In the midst of winter in 2004, Rev. Jon Taylor and his wife Allie moved from South Carolina to New Hampshire to plant a church. This article by Allie focuses on one of the challenges they faced (there are many more they can recount!) – finding a home for their church. We present it to you for your encouragement as every church – particular or mission – faces challenges that call us to believe what may seem unlikely or even impossible.
Church planting wasn’t my idea. Truthfully, it wasn’t even on my radar. This was ultimately God’s idea, and my husband Jon caught wind of it in 2001 when he was infected with what I call the “church planting bug”.
Church of the Redeemer PCA in Manchester, NH, was born out of Covenant Presbyterian PCA in Easley, SC. Our mother church is a graciously reformed and generous church, where my husband Jon and I experienced a grace community for the first time in our lives. Jon served as the worship and music pastor at Covenant for ten years. We were loved, ministered to, and grown in our faith before being sent on to church plant in New England.
We’ve experienced both exciting and harrowing adventures on this church planting journey. Some chapters are inspiring. Some sound so far-fetched you might not even believe me. And others are so poignant I well up with tears, remembering. We’ve personally seen God’s power unleashed and experienced incredible answers to prayer. We’ve also experienced life threatening illness and injuries, financial hardship, internal division and conflict within the leadership of the church, false accusations, cruelty, and even threats of physical harm against our family. “I will build My church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” That’s what Jesus said. All along this church planting journey, God has protected and loved this church and our family through a faithful remnant of supportive and praying believers and friends here in Manchester and sprinkled around the country. This church would not be here without them.
Our family arrived in Manchester in January of 2004. We had just one friend here -my high school girlfriend, Julie. Gathering a core group on the soccer fields and streets of Manchester was overwhelming, but by God’s grace we started Sunday evening worship in April of 2005. The biggest challenge to starting worship was finding a location in which to meet. Most businesses in Manchester didn’t want to be associated with a religious institution, or they weren’t properly zoned. The public schools were definitely out of our league financially as they were priced by the room and required expensive mandatory custodian services. After unsuccessfully scouring the city for weeks to find a suitable space to rent, God in His perfect timing provided a recital hall in a building that housed both Mount Saint Mary Academy (a private catholic elementary school) and Manchester Community Music School. Little did we know that this was just the beginning of our nomadic journey.
We met at the school for six months . . . until a residential neighbor, complained to the city about traffic in the parking lot on Sundays. (We had about ten cars in a parking lot that held thirty.) The city zoning board informed us we would need a variance to continue meeting in the school, and the application process would take about six months. We were evicted, effective immediately, by the zoning board chair. That was on Wednesday.
By Sunday morning, Church of the Redeemer had a new home, the Best Western Hotel. We met there for about a year. It was nice to have the biggest “church building” in town. It was also nice to be the only church in town boasting both a pool and an elevator. But it was while meeting in the hotel that we discovered how important the building itself is to people in our New England cities, and Manchester was no exception. Our city is 78% catholic, and Manchester residents are proud of their gorgeous, historic cathedrals. We’d invite folks to come to church, but when they discovered our hotel location, interest waned quickly. The church building itself was more important than we’d ever imagined.
The hotel rent proved too much for our church budget, and in by November of 2007, we were down to $50 in the church checking account. One of Jon’s local pastor friends heard of our financial plight, and kindly offered us cheap rent for their basement chapel in the historic First Baptist church downtown. We jumped at the chance. But the basement chapel was dark and dingy, with ancient mustard yellow carpet. The “nursery” was moldy and severely outdated. The hot water pipes that heated the enormous upstairs sanctuary ran through the middle of the chapel. We sweltered more in the winter than in the summer. Sometimes it was over 90 degrees. The chapel was small, and we soon outgrew it.
Our next church move in February of 2009 brought us to leased space on the third floor of an office building in the inner city. It was light and airy, with big picture windows showcasing the beautiful view of the city skyline. It was especially pretty in October with the brilliant leaves.
Our new location was unusual in that the Islamic Society of Greater Manchester was on the basement floor, and the Obama reelection campaign headquarters for NH was on the first floor. God allowed us numerous opportunities to reach out to both of our downstairs neighbors and cultivate lasting relationships. We hosted a dinner and discussion on “The Motivation for Mercy” for the Muslims. Our women’s ministry later invited the Muslim ladies to a tea where the gospel was shared.
There were also challenges with this location. It was in a tough inner city neighborhood and the building entrance was hard to find. There was insufficient parking, especially on Fridays, the Muslims’ worship day. The elevator in the building made people nervous – it stopped and started at will. The landlord, a state representative, refused to remove a huge political sign he’d hung that flapped noisily on the exterior of our 3rd floor immovable picture windows, a constant distraction, especially during sermons and communion. And the 2,500 square foot office space was divided awkwardly, with long narrow hallways, many doors, and little room for growth. We worshipped in this space for three and a half years.
In the fall of 2011, while the church was meeting in the office space above the Islamic Center, an anonymous donation of $40,000 arrived earmarked to start a building fund for Church of the Redeemer. We were overjoyed.
Also in the fall of 2011 that the women’s Friday morning Bible study was doing Henry Blackaby’s “Experiencing God” study, the premise of which is “Watch to see where God is already working, and join Him there.” So our Bible study women were very busy, eyes wide open to see where God was already working, because we wanted to join Him.
The story I’m going to tell you now is a true story, and it’s a God story.
One frosty day in mid-December of 2011 my family received a Christmas card from friends. The cover of the card depicted a typical little white-steepled New England church glittering in a snow bank. But something bright caught my eye . . . planted in front, sticking out of the snow drift was a little red sign . . . a tiny little red sign with just two words . . . “FOR SALE”.
Honestly, I thought it was an odd Christmas card. I mean, what kind of a Christmas card has a church on the front with a for sale sign? I opened the card, and read the sentiments inside. “Perhaps the coming year will bring Church of the Redeemer a new home. And Merry Christmas! Love Bec, Scott and Calvin.” I teared up immediately and felt a lump in my throat. I couldn’t even fathom us having our own building. (We’d closely watched the real estate market in Manchester for years and there was never anything on the market that we could remotely afford. Most buildings in Manchester either need multiple expensive upgrades to meet code, like a new slate roof, or a new heating system . . . or they have no parking, or the heating costs are astronomical . . . ) A church building was just a far away dream. I tucked that Christmas card in our card holder and forgot about it.
Several weeks later our family hosted a Christmas open house. It was December 23rd. My seeker friend Tracy pulled me aside. “I know we don’t usually exchange Christmas gifts”, she said, “but I have a little something for you. I was at Barnes and Noble the other day. The store was packed, and I was standing in a long check-out line. I was looking around while waiting and something caught my eye on a distant table. I don’t know if it was God or what, but I distinctly heard a voice in my head that said, ‘You need to buy that for Allie Taylor for Christmas.’ So I asked the man in front of me to save my place in line, and went right over and got it. And what I got is in this bag.” She handed a gift bag to me . . . I was intrigued, and opened it. Inside was a wooden cut-out sign of the word “Believe” . . . I was a little curious, wondering why Tracy was supposed to give me this sign. I thought, “I DO believe!” But of course . . . I used my manners and said, “Thank you” . . . and then said . . . “Maybe this is for both of us!” I put the sign on top of our living room armoire and it cheerfully saw us through the Christmas season.
Interestingly, on the same night Tracy gave me the believe sign, I received another gift from a dear friend – a Barnes and Noble gift card. So after Christmas I went to Barnes and Noble to hit the Christmas clearance rack, shopping for NEXT Christmas. (Because you never can shop too early!) I found a few boxed Christmas cards 50% off and got in the check-out line with my bargains.
To my right was a magnetic wall covered with hundreds of magnets. And my eyes immediately fell to just one. This is what it said. “There is no use trying,” said Alice . “One can’t believe impossible things.” (My ears immediately pricked up. Because MY birth name is Alice.) I continued reading. “I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” It was a quote from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”. I had no doubt the magnet was for me, and bought it.
It was a Monday morning in January of 2012, and Jon’s day off. When I got home, I walked in the kitchen and showed him my new magnet. “There’s something I’m supposed to be believing”, I said, “but I don’t know what it is yet.” I put the magnet on the refrigerator and read it whenever I passed by.
About a week later my friend Sandi from church called. “You’re not going to believe this”, she said, “ but there’s a gorgeous church property that just came on the market, an 8,000 square foot Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall in perfect condition on South Mammoth Road . . . but it’s almost half a million dollars.“ It took me several days to connect the dots of these seemingly random events. But then it dawned on me, that “this was the chance of a lifetime.” And in Mark 9:23 Jesus said, “All things are possible to him that believes.”
We started thinking seriously about this church building. Our session approved a motion to pursue the building. That same night, I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning composing the draft of a fundraising letter. I was absolutely compelled to write, and knew it was the Holy Spirit. The letter began with Acts 16:9, “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” I was teary and emotional. Would God really do this miracle? Would His people across the country catch the vision and help us? The first draft went to our church planting supporter list of about 125. A couple weeks later a subsequent fundraising letter went out to all 1,800 PCA churches across the U.S. The members of Church of the Redeemer prayed and begged God for this building, for the sake of His kingdom in Manchester and beyond.
By now it was mid-February of 2012. Money had started slowly trickling in from around the country. It came in donations as small as 25 cents from a 10th grader in Jon’s high school Bible class, and as large as a second anonymous donation of $50,000. In all, almost $200,000 arrived from generous donors in thirty states and two foreign countries. With a bank loan and an interest-free loan from our mission agency, we could see the possibility of purchasing this property. On March 25th our congregation unanimously voted to make a faith offer of $450,000, the asking price for the building. We were ecstatic that the building might soon be ours.
But later that week we discovered two other offers had also been made on the building — a low offer that was rejected, and a cash offer, lower than ours, by a non-profit organization named Caregivers that provides in home care services to the elderly. Caregivers’ offer was accepted. We were devastated. Crushed. A newspaper article titled “Jehovah’s Witnesses to sell property to Caregivers” surfaced in the paper a few days later, detailing the sale. I remember trying to sleep that night, crying and praying. “God, I believed. This city is full of churches that don’t preach Your gospel. They have gorgeous church buildings. There are at least 20 empty medical buildings for sale in this city that Caregivers could buy. Will you not provide for your own? If You will do this, I promise I will give You all the glory and tell Your story at every opportunity!”
Several weeks later, after doing a little snooping, we discovered there was a contingency on the sale of the property. The contingency was that the property was zoned for church use only, and Caregivers would need to apply for a variance. The next zoning board meeting was on May 11th.
Meanwhile behind the scenes, an anonymous donor offered to provide Church of the Redeemer a bridge loan, allowing us to make a legal backup cash offer in case the variance was rejected by the city zoning board, which we did. But everyone in local city government predicted that Caregivers would be granted the variance without a hitch.
For the next several months we quietly prayed and waited for that zoning board meeting. Everywhere I went in my car, I cranked Rich Mullins’ song “Awesome God” on the CD player and sang along at the top of my lungs, hitting replay dozens of times…tears trickling. I believed. And I told the believe story to everyone I knew in Manchester…my friends, my family, my pharmacist, my hairdresser, the librarians, my knitting group Ravelry, my son Hudson’s physical therapists . . . and on and on. I told them it wasn’t just my BELIEF that could bring about this miracle, but the One in WHOM I believed.
On the evening of May 11th, rather than attend the zoning board meeting, we elected to have a prayer meeting at our office space over the Islamic Society instead. Later that night I was busy frosting gumball machine cupcakes for my son Charlie’s 6th birthday. I was covered in frosting. The phone rang. It was Monica, a lady who comes to our women’s Bible study, but attends a mainline church in town. Monica had apparently overheard several of us talking about the time and date of the zoning board meeting, and had taken it upon herself to attend. She was leaving a message on my answering machine. “Hello Allie! It’s Monica. I have good news! Caregivers has been voted down by the zoning board five to nothing. They won’t grant them the variance. You shall have your building!” I grabbed the phone, frosting and all, struggling to see through the veil of tears.
And that city zoning board meeting was chaired by, guess who???? None other than the city zoning board member who originally evicted us from our first worship location at the school in 2005! Seven years later, our antagonist had become our advocate. The zoning board voted unanimously that night to keep the property zoned for church use. “In the spirit of Manchester, we want to keep Manchester’s church buildings as church buildings,” they said. We’d never heard of that spirit of Manchester before. This same zoning board had voted just last year to convert a Manchester catholic church into condos. But we didn’t ask any questions!
We had a few more bumps in the road. Caregivers hired a lawyer to challenge the zoning board’s decision as negligent, but the challenge was dropped in June for insufficient evidence. Then the Jehovah’s Witnesses took the building off the market. But after a week of stressful communication back and forth between realtors, they finally accepted our full price cash offer. The rest is history. We moved into our new home on July 28th of 2012, just a week and a half after my 40th birthday. It was the best belated birthday present I’ve ever received.
In Manchester, we call this the BELIEVE story. And while God doesn’t always choose to give mystical signs like Christmas cards and the BELIEVE sign and an Alice in Wonderland magnet, He did this time. The most amazing thing to me about this story is that most of the major players in it are outside the church walls.
Last September, we held a building celebration service. It was a wonderful evening to share the miracle of what God had done with our families, friends and neighbors. And my dear high school friend Julie, the one person I knew when we moved to this city in 2004, presented me with a new refrigerator magnet – “Believing . . . is just the beginning”.
Several months ago the Friday morning women’s Bible study was meeting at my house. There was a knock at the door. Ironically, it was two Jehovah’s Witnesses inviting us to their upcoming Easter service. Later, I looked more closely at the flyer they left. Guess where the Jehovah’s Witnesses were holding their Easter service? At The Best Western Hotel. The same Best Western Hotel that was a former home of Church of the Redeemer. Another circle closed on this amazing journey, and another evidence of God’s incredible sense of humor.
We’ve been in our new building for almost a year now, and it has overwhelmingly blessed both our church and our presbytery. It’s been used for network meetings, presbytery meetings, and missions conferences. It is also home to an evangelical Pentecostal Hispanic congregation on Sunday afternoons. Our worship location is visible and accessible on a high traffic road with plenty of parking. We see new visitors come through our doors weekly, and continually praise Jehovah-Jireh for His incredible provision. Soli Deo Gloria, to God be the glory, great things HE has done. (And will do!)