000. The church is still here because there is a strong sense of community that extends for miles beyond Hawley.”
Lillie said there were approximately 30 members when he arrived in 1978, but now the church averages about 100 in attendance every Sunday. “I like to talk in terms of actual attendance, not members,” he said. “We have parishioners who drive from as many as 30 miles away to be here on Sundays.”
A family calling
The church was founded as Bethel Baptist Church in 1895, but the emergence of another Bethel within a few miles of the first church in the early 20th Century led to locals differentiating them by referring to Lillie’s church as Bethel at Hawley.
When the church incorporated in the 1980s, the congregation voted to keep the name as Bethel Hawley, even though the other Bethel was long defunct.
The church is now affiliated with Salt Fork Baptist Association and Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, both of which are organizations within the Southern Baptist Convention.
Gary and Annette — who has a graduate degree from Texas Women’s University — raised two children in Hawley. Their son lives in Enid now, and their daughter is in Wichita, Kan. Lillie said the church has always been a family operation.
“The kids mowed the grass, cleaned the church, folded bulletins, whatever needed to be done,” he said.
When Lord moves
Throughout his pastorate, he’s been the sole paid staff member at Bethel Hawley. Much of the work was done by volunteers and still is today.
Lillie became bi-vocational seven years ago when he became the manager of Golden Oaks Village, a retirement community in Enid. When asked about retirement, he just smiled and said, “When the Lord moves me.” Which is to say he has no plans for retirement at the moment.