By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"It's the first bankruptcy that's ever been filed by a church in Arizona, of any denomination," says Reverend Sites. "That's what I understand."
The District Council thought that it would have a claim on the Glendale church's property, because of the loan it had made, but Sturgeon and his board members cut the district out of the pie when they filed for bankruptcy. The holder of the mortgage foreclosed after attempts to work out payment schedules and lease options with Sturgeon.
Alderdice and 20-some devout churchgoers, who "stick with him like Heaven," as one former church member put it, followed Sturgeon into exile at the chapel he now rents on Sunday afternoons.
Others decided that the financial problems outweighed Sturgeon's marvelous preaching and counseling in their minds, and they quietly moved on.
"There's frustrations of attending a church for a long time and really pulling and really trying and not having it go anywhere," says one former member.
"We could see the potential of the church," another says sadly. "And we did have a desire to go, because it had such a rich ministry." The Arizona District Council of Assemblies of God had long had its eyebrows raised over Reverend Sturgeon's irrational acts.
On one occasion, when a district official tried to attend service at the Glendale church, Sturgeon became irate and demanded he leave.
The most bizarre and inexplicable incident took place in summer 1990. An assistant pastor of Sturgeon's church called the district office to say that Sturgeon was vacationing in Florida and had been asked to visit a prison inmate. Therefore, Sturgeon wanted the district council to write him a letter of good standing--but under an alias, addressed to a Reverend Philip Victor, instead of to Philip Sturgeon. Victor is Sturgeon's middle name.
The inmate's name was also Sturgeon, the assistant went on to say, and the pastor was concerned that he would not be permitted extended time with the prisoner if it was thought he was a relative.
The district refused to provide the alias, and instead sent the letter in Sturgeon's name.
Sturgeon showed up unannounced one afternoon at the New River Correctional Facility in northern Florida. According to the Reverend Billy Nix, who has since retired as that prison's chaplain, Sturgeon was dressed like a Catholic priest. The inmate he wanted to see had not asked to see a minister and was not Catholic. Nix told Sturgeon that he could go talk to the Catholic priest in town and if the priest approved, then Sturgeon could see the prisoner. To which Sturgeon announced that he was an Assemblies of God minister. "It was all over then," Nix remembers, the agitation still in his voice. "I said, 'I don't understand what you're trying to do, but the answer is no,' and he left." A few days later, Sturgeon reappeared, and tried to talk his way past the front gate, but was again denied entry.
Ironically, Nix says, if Sturgeon had been up-front, explained who he really was and that he wanted to see an inmate who was not expecting him, it probably could have been arranged.
Although Nix vividly remembers Sturgeon, he cannot recall who Sturgeon had come to see, and says there would be no record of it at the prison, especially since Sturgeon never got in to see the inmate. At the time of Sturgeon's appearance, Nix called the Arizona District Council to ask about Sturgeon, and the District Council has a record of that call.
Sturgeon would not comment on the adventure. His wife told New Times, indirectly through church-board member Jim Bennett, that there had been no alias requested, and that Sturgeon was trying to visit a friend of a friend and not a relative.
Bennett then offers a more befuddling explanation: "I remember conversations prior to going. Jim Alderdice did ask, 'If you get a chance to go to this other prison, I would like you to go see a friend that I won to the Lord when I was there.' The two prisons were in two different locations, and he was not able to go to the prison where the friend was."
Needless to say, the Arizona District Council of Assemblies of God was more than a little concerned.
Losing the church to foreclosure was the final straw for the District Council. Still, Sturgeon and his board came back to the district and asked for more financial help. The district agreed to bail them out only if Sturgeon left. By another 100 percent affirmative vote, however, the tiny church membership voted to keep its beloved pastor.
"We just could not put another $200,000 in that church with the same man as pastor," says the Reverend Leroy Owens, who sits on the district board. And so the District Council disaffiliated the congregation, told members they could no longer use the name "Assembly of God" and declined to renew Sturgeon's credentials. "We never found out what goes on there," says Reverend Sites. Sites is not only superintendent of the Arizona District Council, but a clergyman of national stature who sat on the televised review panel that sanctioned the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart. "He [Sturgeon] would not provide any kind of records to us. I have 642 ministers that I supervise, 181 churches. We have never had a problem of this nature. Ever!"
Sturgeon took his appeal to a higher power, and invoked the highest power of all. In his appeal letter to the church fathers in Missouri, he wrote, ". . . The need for this letter is not pleasing to the Lord and it grieves the Holy Spirit. What is happening in the Arizona District is not pleasing to the Lord and is hampering the advancement of the Kingdom. . . .