MARK E. RONDEAU
HOOSICK FALLS, N.Y. -- This Oct. 30 marked 30 years to the day that Michael Benoit pulled into the lot of the First Assembly of God Church on Route 22 here to take over as the new pastor.
At that time in the early, 1980s the twists and turns of fate -- or Providence -- had brought him to Phoenix, where he was the youth minister at a megachurch.
Benoit was born and raised as a Roman Catholic in Albany; his wife, Lois, is originally from Berlin. The members of the Hoosick Falls Church had been familiar with Benoit before his call, because his father-in-law had once been pastor and Benoit had attended the church, which is now called Cornerstone Fellowship.
"This church here had seen me go from a hippy dippy, dope-smoking musician to on fire for Jesus, playing Christian music, Christian worship, Christian rock. They called me and asked me in Phoenix if I wanted to come back, if we wanted to come back, and take the church and I said ‘no.' This is Hooterville. I'm in Phoenix, my church was 14,000, my youth group was bigger than almost every church in our area, just the youth group."
"I wasn't looking"
He added, "I wasn't looking for a church; I didn't have a resume out. I didn't want to pastor a church."
Still, the Hoosick Falls people called him back again, and his pastor in Phoenix said, "you need to go back there, even if it costs you your own personal money, check the church out, see if it's God."
So "I came back, I started to see that God was beginning to work in the Northeast, and I felt called to come back here," he said. "I'm only 40 miles from my original home, my family's close by, most of them, they're in Albany. I see them regularly."
Benoit recalled the factors that led to him to Phoenix in the first place. In his 20s, he played with the band Adirondack, played with them in such venues as SPAC and The Palace and opened up for Joe Cocker. He played guitar and sang. The band did covers of Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Steely Dan, and had an original set of material. "It was a powerful group," he said.
It was the 1970s, "I was looking for God, Nirvana, peace, fulfillment and didn't find it in everything you think you would, music and fame. I did enough drugs, I had enough fame, I had enough popularity to know that peace and joy and happiness wasn't there.
"Looking for that I found the Lord," he said. "Looking for peace and joy I found Jesus Christ, personally."
When the drummer left the band when his wife had twins and he needed to make money on a regular basis, Benoit sensed it was his time to leave, also. "We had a boy who contracted acute lymphoblastic leukemia, that got my attention -- right now."
After much prayer and research, Benoit and his wife decided on pursuing an alternative natural therapy, Laetrile, controversial and much in the news at that time. They went to Florida and eventually Phoenix in search of therapy.
"What happened was, doing that without the doctor's permission was deemed child abuse back then. They took me to court. I snuck my wife out of town before that. We put her in an underground clinic with my son, and the leukemia was cured in a few months. We ended up in Phoenix because they started looking for us." he said. " He had leukemia, that got our attention, we prayed, we ended up in Phoenix with a good pastor who took us under his wing."
Benoit tells this story and more on the church website, www.cornerstone22.com, which also includes sermons, music and other items.
Back to the present, the emphasis on contemporary music at Cornerstone Fellowship can be seen in the wide variety of guitars, drums and microphones up front, beneath a wooden cross that can be lit up from behind and a screen onto which music or a PowerPoint presentation can be projected.
Lois Benoit was present briefly for the start of the interview for this article. She is a retired music teacher at Hoosick Falls Central School. The couple had three children when they moved to Hoosick Falls: "Our youngest was a baby and now he's here helping us," she said.
The Benoits shy away from denominational labels. Asked if the church was still affiliated with the Assemblies of God, Benoit said it is an Assemblies of God affiliate but independent.
Said Lois: "We're a community church -- we want to serve the community."
Michael added: "We realize that people quickly pigeonhole you if you have an association with a denomination or an organization," he said. "So we quickly say ‘non-denominational, interdenominational,' tongue in cheek, wink wink kind of thing --and (a) community based, community minded church."
The community involvement included Lois being the head of drama at Hoosick Falls Central School for many years. Michael chairs the pastoral care committee at SVMC, which provides chaplains for the hospital. He's involved with the Hoosick Area Church Association and is the Salvation Army emergency fund representative.
In the past, Benoit chaired a committee/coalition with HAPPY (Hoosick Area Partnership for Parents and Youth) that got a $1 million drug-free community grant.
The church had a fully licensed non-profit community daycare center on site for almost 30 years. Benoit's son recently reopened it under a new name, Cornerstone Christian Childcare.
"Because I'm independent and non-denominational, I don't have a district supervisor who tells me I should be more involved with the district mindset than my community mindset," Benoit said. "None of these things input directly into my church, I don't get people from them."
There are about 80 people in the church, mostly young families, people in their 20s and 30s. "We have college kids, teenagers who come without their parents," he said. Benoit plays guitar and sings, Lois plays keyboards and sings, and other musicians on the worship team are high school and college age.
"The only churches that are growing are modern churches that have contemporary worship, more applicable, relatable messages," he said. "I mean I can talk about husbands and wives and kid stuff and they know I know what I'm talking about."
Over the years in ministry, Benoit has learned "to be led by the spirit of God and preach the truth," he said.
The biggest truth he preaches: "Is that you need to be the lover of the truth, lover of the truth about the truth and the truth about yourself. If you do you will go far in the kingdom of God."
Benoit does not endorse the style of ministry prevalent in a number of places: "My philosophy of ministry is more Biblical in the sense that what should be leading in the church is more of a team than a one-man show," he said. "In the Scriptures, the letters to the churches were always written to a plurality of elders, so what I would like to see is a team of men and women that could rise up and take various responsibilities"
Still, Benoit can't imagine retiring from ministry: "Retiring to me is impossible, it's like ‘does a father ever retire from his family?'"
He added, "My goal is not to retire. My goal is to raise up a leadership in a church that can do what the church is supposed to do."
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