[su_pullquote]”Church never was, nor ever has been about the place, it’s always been about the people.”[/su_pullquote]
The structural engineer shook his head as he looked at the wall of the 92-year-old parish hall at Christ Church, Ironton. “Doesn’t look good,” he stated without emotion. “Probably gonna’ have to come down,” he said as he rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“It’s been this way for years,” we all chorused; as if in assuring him that we didn’t see a real problem might influence his opinion. But up in the rafters, down in the cellar, the ceiling trusses had broken. The wall was six inches out of plumb; it was becoming apparent that demolition was the only safe option.
Our goal of having our parish house used all week was quickly becoming nothing but a dream. The karate school that we’d nurtured for three years, and a cottage cook using our kitchen would have to find new places to rent. (see story about micro-enterprise initiatives at Christ Church, Connections, September 2016.)
Meetings, contractors, bids. Maybe we could wait it out a few more years. The senior warden stepped up to the plate, “As long as I’m senior warden, I don’t want another human being hurt because of our negligence.” The building was coming down.
We were focused on what we wouldn’t have when the building came down – no running water, no bathrooms and no sacristy. No kitchen, no dining room or Sunday school rooms, not to mention office space.
Someone suggested we might look at the “little white house” on the corner half a block up from the church. “Who would want to walk over there, for heaven’s sake?” we grumbled. Running out of options, we decided to rent and see what happened.
On a bright, sunny day in late October 2016, after a long preparation for demolition including asbestos abatement, a bobcat drove through the front doors of the hall, and as the engineer suspected, the building quickly collapsed. A few cell phones snapped pictures, but most of us couldn’t watch. A lot of ministry, education, fun and fellowship had happened in that building.
We put a porta-potty next to the garden and quickly learned how to make do with no sacristy or vesting area. The white house, though small, did have a kitchen and soon we had Wednesday night Bible study and dinner with people spread out all over the first floor.
In the midst of the transition our architect died, and the final demolition plans weren’t available, leaving a room exposed. A local union rep sent a crew over to close up the building, because he simply liked “to help people.” Our porta-potty turned out to be a blessing to those visiting the jail, our next door neighbors. For the first time in nearly a century, the stained glass window over the altar was uncovered and light could stream through.
Little by little we quit counting our losses and began to sense God’s nearness in our sadness.
The Commission on Congregational Life (CoCL) announced the Recasting our Assests Program; we were intrigued but thought the timing was terrible. More focus on what we lacked – we’re small, our clergy is part-time, how could we take on one more thing? But we signed up.
Our team wasn’t sure what we’d gotten into, yet little by little we saw that we were being offered tools and methods and practices that would help our parish flourish. We also realized that very little was said in the program about the church being its facilities. Maybe not having extra square feet to maintain and heat and cool was another small blessing.
After a tumultuous year with ups and downs, sadness, false starts, setbacks and lots of moments of grace, Christ Church is finding new ministry possibilities.
We plan to rebuild and without one request for money, we have over $100,000 in the building fund. But any new building won’t be just for us, the building will be a tool for the ministry that we discern God is calling us to in our old, downtown neighborhood.
As one longtime member said, “I have reached a new understanding – church never was, nor ever has been about the place, it’s always been about the people.”
One rainy day, a member texted me a picture. She said if we ever had a doubt that God was with us, we received a sign.
And so the cross of Christ leads us into new places, and we trust the promises that all things will be made new.
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The Rev. Sallie Schisler serves as Priest in charge at Christ Church, Ironton.