Integrity My Story
My Arkansas Story
Arkansas is river country:
- I call the Mississippi River at Helena my river.
- The White River flows through Clarendon where my grandfather pastored in the Great Depression. My dad swam in it and played in the wake of steamboats when he was a boy. I call it Dad’s river.
- The Arkansas River slices through the state like a liquid blade providing many crossings. One of them bears the name Toad Suck and leads to the little town of Houston where I met and married my wife so I call the Arkansas Freeda’s River.
There was another river flowing in Arkansas when I was growing up—the River of the Spirit—the River of Life. We called this river Pentecost. My parents brought me up on the banks of this river at First Assembly of God in West Helena. I was blessed to have a godly and wise man named Louis Yendrek as my pastor from the first grade through my first year in college. Dad played guitar and taught the Homemakers Class. He was a deacon and, as a pastor’s son, he was the pastor’s friend. When she was first saved, Mom taught the little kids. I was saved in her class. Here’s how that went.
J.D. & Ruth Phifer My brother, James, and me: “The Phifer Boys”
I was about 5 years old. She was leading us in singing, “Oh How I Love Jesus.” Over her shoulder was a painting of Jesus as a shepherd holding an injured lamb on His shoulders. Somehow I knew that He was my shepherd and I was that little lamb. We sang as Mom led us with her rich alto voice. Something very real happened—I felt the Lord’s presence! He wasn’t on the wall, He was in my heart. I will never forget the sweetness of Mom’s voice and that moment. It was a microcosm of my life and ministry.
“The Phifers” Church / Radio Band
Brother Yendrek baptized me in Long Lake, south of Helena when I was eight years old. At age 12 I started seeking for my baptism in the Spirit. I wore out the saints at every revival, CA Rally, and Sunday night service that went that direction. I displayed all the resistances to the prayer in the Spirit—muscle tension, “stammering lips”—out of fear of being “in the flesh.” This went on for two years.
Pastor Louis Yendrek
Youth Camp, 1964
Even though I was too young, I was allowed to go to Sr. Camp because of my size and because my older brother James was there. I liked being around the older kids. There were champions in those groups: Jim Bennet, C.L. Haston, Mike Cheshier, and my brother James. Our DCAP was Reverend Bobby Brock.
On Thursday night, always a crisis night at camp, I was tired of “tarrying” for the Holy Ghost. I left the altar area and went to the top row of the choir loft. Alone there flat on my back, I finally released my prayer language. For next extended time I walked the floors of that old tabernacle praying in the Spirit. I remember stopping to get Mountain Valley Mineral Water at the coolers in the back. I loved that water, but I had found the River!
Because the Baptism in the Spirit is real, my life changed. When I played my clarinet in church, there was something different about it. I understand now that the difference was the anointing of the Holy Spirit. In those days, I only knew that serving God was the most glorious and fun thing I could do.
Brother Brock organized something called Youth Emphasis Week. He called all youth who were interested to Little Rock/North Little Rock for three days of door-to-door witnessing and evening evangelistic services. All the Assemblies of God churches in both cities cooperated. Because I had won the talent competition at the 1964 camp, Brother Brock chose me to travel with him each night. I would play “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and he would preach. These services were a precursor to the life God had planned for me.
On one of those nights while traveling in the car with Brother Charles Northcutt, right at the junction of I-35 and I-40, Brother Northcutt’s daughter, a wonderful pianist name Diann, told me about George Murry. His job was leading the music ministry at First Assembly of God, North Little Rock. I had never heard of such a thing. I thought the only way you could make a living in music was teaching band in public school. I knew I wanted to major in music and be a band director but now there was a new possibility—I could be a Minister of Music. From that moment, the biblical term “Chief Musician” defined my desire—that’s what I wanted to be.
Teen Talent 1967: Malinda Yendrek, me, Delores Raymer
My Dad was a wonderful guitar player. In addition to our church band, The Phifers, he and I entered and won many talent contests: County and State Fairs in Arkansas and the Mid-South Fair in Memphis. We also did Teen Talent, the Assemblies of God competition. We came in 1st place in Arkansas in 1965 and 1966 but lost at Regionals both years.
CA Convention, 1966
In the memorable “cold camp” in the old open-air tabernacle at the camp grounds in Hot Springs, the temperature went down to 22º. Even though I won the Instrumental Solo Division, the most amazing moment happened in the final Wednesday morning communion service. Diann Northcutt was sitting next to me when the presence of the Lord seemed to envelope me. I couldn’t pray or praise or even speak in tongues. All I could do was weep, deep sobs that shook my whole body.
In this state of divine visitation, the letters P R E A C H appeared before me like individual neon lights. When the presence of the Lord lifted from me I looked around in a state of wonder. Diann asked me, “Steve, what has happened to you?” “God has called me to preach,” was my answer. Her reply expressed the dynamics of my life to this day, “Oh no! You are supposed to be a minister of music.” I have lived in a state of tension between the call to preach and the call to make music. The Lord knew then what we couldn’t know—these two things would someday merge in something called “The Praise and Worship Renewal.”
In the 1960’s in the Arkansas District of the Assemblies of God, when a young man was called to preach, he didn’t wonder what to do next—he started making plans to go to Southwestern Assemblies of God College in Waxahachie, TX. There wasn’t even any need to pray about it!
So, those were my plans.
Spring, 1967: The Forces of Destiny—La Forza Del Destino
I gave up music completely as a career choice and I became completely miserable. I couldn’t shake this misery no matter how hard I tried. My brother was already at Southwestern, working his way through, loading freight in Dallas, to pay the bills. My maternal grandmother passed away and Mom and Dad had the expenses of her burial plus two years in a nursing home. Dad, moved to have both his sons called into the ministry, vowed he would get me to Southwestern somehow.
The summer of 1966 at Brother Brock’s Youth Camp, he took advantage of the time between supper and the evening service to give us a teaching session he called Vespers. The boys met on the high creek bank next to dorm. Rev. Carter Rogers was our teacher. He gave us several ways to know God’s will for our lives. Two of those ways were:
- God would open doors and He would close doors.
- When you were in God’s will there was a peace that came with it; when you were out of God’s will there was a misery that came with that.
I had the misery and the door to Southwestern seemed to be closed.
Then two strange things happened.
- A clarinet challenge on a piece called La Forza Del Destino by Giuseppe Verdi, and
- A college band director came to hear our band one morning.
La Forza Del Destino was a transcription for symphonic band of an orchestra piece in which the clarinets were given the violin parts. The parts were technically demanding. One passage was for the whole clarinet section and we were not playing it well. Mr. Balch announced on a Friday that we would have challenges on that passage on Monday. I was undisciplined and didn’t like to practice. I played by ear better than I played by notes and I didn’t participate in individual competitions at school. On that weekend, however, I practiced a great deal and mastered the passage in question.
Monday was one of the sweetest days of my life as a clarinetist. I was sitting 5th chair 2nd clarinet, right where I belonged. There were 5 1st clarinets so I was the 10th player in line. The nine players ahead of me played the passage with varying degrees of success. When my turn came, I nailed it. Every head in the section turned to me in amazement. Mr. Balch said these words, “Phifer! What got into you?” He vaulted me to 2nd chair 1st part where I remained the rest of the year.
A few days later, Mr. Gale Campbell, Director of Bands at Arkansas A&M College visited our band room one morning. This had never happened before. Helena-West Helena is not a place you get to unless you have a reason. He heard us play. We scored a 1st Division at State competition that year—we were good. After the class was over, Mr. Balch asked me to come into the office. Mr. Campbell wanted to talk to me.
“I want you to come major in music at A&M College and we will pay your full tuition.”
I was stunned. The music career I had given up for the pulpit stirred in my heart. I also knew that I relied on my ear too much.
“Don’t you want to hear me play?” I asked.
“If you sit 2nd chair in that band, that is good enough for me.”
Open doors; closed doors, it seemed a door was opening. Tuition was one thing, room and board was another. My Dad went next door from the shop where he worked in Helena to the Phillips County Court House. His boss, Mr. Hornor, went with him. They came back with an Arkansas Rural Endowment loan to cover all my room and board. A door had opened.
When I visited the campus at Monticello, the deep misery fled away and a deep peace replaced it. This was where God wanted me to be. I knew I was called to preach but I also knew I was called to be a Chief Musician—“The Forces of Destiny.”
College Days, Monticello, The Cricks, Pastor Bob Richmond and Family
Arkansas A&M College, 1967-1971
Chi Alpha is the college youth program for the Assemblies of God. By my second semester I was president of the A&M chapter. Brother Maurice Lednicky was now the DCAP. My last youth camp in the summer of 1967 was his first. After that summer, they were building a new tabernacle at the camp ground. The 1967 CA Convention would be held at First Assembly in Eldorado. Because of Teen Talent, he invited me to sit on the platform. I believe Jimmy Swaggart was the speaker. Over the years I served with the Lednicky’s in various Chi Alpha ministries.
Back in my new home of Monticello, I went to 1st Assembly where Brother T. N. Crick was the pastor. He had nobody to lead singing so I did that and taught a Sunday School class. They, like the Richmond’s who came after them, opened the parsonage to me every Sunday. Amazing.
One night Brother Crick heard me speak at Chi Alpha. Afterward he asked me if there was a call on my life. I told him the story and he encouraged me to get papers. I was given the Exhorter’s Permit in the summer of 1968 and was licensed to preach in 1970. I have ministered all these years with that license from the Arkansas District.
While in college, I saw dramatic evidence of the reality of the Spirit-baptized life. Brother Yendrek had always taught that there were Christians in all churches that believed the Bible was the word of God. In college I tested these words and found them true. As Chi Alpha president, I attended all the other Christian groups on campus. I made friends across denominational lines that are still friends today, many of whom now pray in the Spirit. I remember thinking that if the Baptism is real, I won’t have to do anything myself to convince anyone. It was and I didn’t. Together we sponsored two Campus Crusades and we became known as the God Squad. This of course, was happening all over the county and would soon evolve into the Jesus Movement. Brother Don Duvall, pastor at First Assembly in Warren, stands out in my memory as a pastor who understood what was happening.
The Phifers: 1971-1975
The death of the band director from the former African-American school opened up a job for me in my hometown. Mom, Dad, and I started a travelling singing/preaching ministry called, “The Phifers.” I knew I was headed for the church, but it seemed wise to teach for a time and really finish my bachelor’s degree with real life experience. This afforded me a 4-year apprenticeship with Mr. N. Stanley Balch which has proved invaluable to me in the years since. I also did not want to go into the ministry as a single man. I was preaching almost once a week and learning how to put music together in church. I also produced Christmas and Easter choir cantatas at the West Helena Assembly.
In 1973, in the process of this ministry, I met Freeda when we came to her church in the little town of Houston, Arkansas. We married in 1974 and she started playing with us while holding down her first teaching job in Helena. We were made for each other as time continues to prove, year after year.
1974 / 1975
1975-1980, Camden and North Little Rock.
Full-time pastoral work came easily to Freeda and me as Youth Pastors and Ministers of Music at 1st Assembly in Camden, working with Brother Carl Tillery. Another river, the Ouachita, could be added to the list, but we weren’t there long enough to know who owned it. Bobby Johnson was the DCAP then so we got busy attending the camps and CA Conventions. The Youth Choir competition was dominated by three 1st Assemblies: Russellville, North Little Rock, and Pine Bluff. In 1975 our little group from Camden made its mark and actually took 2nd place in 1976, ahead of Russellville but behind NLR.
What we didn’t know was that Brother Lednicky was considering bringing on a classically trained musician at NLR. Bobby Johnson recommended me and in January of 1977 we took the position. Brother George took the Christian Education position full time and led worship while we did the music. Ironically, he was the first minister tor of music I had ever heard of and I was following him.
At this wonderful church I learned my first lessons about leading worship: one from Brother George Murry and the other from Pastor Lednicky.
- Brother George showed me how to flow from hymns to choruses. I sensed the flow of the Holy Spirit each week. Without even knowing it, he did much to mentor me in the role of the worship leader. He kept a chorus book, organized by key, tempo, and subject. When I left to go to Wichita, I copied his chorus book. A few months back I received his chorus book as a gift from his son.
- Pastor Lednicky taught me how to flow with the Spirit during altar services. The churches at Camden and North Little Rock had powerful altar services. In these services, Freeda and I led the prayer music; she played piano and I sang while playing bass. The North Little Rock church had several wonderful organists who played as we led. Pastor Lednicky told me to never send the people out on a Sunday night on anything less than a note of victory. He said I should watch him to sense the moment when the prayer service would shift from heavy prayer toward praise and victory. I should then choose a song that started slow, matching the mood of prayer, and accelerated to a victorious song for dismissal.
These two men taught me the basics of flowing in worship.
The NLR Choir, The Lednicky’s, George and Dorothy, our first daughter, Nicole
Soon I was appointed District Music Director for Arkansas and had the joy working with the men who had led me when I was a teen. The experience of leading worship at District Council convinced me that God had anointed me for that ministry as well.
When Brother Lednicky went to be president of CBC, Freeda and I went to Wichita to work with John Gifford. Strangely enough, both the Arkansas River and the River of Pentecost flowed there, too.
So through age 30, I was shaped and formed by the Arkansas District Council of the Assemblies of God. I realize now that this was a discipleship structure from the local church to the national level to world missions and I benefitted greatly from it:
- CA’s before church on Sunday night,
- CA rallies each month,
- Dynamic Experiential/Doctrinal Youth Camps,
- CA conventions each year,
- Teen Talent Competition, and
- Chi Alpha Student Ministries.
In this discipleship program I was
- baptized in the spirit at age 14,
- shown the possibilities of the call of God on my life at age 15,
- called to preach at age 17,
- granted ministerial recognition at age 18, and
- welcomed into the full-time ministry at age 25.
This is my Arkansas Story. Every time we cross the Mississippi River at Memphis or Helena, or cross the Arkansas River from Oklahoma back into Arkansas at Fort Smith, we sound the car horn. It will always be home and my heart will always dwell there. The best part is, the River of Life that I found there, flows in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri, and Kansas—everywhere we have lived. How can this be? Because it flows from the throne of God established in our hearts. Jesus promised that it would.
September 29, 2018
© 2018 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved