Dr. Mark Williams, general overseer for the Church of God, shared the history of the Church of God denomination.
“The church of God has a wonderful, rich heritage which also includes Cleveland, Tennessee,” Williams said.
The denomination actually began in North Carolina. Williams said the church had small beginnings. Today, the denomination has grown to a worldwide presence, with more than 15 million people belonging. Williams said there are 37,000 Church of God churches.
“Cleveland has been a vital part of that,” Williams said.
The denomination was started by A.J. Tomlinson. His work in Cleveland began in a house on Gaut Street. In the beginning there were five churches as part of the newly formed denomination.
Serving children and orphans was a focus for these churches.
An orphanage was established in McDonald off of Bancroft Road.
“The building of which, I am told — at least part of it still stands today,” Williams said.
In 1918, a Bible training school was established that would eventually grow into Lee University. Williams said the college was named for F.J. Lee, the second general overseer of the Church of God.
Lee was established on North Ocoee Street when the school purchased the land from Bob Jones University. Bob Jones relocated to South Carolina.
Lee University now has more than 4,400 students.
In 1974, the denomination built a seminary near the college campus.
Williams is also a graduate of Lee University. He said his first sermon was preached at a church in the Hopewell area.
After graduating and spending 12 years as a traveling evangelist, Williams and his wife returned to Cleveland to pastor South Cleveland Church of God. In 1999, the couple and their son moved to Florida. Later the family also served in California.
Williams said he returned to Cleveland in 2008 to serve on the Church of God executive board. He became the general overseer in 2012.
“The mission of our church is to proclaim the full gospel of Jesus Christ in the spirit and empowerment of Pentecost,” Williams said.
As the denomination has grown, it has tried to keep what it does in Cleveland just as important as what it does worldwide.
“We don’t want to just be a church that ministers all over the world and ignores the very town that nurtures and cherishes us,” Williams said. “Three-hundred employees of the Church of God live right here in Cleveland.”
The Church of God International Headquarters is also a part of the Greenway with the donation of the Prayer Garden.
“Thank you for the opportunity to partner with you on that project,” Williams said.
Future partnerships are being planned.
He said Operation Compassion has been dispatched to Oklahoma to assist with tornado aftermath relief for the town of Moore.
“The Church of God, through Operation Compassion, has just deployed 25 (tractor-trailer) semis ... to Oklahoma City on their way to Moore containing food (and other essentials),” Williams said.
Williams thanked the Rotary Club of Cleveland for its service to the community.
“If anything can be said about the Church of God, I hope we earn the right for you to be able to say about us, ‘They may not be perfect people, but they are our friends,’” Williams said.