Twenty years ago Johnny R. Sanford Jr. had a vision from God.
“Build my house,” the Lord told him.
At the time, Sanford had planned to build his family a home on the 13 1/2 acres he owned off of FM 321 on CR 3334 in Anderson County.
“I never wanted to be a preacher. I had plans to build a house. I was working in a church as a Sunday school teacher,” Sanford said. “But the Lord lifted me out of bed and said ‘build my house here, thy will shall be done.’ The Lord didn’t tell me how to do it, but he said by the time the last window goes up, it will be paid for.”
They never did build the family home, but the grand opening for the completely debt-free, non-denominational House of Saints church was held Sept. 4-5.
“This was done without loans and grants and without a congregation,” Sanford said. “When God tells you to do something — no matter the odds — the worst drought, the worst economy — you trust in Him. He blessed it to be done and paid for it. That’s so beautiful to me.”
God does work in mysterious ways.
In the Beginning
Without the funds to build the church, Sanford took the vision seriously, but it took many years to get to the right point where everything came together.
“For a long time, I thought the Lord was going to drop a big load of money in my lap so we could build the church,” Sanford said. “But that never happened. I told my wife, ‘we are going to have to start saving money.’”
He was working for $5.50 an hour for an East Texas cable company.
“We tried to reach out to church organizations to help, but we didn’t get any support at that time,” Sanford said.
Meanwhile, his wife Kimberly had dreamed about a vacation in Hawaii, even though it wasn’t financially within their reach. But enlisting into the U.S. Army, Kimberly was assigned to a post in Hawaii where they lived for 4 1/2 years.
“God sent us to Hawaii, one of the most expensive places to live,” Sanford said. “But we actually made more money there and were able to save more money.”
The Sanfords returned to the States in 1992, living in Colorado for a while before moving back to Texas in 1995.
“When we came back to the country, the Lord blessed me. We now have 52 acres and are leasing another 52 acres,” Sanford said.
They cut out extra spending — no more long distance phone bills or satellite TV. No new cars. Sanford worked as a professional photographer and a full-time rancher, raising black angus cows.
“I started selling my cows for $1,500. I would put $1,000 towards the church and $500 on the rest,” Sanford said. “I want to thank all the people who catered to my business, Light Professional Photography, and bought cattle from me. Every penny I earned went to the church.”
The House of Saints has been registered with the IRS since 2004. Sanford became ordained in 2004 as well.
“In August of 2006, we cleared the ground and poured a large slab. In September 2006, we started on the frame,” Sanford said.
The past five years were hard as costs to build the church continued to add up.
“We could have saved money building a metal building, but it wasn’t in the vision, and I wanted to keep it as close to the vision as I could,” Sanford said. “We used 2x6s instead of 2x4s too. I still don’t know why. But it is a little stronger.”
All together, the brick church building counting the carport includes 4,200 square feet. The building has a sanctuary, foyer, baptism area, pastor’s office, multipurpose office, kitchen, fellowship hall, three restrooms and a utility room.
“We worked on it for five years, no one helped us with it. But the Lord blessed it and we began to make new friends,” Sanford said. “People I didn’t know started to reach out to us. A man from the East Texas Baptist Association gave me a podium from Dallas. Without asking, another man in Stephenville gave us benches for the church. He put some awesome people in my life. It took five years, but God used that time to really mature me. I thank God it didn’t happen sooner because of the different people I met along the way. I needed that time.”
During the grand opening weekend, more than 100 people showed up for the opening. That was the weekend that wildfires ravaged across Anderson County, somewhat near to where the church is located. Some of the people planning to come to the opening, were worried that they would be evacuated.
“We told them it would be OK. And it was. We didn’t even smell smoke,” Sanford said. “It turns out if they would have left early, some of them coming from Teague would not have been able to get home due to the fires.”
During the grand opening, the church was dedicated to God.
“It’s not my church, it’s God’s church,” Sanford said. “It wasn’t men who did this, it was God.”
Even though the church doesn’t have much of a congregation yet as word is still getting out about the church’s opening, Sanford is still encouraged.
“I will preach God’s word on Sundays even if there is nobody here but my wife and me. I will preach God’s word and do His will,” Sanford said.
Sanford has attended Baptist and Pentecostal churches over the years. The House of Saints is non-denominational.
“I don’t think God looks at your religion, he looks at your heart,” Sanford said.
Sanford plans to use three acres on one side of the church to raise vegetables to feed the congregation and others in the community.
“Since we started building five years ago, we have helped people from time to time as a church,” Sanford said. “We want to be able to grow food to feed our members’ families.”
The church also is a strong supporter of the East Texas Food Bank and fighting breast cancer.
The Sanfords, who have been married for 30 years, have four grown children.
They never did get their new home built, still living on a mobile home nearby.
“One day we will build,” Sanford said. “We had to build the Lord’s church first.”