Small Church with a Big Reach

Living Water in the Desert

Calvary Chapel Holbrook, AZ, is an Oasis of Living Water for a Southwest Desert Community

Story by Christmas Beeler
Photos by Micah Martin, May 2019

attendees great each other

Above: Faithful congregant Jimmy Barela greets a woman at Calvary Chapel Holbrook, AZ. Having grown up in the small community, Jimmy often invites people to church.

In northeast Arizona, Historic Route 66 winds through barren desert, painted rock canyons, and vast ranchlands—carrying tourists and itinerant wanderers. Like an oasis in the desert, believers at Calvary Chapel Holbrook are bringing the Living Water of Jesus Christ to homeless men and women, Native American children, and at-risk teens. Situated near several Native American reservations and in the heart of Navajo Country, the town of Holbrook has roughly 5,000 residents.

In 2000, Pastor Dean and Jennifer Ceccarelli moved to the tiny town featuring large concrete dinosaurs, rock shops, and the Wigwam Motel. While the historic landmarks and retro-era shops seem frozen in time, the population has stayed about the same for the last decade. “Part of the problem is finding good-paying jobs to sustain their families,” Dean explained. “We live in one of the poorest counties in Arizona.” Nearby Interstate 40 is a major corridor for drugs. He added, “Between Mormonism and Native American beliefs, we have a lot of spiritual warfare.” But the believers at Calvary Chapel are sharing the hope of Christ. Dean noted, “People tend to measure the success of a church by how many people are coming or getting saved—but that’s not necessarily the only indicator that God is working. A lot of times, people are growing deeper in their walks with the Lord, and I see that in our people. Jesus has become the focal point of their lives. They are growing and reaching out.”

church building

Above: CC Holbrook meets in a building that was once a bar and restaurant. Pastor Dean Ceccarelli sees it as symbolic of the work God has done in many believers there, giving them a new purpose in Christ.

Bread of Life Mission

Cherise Merrick accepted Christ at a Calvary Chapel in Colorado nearly 40 years ago. Today, she attends CC Holbrook and directs the local Bread of Life Mission—offering warm meals, beds, and Bible studies to any who come. Some accept Christ and commit to a one-year discipleship program. “All of the spiritual mentors who offer one-on-one discipleship are from Calvary Chapel Holbrook. Pastor Dean teaches the Bible once a week,” Cherise explained. “I can always count on Calvary to help with teaching, mentoring, counseling, support, and coming alongside us.” Residents of the mission are bussed to local churches to worship on Sundays.

Dean teaches at Bread of Life

Above: Pastor Dean teaches the Bible every Wednesday at the Bread of Life Mission, directed by CC Holbrook attendee Cherise Merrick, where homeless men and women receive hot meals, a bed, clothing, and the Word of God. Nearly 15 Bread of Life residents choose to attend CC Holbrook on Sunday mornings.

“The folks at Calvary welcome them with open arms. [Regular attendees] are very patient, gracious, and accepting to them,” Cherise reported. “That’s important, because one of the greatest needs of homeless men and women is acceptance into a community. You and I, if our homes were burned down, would have friends or family to take us in. But these people have no one.” That’s one reason that Cherise doesn’t offer church services at the mission on Sunday. “They need to be part of the body of Christ; they need their church family.”

met greet

Above: Roger Stockton (left), once a resident at the Bread of Life Mission, jokes with Caleb Thomas who now volunteers there along with other CC Holbrook believers as mentors.

New Creations

One Navajo woman who was transformed at Bread of Life Mission now serves there. Jeanette, 57, grew up in Holbrook and had a lonely, traumatic childhood—drinking at age 7, molested at 9, pregnant at 16. Her mother would hit her, call her names, and leave Jeanette to raise her younger siblings though she was only a kid herself. “My mom never told me she loved me,” Jeanette recalled. “I would go home with my friends, and their parents were so kind to them. They treated them like jewels. I thought, Why don’t I have that? … Did I do something wrong?” Eventually she ended up on the streets, drunk or high every day. “I almost lost my arm from shooting up,” she confessed. “My family didn’t want anything to do with me. I stole from them, beat them up. It was a lonely, horrible place to be.” Sick of jail and the streets, Jeanette entered a five-day detox; then she found Bread of Life Mission three years ago.

“Everyone was so nice that I wondered what they wanted from me; I didn’t know what love was,” she said. Finally, after six months, Jeanette opened up to director Cherise Merrick. “I accepted Jesus,” she said, smiling. “When you feel the Lord come into your heart—wow—it just changes you. Everything is new. I want to live 50 more years just to show people that God is good.” She related, “Now people around Holbrook say to me, ‘Jeanette, you look different; where have you been?’ I tell them, ‘I gave my life to God; you guys should try Jesus.’”

Jeanette’s Navajo family surprised her by attending her baptism. “Slowly but surely, the bridges to my family are getting restored.” With joyful tears, she added, “I love them dearly, and they love me. I’m just so happy. The joy that God gives you is real.” God’s Word has become her daily bread: “When I read the Bible, I just want to eat the chapters, to keep consuming it. I just want to live for Him; He has truly restored my life.”

Asked what she would tell her younger self, Jeanette answered, “I would tell her she was loved. All my life—getting beat up, hit, called names—I didn’t know how much God loved me. He was watching over me. That’s the only reason I’m still here.” With a huge smile, she added, “I just love Jesus so much. I can’t wait to go to heaven!”

ladies laugh

Above: Debbie Jolley (left) hugs her mother-in-law Dorothy Jolley before church. CC Holbrook started as a Bible study hosted in the home of Debbie and her husband Berry in the 1980s.

Loving Mentors

Many CC Holbrook believers volunteer at Bread of Life special events or as personal mentors. One couple, Berry and Debbie Jolley, help lead worship and are one of the church’s founding families. CC Holbrook began as a Bible study in their home in the 1980s.

Soft-spoken Debbie has mentored five women, including Jeanette. “It’s incredible seeing what God is doing in their lives,” Debbie testified. The year of transformation is hard, she explained, and the women need another sister in Christ to walk them through it. “At first, they are gung-ho for the Lord, but about halfway through it gets really hard for them, and they want to give up. So [mentors] just pray them through that time, encourage them to not go back. It’s really amazing, and it’s all the Lord’s doing.” Recalling Jeanette’s struggles, Debbie related, “At first, she had a very low view of herself from her past. She had a hard time understanding how much the Lord could love her.” Debbie reminded her that she was a new creation in Christ.

children in class

Above: At CC Holbrook, 1st through 6th graders attend Sunday school class together, learning about Jesus and God’s love for all people and cultures of the world.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
2 Corinthians 5:17

“Jeanette told me that in her old life, she could have beaten me up,” Debbie said with a chuckle. “We’ve talked about how she would have died on the streets had not the Lord rescued her. She had a very rough exterior at first, and it was amazing to see God transform her and give her a loving, giving heart. She tells everyone what God has done in her life.”

children play outside

Above: Jennifer Ceccarelli, Pastor Dean’s wife, often brings the Sunday school class outside after the lesson to do something fun.

Young Hearts Shine for Jesus

Another CC Holbrook attendee, Natalie Hudok, 29, came from West Virginia seven years ago to teach at Native American Christian Academy, which provides a low-cost Christian education for native children from several different tribes.

Initially, Natalie was daunted by the task of teaching Bible classes. Then she began attending CC Holbrook, soaking up the verse-by-verse Bible teaching. “Calvary helped me a lot because Pastor Dean’s clear teaching of Scripture increased my love for reading the Word. The whole Bible began to make sense to me. Now I’ve been teaching for six years, and I’m able to pass that on to my students. I try to help them see God in everything.” To help them make God’s truth their own, Natalie said, “I try not to give them my own answer but direct them to Scripture. I give them Bible assignments when they go home—to choose a chapter of the Bible, read it, and journal about it. Hopefully they will see God is with them everywhere, not just here on campus.”

Natalie teaches students

Above: Teacher Natalie Hudok said that hearing Pastor Dean teach verse by verse at CC Holbrook gave her a love for the Word and equipped her to teach Bible classes at Native American Christian Academy near Holbrook. Here she assists 7th-grade student Jeremiah.

For Native American students, she explained, “One of the difficulties is the duality. Here [at school] they can call themselves Christians, and the next day they go home … and do ceremonies and rituals that involve other spirits and the medicine man. They don’t see that it really contradicts, unless God convicts them that those two cannot be reconciled.”

Students who accept Christ impact their families. One Navajo girl, Aysa, committed her life to the Lord in 6th grade and became a light for Jesus on the reservation. Natalie shared, “After she was born again, she became the most joyous, loving person I’ve ever seen of any age. She would talk about Jesus wherever she was—in the dorm, at shopping malls, in class, everywhere.” One weekend with her family, Aysa was told to take corn pollen and pray to the holy people to protect her from witchcraft. “She refused and said, ‘I have Jesus as my protector,’ and she insisted politely but firmly. Her faith eventually affected her whole family. Fighting and quarrels began to be replaced by peace.”

Recently, another 10th-grade girl decided to start a Bible study with her family on the Navajo reservation, and Natalie came to lend moral support. The teen was unsure if anyone would come; but Natalie recalled, “God surprised us. Not only did every family member participate—from her little sister all the way up to Grandpa—but two neighbor girls from two unchurched families joined.” The small crowd gathered in the living room to hear. “It was beautiful to see them praying together, praising God for the good things He has done, discussing the passage, confessing sins, and showing love for each other. They’ve had a hard time lately, and they feel God is beginning a change in their family.”

boy studies in school

Above: Native American Christian Academy offers a low-cost Christian education for students from three local tribal reservations (Navajo, Hopi, and Apache). Students live on campus and travel home every two weeks.

Natalie testifies of God’s love and power to heal brokenness. “There is such a need for forgiveness—especially among a culture who has been historically mistreated. There’s pent-up anger that goes back several generations. We have a lot of fatherless or parentless children. They are hurting. But when they forgive, that love conquers all kinds of evil.”

“And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”
Mark 11:25

Negative family patterns are being reversed. Natalie reminisced, “I’ve had students say, ‘Here, people say kind words, but at home we always put each other down.’ I remind my classes that there is so much power in our words.” Natalie teaches them to turn negative statements into something true or encouraging. Two sisters shared this concept at home. “The mother came in for a parent-teacher conference and said, ‘My girls are making me change my words. They have been pointing out my negativity, and it’s been good for our home.’ That was exciting to hear.”

Dean greets people

Above: Pastor Dean gets a hug from Mona McNabb before Sunday service. Mona and her husband Ted (next in line) have attended CC Holbrook for many years.

In Holbrook, the majority of public high schoolers are Native American. Most of them live in a dorm near their school during the week and travel home every other weekend. To reach these at-risk teens, Pastor Dean banded together with several other Bible-teaching pastors in Holbrook to support a local Youth for Christ ministry. Their churches take turns hosting events and volunteering to share Jesus with these young men and women who need a safe and loving community. Teens gather weekly to hear about Jesus’ love and hope. CC Holbrook also supports ministries for crisis pregnancy, as well as a Christian home for abused and neglected native children.

Calvary Chapel Holbrook, AZ

© 2020 Calvary Chapel Magazine. All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.

sponsors & partners