After tornado destroys vacant Arkansas church, diocese invests in booming corner of state

By David Paulsen
Posted Aug 10, 2023
Benfield in Pea Ridge

Arkansas Bishop Larry Benfield visits the Chapel of the Good Shepherd in Pea Ridge on July 30 after it began worshipping in its first permanent church building. Photo: Diocese of Arkansas, via Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] Hundreds of miles from the ruins of a long-vacant Arkansas church, destroyed this year by a tornado, another Episcopal congregation is rising – in a building that the Diocese of Arkansas purchased with some of the insurance money it received for the tornado-razed former church.

The new church is called Chapel of the Good Shepherd in the city of Pea Ridge, which has experienced a population boom in recent years as part of the rapidly growing Benton County in the state’s northwest corner, home of Walmart’s headquarters.

“We are so honored and thankful to be meeting in this new space,” lay missioner James Crews said in an online video about the worshiping community’s new home. “Today we celebrate that new work here in Pea Ridge at the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church.”

Bishop Larry Benfield visited Good Shepherd in Pea Ridge on July 30 after members began worshiping in their new building, which formerly housed Living Waters Assembly of God. Volunteers had spent the previous weeks working long days to update the space to host Episcopal liturgies.

“There was a genuine sense of excitement that God was doing something new in this building on the north side of Pea Ridge, and Episcopalians were a part of what was taking place in a growing part of the state,” Benfield said in a message to the diocese after his visit. More than 50 people from Pea Ridge and neighboring communities attended the service, which was followed by a meal of fried chicken and fish.

The celebration offered an uplifting counterpoint to the devastation four months earlier in the 8,000-resident town of Wynne, more than 250 miles to the southeast. A tornado leveled the historic Grace Episcopal Church, a brick and masonry structure that was built in 1917 and consecrated the following year by Bishop James Winchester. The diocese had closed the church in 2013, so no congregation was displaced by the tornado.

The storm that destroyed Grace Episcopal Church carved a 73-mile path of destruction that left four people dead, destroyed homes and damaged the town’s high school, with peak winds of 150 mph, according to the National Weather Service. The tornado was part of a larger severe weather supercell that swept across the state and produced three other tornadoes in the Little Rock area.

After the tornado in Wynne, photos of the church site posted to social media showed little more than a foundation and the scattered bricks from Grace Episcopal Church’s collapsed walls.

The diocese spent the ensuing months retrieving salvageable items from the debris and clearing the site with help from volunteers from Episcopal congregations, as well as other denominations. Hundreds of bricks from Grace Episcopal Church also were salvaged, some to be reused in construction of a columbarium at Trinity Cathedral, about a hundred miles to the southwest in Little Rock.

Rather than rebuild Grace Episcopal Church, the diocese invested the money from its insurance claim in Pea Ridge, a city now estimated at nearly 8,000 residents, up from 4,800 in 2010. Over the same period, Benton County has grown from about 220,000 people to more than 300,000.

Good Shepherd started as a ministry of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in the nearby city of Rogers. For several years, a small group of worshippers had been gathering in Pea Ridge for Morning Prayer in a temporary location at Shady Grove School. On June 25, Benfield visited St. Andrew’s and announced the diocese’s pending acquisition of the former Assemblies of God building to serve as the permanent new home for Good Shepherd.

The new site also will house the Angel Share Food Pantry, an ecumenical partnership between the Episcopalians in Pea Ridge, Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church and Pea Ridge United Methodist Church. The feeding ministry serves about 30 people a month.

“It’s such an important gift for our community to have this space,” Crews, the lay missioner, said in his online video.

As the Diocese of Arkansas’ newest worshiping community, Good Shepherd is officially known as a “preaching station,” with potential for elevation to mission status in the future.

“The people at Good Shepherd instinctively know a great deal about how to welcome visitors, plan worship and offer hospitality,” Benfield said in his message to the diocese. “They relate to the community in which they find themselves. These are lessons from which we can all learn. I, for one, eagerly anticipate what God will do with this newest evangelism outpost of the Episcopal Church in Arkansas. In an era of church decline, we are going to buck the trend.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at