Longform

FROM THE BIG HOUSE TO GOD'S HOUSE

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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. . . .

"If I have made mistakes," he pleaded, "where is forgiveness?"
@rule:
@body:"You know what?" Sturgeon asks toward the end of his sermon. "I welcome persecution of the church."

"Amen!" cries Alderdice.
"The church has never been stronger until they're under persecution."
"Hallelujah!"
"Why is that? Because it calls forth all the reasons for the Kingdom."
"Hallelujah!"
"Oh, thank God! Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!"

After the service, Sturgeon and Alderdice are all smiles as they shake hands and share final Sunday blessings with the congregation.

Once again, Alderdice tells New Times that he doesn't want to talk. "I feel like you're trying to retry me on things I've already paid for," he says. "I've done every minute of my time."

He pauses a moment, then says, "Man to man, I want you to realize that my brother was murdered, and an attempt was made on my life. And I want you to think real hard about what would happen to me or my family if people found out I'm here."

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Michael Kiefer