I attended the funeral visitation of my friend Anna over the weekend. We met because she was a leader at the church in Walnut Hills where Echo originally started; we rented their building for services on Sunday nights. Though in her eighties at the time, she was still a spirited woman. In fact, she was likely the most passionate member of the congregation. When she was ill, I would check on her, yet I always left feeling like she was the one encouraging me. As her church struggled to stay afloat (and as we tried to get the building for Echo), she was supportive. Whenever we talked about it, should would tell me, “my only wish is to have my funeral in this church.”
She never got her wish.
For years now, I thought of writing about the pain of losing that building but never did. Saying goodbye to Anna today finally moved me to do so.
Echo Church met in that building for nearly six years. It was serendipity that we even ended up meeting there. When Aaron and I finally decided on a neighborhood in which to start the church, we immediately went for a drive to look for a meeting place. A wrong turn brought us to that church’s parking lot. After knocking at the door to no response, we started to leave when one of the church’s leaders was arriving. Within six weeks, we had secured an agreement to rent there.
The building was constructed just two years after Anna was born. It shared roots with Echo/CCU’s lineage. After peaking in the early 1950’s, the congregation struggled for decades to maintain shifting ground. By the time we showed up they had a mere twenty-five members, but still had sizable investments in bank. The endowment took major hits in the recession of the late 2,000’s, and with little offering income, the aging building became the church’s burden. They were struggling to stay afloat.
I worked closely with those church leaders throughout the time to try to preserve the building for ministry. We continually invested in renovations to improve it. Twice, our church wrote checks when their bills were getting tight. We assured them that, if they gifted us the building, we would be faithful stewards. There was an ebb and flow to those conversations; at times, the church was ready to shut it down and hand us the keys. Then, they’d commit to persevering and keeping the doors open. This lasted a few years. During this time, the church struggled to remain civil with each other. Decades of struggle left them angry with each other. Not Anna, though. This is one of the reasons I loved her. She was nothing but positive and faithful. But even though she had invested more of herself than any other person in the church, they never truly listened to her opinion.
Ultimately, they decided to close and asked us to put in an offer on the building.
The idea that they wanted us to buy their building, all while they were closing, was a little ridiculous. They claimed they needed the money to do ministry, yet our goal was to maintain the building for that very purpose. We submitted a humble but respectful offer, letting them know that we’d have to raise considerable money to keep the building functional. I had a fundraising plan and budget ready to go when they handed us the keys.
I remember the exact moment when they told me that a realtor offered to list the building at seven-times what we offered. I was frustrated, but optimistic; I was doubtful anyone would want a church building in the midst of a residential neighborhood. I never suspected someone would not only pay asking price but choose to flip it into a house.
The church building was sold after a divisive vote by the remaining members. It was purchased in cash by an affluent man who remodeled it into his personal mansion. Anna ended up attending a wonderful church in a neighboring community and that's where her funeral was held on Saturday.
We had a mere three weeks to move. We stripped out everything that we could that we contributed to the building. I asked the church if I could take the pulpit, and it now sits in my house.
Fortunately, God provided us a place to meet within those three weeks. But it was a difficult transition. The years following this move were tough for our church. We were growing, but after the move the growth ceased. We lost some beloved people over the years—from moving, disagreements, and even death. After being on the brink of owning our own place, our church was relegated to nomadic status until just this year.
I harbored bitterness about the whole situation for years. You see, I truly believed that this was part of our community’s story. Ten years ago, when we felt called to start a church in the city, I didn’t view us as missionaries breaking new ground. Instead, I felt like we were tilling soil that had at one time been fertile; that we were just building on foundations that others had built. I had studied the history of that church and we shared the vision of their earliest founders. If we could get that building for Echo, (in my mind), it would have been the perfect redemption arc. Our church’s story would have been intricately woven into the history of this 100+ year old church. For a guy who loves stories, this was gold. It would be the perfect narrative.
But it never happened for us.
And, sadly, it never happened for Anna either.
But in talking to her family and new church friends at her funeral, it was refreshing to see that she moved on with her life. Sure, Anna wanted her wish to have her funeral in that building to come true, but when it didn’t, she moved on with life. Hearing the testimonies of her new church family about her contributions there moved me. “She was the most passionate person in our church,” her pastor told me.
And that’s the last thing Anna did for me: she helped me move on.
It’s a lesson I know full well but struggle to display in my life. Sometimes the story doesn’t go how it ought to, but there’s still another story out there for you.
In the months (even years) after not getting that building, I was disappointed for our church and our ministry. But here, years down the road, I’ve seen what God has done because that didn’t happen. He brought us through the other side. Sure, we could have done some amazing things in that other building, but we now have a rental space with a long term lease in a community with few meeting options. It’s an immense blessing to see where the Lord took us.
The story’s still being written. Just not as I planned.
Since we moved this summer, we now live a mere three blocks from that original church building, I pass it often when I’m out running. It look at it now with a curious eye, but my bitterness is gone.
So when your story doesn’t go the way you planned, trust that God’s doing something, even if you can’t see it at the time.
That’s what Anna did. That’s what I’m trying to do.
*I photographed all the stained glass of that building before we left. It was magnificent. You can view it by clicking here.