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One church’s ‘crazy idea’ allows another to be reborn

California congregation reaches out to one in New Orleans

April 14, 2009

A house being renovated.

Houses like this are being rebuilt in New Orleans because of Grace First Presbyterian Church’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.”

STATESVILLE, N.C.

Editor’s note: This is the twelfth in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” ― Jerry L. Van Marter

STATESVILLE, NC ― It started out as a “crazy idea.” Or at least that’s what Pastor Steve Wirth of Grace First Presbyterian Church in Long Beach, CA, thought it might be. Three years later, that crazy idea — to give away $1 million to help rebuild Gulf Coast Presbyterian churches devastated by Hurricane Katrina — has grown into a story of hope and renewal for another congregation 2,000 miles away. 

Grace First is the product of a merger between two congregations and already had $1.2 million from the sale of some buildings one congregation no longer needed. Members of the other congregation then embarked on a capital campaign to match that amount, some of which would be used for improvements to the sanctuary and fellowship hall.

But what to do with the rest of the money the church planned to raise? While on a retreat, staffers examined their ministry and felt weak in getting outside of their comfort zone. Mission work was the perfect answer to the problem, and thanks to Katrina, the need was obvious. 

While the idea made sense to Wirth, he wasn’t sure what kind of reception it would get from others.  His first call was to church member and Elder Bill Saul. 

“I said to him, ‘Are you sitting down? Because I’ve got a really crazy idea. How about we give away a million dollars?’” Wirth said.

Saul’s silence after he laid out his idea at first made Wirth think his plan was indeed crazy. But Saul’s eventual response — “I’ve never been prouder to be a member of this church” — affirmed for Wirth that this was the path Grace First needed to take.

The idea was presented to the Session and approved enthusiastically before it was put before the congregation at large. Again, Wirth wasn’t sure what sort of response to expect, but he never anticipated what did happen when he finished his announcement: applause.

“I’ve never been applauded for asking for money before,” he said.

The enthusiasm didn’t end that day. Grace First raised the money within three months, with everyone digging deep. Wirth said that the 700-member congregation isn’t a particularly wealthy one. The donations came not only from those with plenty, but from retirement funds, a pastor’s widow and a struggling single mother.

Still the idea grew further. Grace First didn’t just want to send a check; members wanted to be truly involved in recovery efforts. The church formed a committee and began contacting presbyteries in the Gulf to identify specific congregations in need. The Presbytery of South Louisiana, in a state of disarray and lacking the resources needed to help their congregations, put them in touch with Berean Presbyterian Church in New Orleans.

An African-American congregation just off the Ninth Ward, Berean had been hit particularly hard by Katrina and faced a battle just to survive. Only 20-25 members remained after the hurricane. The rest were forced to leave after the destruction of their homes and neighborhoods, with serious questions over whether they would ever be able to return. 

Wirth knew this small church was vital to the neighborhood. 

“They’re small, but they are heavily involved in the community, with members running a community center across the street,” he said. “This church is totally integrated into its community and it’s very much needed, even by non-members.”

Grace First agreed to partner with Berean in January 2006 and set out to determine the church’s needs and how to best address them. Because many members had left, Berean was short on financial resources as well as the manpower to do recovery work.

By April, Grace First had raised the $1 million and began sending the first work crews to New Orleans. Groups of youth and adult volunteers have since been there about 20 times. 

The first necessity was finding temporary housing for residents who wanted to return to the neighborhood but had lost their homes. An area was set up on church property to hold 8-10 FEMA trailers, and volunteers erected fencing, lights and laundry facilities. They also helped fix the roof of the church.

The next need was to give Berean some sort of steady income so the church could support itself financially again. The church owned an apartment building it had bought to help clear drugs out of the neighborhood, but it was rendered unlivable by the storm. When it was determined that the building could be repaired, Grace First helped Berean to redesign rebuild. That work will soon be completed, and once the apartments are rented, Berean will again have a steady source of income.

“It was a building of studio apartments, but we’ve gutted and remodeled it into one or two bedroom apartments instead,” Wirth said. “There are fewer apartments, but they will be better than they were before.”

That left just one need remaining — Berean’s former pastor had evacuated after the hurricane and the church needed a new one. Berean could only afford to pay a pastor for part-time work, presenting a challenge to the search, but the community center run by members of the church also needed a director and could also only afford part time. The answer was to combine the two part-time positions into one full-time job.

Grace First helped in the search and found an ideal candidate for the job. Matthew George is a newly ordained, second-career minister who formerly worked as a social worker.

With this one last addition, Wirth believes Grace First’s work is complete. Berean should now have everything it needs to survive and finish the work of rebuilding its community.

The contributions from Grace First are inspiring and show its fellow members of Los Ranchos Presbytery what is possible.

“I’d love to say we had a hand in this, but the credit goes totally to Grace First,” said Steve Yamaguchi, executive presbyter of the presbytery. “Grace First is a leader among us. They may not be our biggest church in terms of membership, but they lead the way in inspiring us.”  

Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, NC, where she is also church secretary for First Presbyterian Church.

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