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Rising from the ashes

Louisville church rebuilds, renews, retains hope after fire

October 29, 2010

STATESVILLE, N.C.

Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations responding to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s call to "Grow Christ's Church Deep and Wide." The call to grow in evangelism, discipleship, servanthood and diversity was adopted by the 2008 General Assembly and renewed by the 2010 General Assembly. — Jerry L. Van Marter  

In mythology, the great bird the phoenix rises from the ashes after a fire, fully restored.

Portland Avenue Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky., which suffered a devastating fire that destroyed the church building in January 2009, appears poised to become a real-life representation of the myth.

"Somebody laughed and said, 'Are you going to name the new ministry building that’s being worked on right now the Phoenix?'" said the Rev. Willa Fae Williams, pastor of Portland Avenue. "We laugh and say, 'Well that is God at work here and we’re going to see what happens.'"

Portland Avenue is an old congregation, founded in 1855. The church has had its ups and downs, peaking with 350 members and dwindling to as few as 13 in 1997, when Williams arrived.  The church has been on the verge of closing several times. There are now about 85 members, Williams said.

The congregation didn't have a permanent home until 1892, when the church building was constructed on Portland Avenue. That same building sat there from 1892 until Jan. 16, 2009, the day of the fire.

"It was just a little jewel sitting there with 38 stained glass windows and pipe organ and the whole thing," Williams said. We've been homeless in the most literal sense since the fire. Of course we get impatient and we want things to suddenly all come together and we finally laughed and said, 'How many years was the church homeless from 1855 to 1892? Do the arithmetic.  Why are we complaining?'"

‘The church is not a building’

Perhaps the most important thing is the definition Williams and her congregation have of what truly makes a church.

"On the morning that the church was burning …Willa Fae was with a news broadcaster who was asking a question about in the face of this disaster where was she and her response was, 'The church is not a building, the church is the people,'" said Betty Meadows, general presbyter for Mid-Kentucky Presbytery

"She said, 'We will rebuild to serve this community.' I was standing beside her, and it was the most amazing comment. It gave hope to the whole congregation that even though the building is gone, the place where they were baptized and they buried people and taught people, the vision and ministry is not destroyed by far," Meadows said.

Portland Avenue church sits in the neighborhood boasting the highest rates of poverty and illiteracy in Louisville and is the only mainline Protestant church remaining in the neighborhood, Williams said. As such, the needs its serves are tremendous, a fact members of the church knew well.

"I thought it was amazing that morning when the fire occurred, in the pitch black of the night and wee morning hours, one below zero and nine fire trucks around the building, there were people showing up and they were saying to me, 'What are we going to do about the clothes closet and the food pantry?'" Williams said. "They weren't saying, 'What are we going to do for worship on Sunday, they weren’t saying oh poor me, what are we going to do?' They were worried about serving the community."

The food pantry and the clothes closet had been located in the church basement and were destroyed with the building, but arrangements to continue this ministry began almost immediately. The mayor let the church use an old firehouse, and Mid-Kentucky Presbytery among others sent money and clothing to help get operations re-established. The clothes closet and food pantry were re-opened by May 2009.

As for the church, Williams says opportunity came from an unexpected source when it came to worship space. The priest of Our Lady Catholic Church immediately offered use of its building to Williams and her congregation. Several Catholic churches were in the midst of a merger, and Our Lady was hosting mass only on Saturday evenings, freeing their space on Sunday. 

After the merger was completed, Saint Cecilia Catholic Church was closed and the building was deconsecrated. Williams was given the key and told her church had a home as long as they would need it.

A new beginning

Portland Avenue does have a longer-term solution in the works. Originally the congregation intended to rebuild on the same site, although rezoning was necessary because they were planning to rebuild a larger facility than existed before. But instead, Williams was approached by some friends of the church with a new idea. Two doors down, a vacant 1950s vintage Kroger store was becoming a blight on the community.

"The nicest thing you could say about it was it was an eyesore," Williams said.

It was also an opportunity. At 28,000 square feet, it was much larger than the old church building. While the old building housed the church as well as the Portland Avenue Community Trust — the church’s non-profit outreach entity that runs the clothes closet and food pantry ministries — it didn't really accommodate the needs well.

"Actually, the church is going to be much better. The old church was not easy to get into, not easy to get out of, the basement was a disaster, " Meadows said. "Now it's on one story, they're going to have more space. They're going to be able to serve the community better."

Interior demolition on the Kroger building is nearly complete and then renovation will begin.  The plan is for Portland Avenue Community Trust and the outreach ministries to occupy about 10,000 square feet. 

Since the fire, the church has forged relationships with four of five major agencies in the city that will have offices in the building. The church expects to offer a continuum of mental health care through these agencies. The church is also looking at a program for families at risk.

"Lots and lots of outreach ministries will revive and new ones will get started because we'll have space," Williams said.

The remaining 18,000 square feet will house the church itself. Plans are to have the fellowship hall, kitchen, classrooms and church office in this space. Initially members will worship there as well, but in phase two of the project, a new sanctuary will be constructed in front of the Kroger building.

The new building is to be completely green, with sky lights and solar tubes. All of the materials coming out of the demolition are being recycled and will be used in reconstruction as much as possible. Not only is this good for the environment, but it will save on operating expenses in the future. When the renovation is complete, there will be one less eyesore in the neighborhood.

"Kroger had been there well over 50 years, and before that it was an old trolley barn, so the people in Portland haven't seen grass and trees on that land for over a hundred years," Williams said. "When we get through, there’s going to be grass and trees and a place to sit as well as ample parking."

The church still owns the old property, where the bell tower of the old church — the only part of the building to survive — is still standing. Williams says phase three of the project will be to build a small chapel on to the bell tower. In the meantime, the land will host a community garden.

After the fire, no one could have blamed a small church with limited resources in an impoverished neighborhood for giving up under such a burden, but the members of Portland Avenue Presbyterian Church did not consider giving up. 

Nearly everything that has happened since, from a stronger relationship with their Catholic neighbors, to a bigger and better building, to a greener and more environmentally sound neighborhood, has been a positive.

“They are an amazing congregation," Meadows said. "When people stood who had been served by the church and watched it burn and were fearful, the people said even then, 'We will rebuild.' There was not one unclear statement given by members or the pastor. This ministry is not over. It's too powerful."

But what really makes them push forward? Williams has an answer when asked why her congregation is so sure it can rebuild bigger and better than ever.

"They are people of faith and prayer. They just believe they are called to do this work and their concern is the people around them, not themselves," Williams said. "It's about what does God want them to be about in this community. We don't have enough money for squat. We need all the help we can get financially, but you know, God takes care of you."

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