Anthem Pioneer: Arizona Hills Community Church

Bob and Janet LehmanTwenty-year Anthem residents Bob and Janet Lehman believe that most people look for the perfect house, and then find a community. But those who look for the perfect community and happen to find a house are the ones who experience the magic.

This was how it happened for them. Living in Phoenix, they heard from friends about a new Del Webb community that was being planted north of them, “way out there, in the middle of nowhere.” It got them thinking: there are no churches in the middle of nowhere. 

So one day, Bob and a friend decided to sneak into this new community, when bulldozers and contractors were the only ones around, and there was security everywhere to keep onlookers out (for safety reasons, of course). They hiked to the top of Daisy Mountain and looked down at the community blossoming below them. They prayed for Anthem – for its future residents, schools, leaders, and how they could all work together to make it a magical place – and then went back home to encourage others to do the same. 

After that life-changing mountaintop experience in 1999, the Lehmans took the lead in planting the community’s first church. The first service was on Christmas Eve, but one might say there was no room for them in the inn. So, instead of in Anthem, the service was held in nearby Pioneer Village. More than 100 Anthem residents attended. The church’s humble beginning foreshadowed what would be a magical journey over the next 20 years.

It wasn’t too many years later that the church, which would become Arizona Hills Community Church, moved to Anthem School. Acquiring the space wasn’t a given, though. Other groups were vying for a partnership. But the Lehman’s contributions to the “little community that could” were the deciding factors in the school offering space to the church. The church being in the heart of Anthem—first at Anthem School, then at Boulder Creek High School—would become critical in the years ahead. 

Tests of Faith

One thing Pastor Bob is certain of is that the sense of community that was fostered during Anthem’s early years helped guide it through difficulties that would come its way. And there were plenty that they recall. 

The congregation would have its bond tested early on. It was the early morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 when the lives of every American changed forever. The 9/11 terrorist attacks shook the country to its core. A wave of emotions—grief, confusion, anger, fear—swept through the community and nation.

The Lehmans and the church did what they could to be a light in unspeakable tragedy. The church hosted prayer vigils in Community Park, where hundreds of residents gathered to grieve together and process the national crisis. 

Another test of Anthem’s resolve came in 2008, when the financial and housing crisis hit close to home. As residents, many of whom were members of the church, felt the burden of the economic downturn, some even lost their homes. The Lehmans remember it as a dark time, and the church struggled to find ways to help. But they remained steadfast. It was in those times that the church became the figurative shelter people needed.

Then, the 1,000-year storm in 2012 dropped more than five inches of rain in 90 minutes, devastating Anthem homes and businesses. People needed help, and turned to each other and the faith community. Once again, a dark time led to light being lit in the community, as everyone banded together to rise up. 

Families stick together

The Lehmans invested their time and hearts into the people of Anthem at the same time they were raising their own family. Now parents of four grown children and 14 grandchildren, two of their kids were in high school when they came to Anthem to plant roots. 

“There was no high school yet, so just like all the other teens, ours commuted to Barry Goldwater until Boulder Creek was built,” Janet explained. Two of their four, along with their spouses and children, still call Anthem home; their other two, a doctor in Florida and a missionary in Papua New Guinea, consider it their home away from home. 

“Anthem made a huge difference to our family,” said Janet. “Relationships are paramount, in a home and a community. And everything we did at home and in the church was about deepening those relationships.”

Those relationships got the Lehmans and fellow residents through the ups and downs, and helped shaped the community’s identity. The Lehmans sense the magic returning, the same magic from Anthem’s beginning. 

“Fundamentally, we’re still a small community,” Janet said. “We aren’t North Phoenix. We are, undoubtedly and unmistakably, Anthem.”

Arizona Hills, now under the leadership of Pastor Randy Williams, follows a mantra that they hope permeates the community: “Do for the one what you’d like to do for the many. You can’t do everything for everybody, but start with one thing.”

“We have a responsibility as residents to want the best for our community,” Bob said. “And it’s often that one thing that makes all the difference.”

photo courtesy of Janelle Zeller