Editor’s note: This is the 17th 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
QUEENS, N.Y. — Pastor Don Olinger of the Presbyterian Church of Astoria in Queens wears his favorite baseball cap religiously these days.
A friend found it at a garage sale and thought it would be perfect for Olinger when he saw these words: “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”
For Olinger, who is legally blind and uses a cane to get around, it is a sacred reminder of what he has experienced.
“All things work together for good for those who love God,” he said, quoting Romans 8:28. There’s a sense of wonder in his voice even though the congregation he serves was down to 25 members at one point.
The Presbyterian Church of Astoria, where Olinger has been a pastor for 15 years, is about to be demolished. All of the stained glass windows on the gray stone building have been removed. The gas has been turned off. Temporary windows keep the building secure as the congregation waits for the month-long demolition process to begin.
In existence since 1846, the church began construction in this place and space in 1922. Nearly a century later, building maintenance expenses were getting to be too much for the church. The building needed updated wiring and new heating and plumbing systems, and the church was trying to cope with rising utility costs.
In 2002, the church’s session empowered Olinger to begin to explore options for the future.
“All of this started off simply with the idea, ‘What should we do?’” Olinger said. “To save the building would’ve cost us anywhere from $1 to 3 million. Our session said, ‘Pastor, go find out what we should do.”
Olinger began talking with a city council representative and community board, asking them what they would like to see happen to the church. Out of those conversations Olinger went back to the church seeking permission to put together a feasibility study to determine if it might be possible to do some sort of affordable housing on part of or all of the property.
The congregation’s response was clear.
“They didn’t want to lose this place,” Olinger said. “They wanted to serve the community here.”
But at the time, lucrative New York commercial real estate developers kept saying it wasn’t worth their while to develop part of the property.
“They wanted all of our space,” Olinger said. “They wanted us to take the money and get out of the way.”
That’s when Olinger found a “crazy zoning law” that said the church could build a larger facility if it was a “senior domiciliary.”
Even the zoning board wasn’t quite sure what that meant. But research that went back to the 1920s and ’30s told a story of what life was like for senior citizens during those boom and bust years. Before Social Security, there were a lot of indigent seniors with no pensions and no way to support themselves.
Once Olinger understood that this “crazy law” written during the Great Depression could’ve just as easily have been written for today — senior domiciliary is the 1920s phrase for senior affordable housing — he had a moment of understanding.
Olinger remembered what the community planning board had told him in that initial exploratory meeting — that affordable housing for seniors is what the neighborhood and New York City need most because it took most seniors three years to find affordable housing.
Olinger found out the Hellenic American Neighborhood Action Corporation (HANAC) was interested in partnering with a developer that might have interest in affordable housing for seniors. Then out of the blue, the Enterprise Foundation called. The non-profit organization creates opportunities for “low- and moderate-income people through fit, affordable housing and diverse, thriving communities,” according to its Web site.
“‘Don, if you’re still looking to develop your property, we have a group here that is interested in doing an affordable housing for seniors,’” the foundation told Olinger. “God just steered everything in this direction. There were all these serendipitous moments during the time of discovery of that crazy law.”
Olinger could literally see that God’s spirit had been at work through the history of time and space from one economic boom and bust time to another. He had a sense that all things in the church’s time and space were connected, as if he was discovering the future by re-engaging the church’s past.
He went back to the congregation and to the Presbytery of New York City and said, “Listen, we have a sanctuary that seats 500 people and there are only about 50 of us. This isn’t good stewardship. God has put us here for a reason.”
Different points of view
But conflict had broken out in the congregation. Church leadership was very interested in pursuing affordable housing for seniors, but anonymous letters attacking Olinger began to appear and were sent on to the presbytery. Nothing ever came of the attackers’ charges — they were all dismissed by a Presbytery Judiciary Council.
“Presbyteries are overwhelmed by all these churches that just want to survive,” Olinger said. “But Jesus said ‘Those who want to save their life will lose it, those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel will save it’ (Mark 8:35). The majority of us decided we would take that quite literally.”
The decision to replace the church with housing for senior adults though was difficult for the congregation. The final vote was 17-13 in favor of building 94 apartments for 100 seniors.
Community board members believe more than 4,000 people will apply to live here once the two-year project is complete.
There was “creative tension” within the congregation and presbytery as this senior affordable housing project was put together, said the Rev. Arabella Meadows-Rogers, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of New York City.
“It is a remarkable story,” she said. “There were real small congregations with very big economic possibilities. They are usually larger than any one church can fathom or manage. The scope, the breadth, the depth, the mammoth of possibilities makes them afraid.”
The church’s engagement in its community reflects the 218th General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide,” focusing on the four areas of evangelism, discipleship, servanthood and diversity.
Developers were ringing doorbells saying, “I want your building. I’ll give you $40 million for it,” said Meadows-Rogers. The current economic crisis “has been very helpful for all of us. It was very easy in that climate for churches and presbyteries to see gold. Astoria kept its mission at the front. It’s not always easy to do,” she said.
While the presbytery tries to partner with its small churches, Meadows-Rogers said that “inevitably it is the tenacity of the small church and its pastor, its faithfulness and sense of hope that keeps things moving and gets them done.”
‘Defining what we’re about’
The Presbyterian Church of Astoria is being paid $4.25 million for its property. Part of this expense is being paid for out of HUD tax credit. In 15 years, the deed for the property reverts back to the church. At that point, the housing project will in all likelihood be managed by HANAC.
In 40 years, the church will have control of 94 units of housing that can be used for anyone; the HUD enforcement mortgage that demands it be used for senior housing will be done.
Once the project is built, the church will have a 5,000-square-foot condominium in the senior affordable housing project that will be used for office space and worship. It will cost the church about $1.5 million to create and outfit this multi-purpose space that will become the sanctuary.
“All churches don’t have to go this model, but I believe we have to be good stewards,” Olinger said. “Zoning and community defined the best mission for our church.”
The congregation at The Presbyterian Church of Astoria is gradually beginning to move forward. Half of their members left because of the conflict. But already the church is back up to 40 people on Sunday mornings. Worshippers who come from their neighborhood are from seven different countries: Ghana, Trinidad, Philippines, Japan, Indian, Portugal and Italy. That diversity doesn’t surprise Olinger because the neighborhood has always served immigrants.
The congregation is worshipping in what was an old doctor’s office and then a non-profit organization near the site where their church will be demolished. Computer equipment was left behind, and the church is trying to resurrect the equipment so that it can offer computer skills lessons to help members get better jobs.
“God is providing us with guidance and resources,” Olinger said. “Through all of what has happened for this church — in the conflict, in everything — as a result, we are defining what we’re about, and who we’re going to be.”
Recently, a young woman the church hadn’t seen in more than a year came to worship. She went over to talk to Olinger, saying that she was sorry to be late but that she had gone over to the other building.
“Why is it all boarded up?” she wanted to know, with tears in her eyes. Olinger told her that it was being demolished so that 94 units of affordable housing for 100 seniors could be built.
Now the woman began to cry. “At that point I told her, ‘Look, we’re all going to miss the building.’’’ Olinger barely got the words out because the woman was interrupting him. “That’s not why I’m crying,” she said. “I’m crying because at last a church is doing it right. You’re serving the community. You’re getting it right.”