Written by Peter Fitch in 2000
When we started our church outside of St. Stephen, New Brunswick in 1992 we didn’t think that we would ever want to have a building of our own. But we did hope that we’d be able to find a good place to rent somewhere in the town itself. We fasted and prayed about it, and four short (it seemed anything but short!) years later a new principal allowed us to use the elementary school gym. It was perfect except for the acoustics, and the fact that we could only have it once a week. Later, in response to a worship leader’s dream, we took a risk on an older building that was being modernized downtown, and we were able to set-up offices and a meeting place in a somewhat classier environment. But it wasn’t perfect either. In every temperature it was “too” something, the ceiling was so low that leprechauns would have been restricted in worship and, worst of all, we met above a pub and no one could concentrate on ministry time when they started grilling steaks downstairs. When we got a chance to move again, we did (fortunately, it was the week before, not after, the owners went bankrupt and everything was locked inside by order of the Sheriff’s Department).
Our new landlord was the local Roman Catholic church. They had an old school that they were using as a parish center and a new priest was willing to let us use it if we could work around their catechism classes. It wasn’t always easy to do that, but the place was larger than our last home and as time went on we felt quite comfortable there. We didn’t think of it as a permanent stop, but we were glad to not have to think about looking for awhile.
In the spring of 1999 my Dad died. That took all of my attention for a month or so. It was a hard one for me because although he did noticeably soften his position over the years, my Dad didn’t have the kind of conversion that I longed for him to have. I had to do the memorial service (he had asked me years before) and my greatest fear was that God wouldn’t show up, leaving me to deal with all of the strong personalities in my family with my own limited resources and strength. I walked a lot around my parents’ home on Salt Spring Island, BC during the days before the service. I sat in mountain meadows or by the water and thought and prayed. Finally something broke in me and I realized that it was God who told us to honour our father and mother. So I knew He would come. And when it was time He did. His presence was so strong that people said things like, “I don’t believe in God and I felt Him during this service.” Somehow this happened without me stopping to explain anything about Him. There were no psalms or songs. There was just the gift of my heavenly Abba showing up to help me honour my earthly Dad.
About two weeks after I returned to New Brunswick from Salt Spring Island, three things happened all at once. We got a letter from the Catholic church saying that they had decided to sell or close our building–we could have six months more in it at the most. And Donny Olmstead, a man from our congregation, came to me and told me that he had found a family in our area who lived in a tar paper shack that was starting to fall-in. He had spent the last month trying to figure out how to raise funds to build them a proper home. Now he wanted to know if the church was able to help.
The third thing was quite special. One of our senior intercessors, Wanda Brown, had seen a video about Israel. Conscious of the fact that my Dad was Jewish, she was struck by the men wearing their prayer shawls, and she decided that she had to get me one for Christmas. So, on a plane heading to Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship for a conference last spring she had said to God, “Father, where am I going to find a prayer shawl for Peter?” On the second day of the conference, surrounded by about 4,000 strangers, the man beside her leaned over and asked, “Do you have a prayer shawl?” She responded with some enthusiasm that she would like to know where to find one, so the man told her about a couple of stores that sold them in Toronto. This meant nothing to her because she didn’t have a car or any extra money.
About an hour later he leaned over to her and said, “Just give me your address–I’ll send you one.” It arrived about the time we were hearing about our congregational homelessness and the family that needed a home outside of town. She couldn’t wait until Christmas so she brought it right over, and we all marveled at the story. The man she had been sitting beside was the CEO of a company in Pennsylvania that imports prayer shawls from Israel. The cheapest ones were more than $50 US, and he had simply given it to her. And it was so beautiful. Along with it came an explanation that the prayer shawls were like “little tents” so that each man could have his own place of prayer, even when he wasn’t in the large tent of meeting where God met with Israel as they traveled through the wilderness.
God’s direction seemed clear through all of this. We decided that the three events in the same week meant that we were to focus first on the needs of the homeless family (we didn’t really know anything about them–as time went on we found that there was an older husband and wife with a disabled son, and that the husband was very sick). After that, when it was time and we needed a new place, we felt that God would give us a place to meet in to pray in the same simple way that He had given Wanda the prayer shawl.
That’s what happened. We had meant to take a building offering for ourselves in the spring, but instead we took a building offering for the house. Also, some of us painted it and one day about 40 of us of all ages did the landscaping. And lots of other groups and people helped with various parts of the project, too. The house is beautiful. The father lived in it for only one week before he died but he was overwhelmed with joy that his family was going to be cared for in this safe place. I drove by the house soon after his death, only three weeks after we had planted grass in ground that seemed as dry as desert. To my astonishment there was a rich, green lawn perfectly placed around the house. For me this has become an image of the promise of God’s life in the midst of hard things.
Then it was time to focus on our need. Over the years we had only saved $11,000 in our building fund. It didn’t seem like much. We wondered about trying to buy the building we were in, but the Catholic church was asking $225,000. Besides, we were already filling the downstairs hall that we met in for services, and none of us particularly liked the building anyway–it was an old, nondescript school with about thirteen horrible paint jobs all blended together.
The price dropped to $200,000. By part way through the summer it fell to $175,000. It was on a camping trip with our two families that our associate Carol Thiessen showed us how to see the building with new eyes. The upstairs, full of classrooms, could be remade into a sanctuary that could seat more than 400. That would give us room to grow, and we could make it as nice as we wanted. We already knew that the structure was sound. The property included adequate parking, lawns for picnics after services, and two small playground areas. We decided to go for it. Mustering together all of our faith, we offered $115,000. I know this sounds like a ridiculously small amount, but ever since the beginning we’ve loved having the freedom to give money away, and we’ve always been sure that we didn’t want to place so much emphasis on buildings that our giving would be constricted. And, of course, the bank insisted on at least 25% down on a commercial purchase. We didn’t think we had enough in hand to be able to offer more.
The Catholic church countered with $165,000. We offered $125,000 with creative financing, but they just weren’t interested. Then someone else offered $130,000 and they agreed. Our dream was gone. We were well into the fall by this point and everyday we wondered where we would find a home. The elementary school said we could return, but that felt like going backwards. We bid on another building that showed promise but someone else offered a lot more. We were stumped.
Still, there had been some encouragement. Our church was growing and we were bringing in more money than our budget required. That seemed good. And suddenly one of our folks came to us and explained that a family property had been sold and that a tithe of one portion was coming to the church–$15,000. The timing was great. When the news came that the new buyers for our building had been unsuccessful in raising their financing we were ready to match their offer of $130,000, and the building was ours.
In the early summer when we had taken the offering for the house instead of the church, a strong down payment had seemed unattainable. We had hoped that we would be able to add a little to the $11,000 we had, but we didn’t expect too much more. In October, when we got a second chance on the building, we realized that with the budget surplus and the promised gift of $15,000 we had more than $35,000 to offer as a down payment. And this was before we had even taken a building offering. When we did take a special offering we ended-up with enough money for all the legal fees and purchase costs, as well as for the first several fix-up projects.
Best of all, better even than finally having a building to call our own, was the sense that the whole thing was a gift of love from our God. The sale of the property that provided the only large gift (the $15,000) that our church has ever received seemed to point to that. First of all, the sale had nothing to do with our need–it was totally unrelated. Secondly, we heard that the money was coming just in time to make our final offer when the building was put back on the market. And third, after the money had gone through all of its own legal hoops it landed in a bank in St. Stephen, just one week before our closing date of December 30, 1999. The whole process seems governed by God’s providence from start to finish. Now we’re praying that He’ll help us to use the building well.