The elders at Oberlin’s Christian and Missionary Alliance Church spent nearly 20 years saving, planning and praying for a chance to fulfill a long-elusive dream: to build a new house of worship.
For 80 years the old standby — a box-shaped building on South Pleasant Street — had served its purpose, but it could no longer accommodate the congregation’s needs. The front steps were so steep it was almost impossible for six grown men to carry a casket there with the dignity the dead deserved.
Whether it was birth, marriage, parenthood or death, God and his congregation here, the parishioners believed, deserved better.
The wait is over.
On Sunday, when the congregation sat for Pastor Lester Allen’s sermon, it was in a new church in a serene place tucked away from the machinations of modern-day life.
It was the very church they’d dreamed of all those years.
The quest for a new home had proved to be a tough one. Years passed, and even when financial goals seemed within reach, the bar would get raised: The price for a new sanctuary just kept going up.
“It was beyond our means,” Allen said. “Our funds were exhausted.”
Yet, the congregation pushed onward.
They had a divine game plan — perseverance and prayer — and the small 50-member congregation leaned into the effort and on one another.
Then last spring, in a bit of immaculate timing, the little congregation finally got its church — and it’s beyond everyone’s wildest prayers.
When Allen first saw the new temple two years ago, it was at a low point in the congregation’s efforts — they’d taken a brief hiatus in their search out of frustration. One day, he was headed to a New Russia Township office on Butternut Ridge Road to buy a trip ticket to the dump.
When he stepped from his car, Allen saw a beautiful, empty building — and the church bells began to ring in his mind.
“I’m thinking this would be a nice building for a church. I wonder if it’s for sale?” he said, recalling the moment.
Before him stood the three-story structure set in a field of trees and grass, a pond on its western flank. An elevated wooden deck ran the length of the 5,000-square-foot building. It was built in 1991 as a private home and sits a quarter-mile off the road. The property includes 66 acres of pastoral open space. The only thing missing was a manger.
Inside, the building has been converted for use as a government facility, complete with a formal lobby entrance, wheelchair accessibility, illuminated exit signs and five bathrooms.
The most important room in the house, the sanctuary where Sunday services are now held, is a converted indoor pool with skylights that allow in natural light.
And with a dozen rooms and a full attic, there is ample space for offices, classrooms, meeting rooms and a memorial library dedicated to church founders. Another room has been converted into a pantry, and clothing stored in the attic will be provided to struggling church members and others in the community.
There are vaulted ceilings in some rooms and windows that allow natural light to pour in — even on the grayest of winter days.
Allen rushed to the township headquarters to find out if the building was for sale. It was. The asking price: $800,000. Township officials rejected a proposal from Allen to purchase the building and a portion of the land, and the church found itself back at square one.
This April, following a particularly invigorating morning prayer session, Allen walked out with renewed fervor to “give it one more try” with township officials.
He did. The building still was available, and the new asking price was $625,000.
So the church made the deal. The township’s Board of Directors approved the sale in August. It closed a month later, according to property records in the Lorain County Auditor’s Office.
To finance its new church, the congregation used land they already owned, savings and a bank loan backed by funds they expect to receive from the future sale of the old church.
The deal worked for both sides — the congregation and the township.
The building, while beautiful and efficient, was a difficult sell in Lorain County’s residential real estate market. There just isn’t much demand for a 5,000-square-foot country mansion with more than a dozen rooms, an enclosed pool and an elevator in the kitchen. As a retail or commercial facility, it can’t be seen from the roadway.
But for the 113-year-old congregation, it fit like an old shoe.
Just ask Jeff Miller.
“I was stunned when I came out here and learned that they were able to do this,” said Miller, Christian and Missionary Alliance’s district director, who oversees 90 churches in Ohio and West Virginia. Founded in 1905, it is one of the oldest African-American congregations in an organization of more than 2,000 churches across the nation.
“I work with churches all the time and I see all kinds of options and opportunities that can sometimes put churches in financial hardship, but this is a perfect fit,” he said. “I don’t think I could have scripted it any better myself.”
Miller plans to attend the church’s Dec. 23 service, he said.
For some in the congregation, the transition to a new church is a comfort. They now know that family traditions will be carried on.
Lynda Hicks has been a member of the congregation since she was 5 and remembers when it consisted of “a couple dozen families, if that many.”
“It’s very emotional for me and my grandkids, my whole family,” said the church’s 71-year-old office manager. Her husband, Marty, is the church’s handyman and other family members pitch in. “We’ve gone to dedications, funerals, weddings, everything that was held there.
“But the Lord is moving us on. He has bigger plans than we have for ourselves.”
Apparently so, and it started with finding a way to provide a new church when all other paths seemed blocked.
After a long, winding journey that spanned nearly two decades, the congregation at Oberlin’s Christian and Missionary Alliance Church finally found their new house of worship.
Their prayers were answered.