Building a Church in America
A story about change, construction, & faith
The Decatur-Hartselle Spanish Adventist Church in Alabama was falling apart. The roof was rotting. The rear wall of the building was falling in, patched by sheets of corrugated metal. In the restroom a misstep would send a foot crashing through one of the holes in the floor. And in the main sanctuary a cable ran from the top of one wall to the other to keep the building from collapsing out.
The church structure had never been in good shape, but it was now becoming dangerous. A few winters ago a multipurpose building behind the main church had caved in during a snowstorm. A similar fate possibly awaited the sanctuary.
So the congregation of 75 members began praying and saving for a new church. For several months the members put one week of their wages toward the project each month. But given that most of them worked blue-collar jobs, even the hefty sacrifice of one week’s wages was small compared to the costs of construction.
Yet the group kept saving. They kept meeting. And most important, they kept praying.
“We were praying every morning, asking the Lord, ‘Make a miracle. Make a miracle for us,’” remembers Hortensia Aguilar, a member of Decatur-Hartselle.
Little did they know that God had already set in motion an answer to their prayers.
Mission to the United States
Several years agoMaranatha Volunteers Internationalrealized there was a problem. While they knew how to respond to international requests for churches—they had a system that had been honed over four decades—they had few solutions for a small, churchless congregation in North America. The organization regularly mobilized volunteers for renovation projects in the United States, but rarely did they build an entire church from scratch. And unlike overseas projects, in which Maranatha supplied a standard building plan, a parallel template did not exist in North America.
“North American congregations would come to us for help, but if they didn’t already have a plan in place, we couldn’t help them. This was especially the case for small congregations with a limited budget,” says Kyle Fiess, vice president for marketing and projects at Maranatha.
What’s more, smaller congregations had a tendency to dive into the process of new construction and fall deep into a money pit. Projects stalled, held up by hefty architect fees. Groups were left holding an elaborate church design on paper and an empty lot in real life.
“We’ve seen it over and over: churches form committees, fund-raise, and end up spending all their time and money on an architect who designs a church that is inefficient and too expensive to build,” says Fiess. “That’s the reality that motivated the idea of a standardized plan for small churches in North America. We realized that we could fill the niche and provide a service for those who have little to no expertise about building.”
So Maranatha board members Ken Casper and Roger Hatch, both retired contractors, began to develop blueprints for a standard church. It would have to be a simple design, one that could be easily executed by volunteers, but did not sacrifice function. Most important, it had to be affordable.
In the meantime, another need was percolating in theNorth American Adventist Church. The Hispanic membership was ballooning, and the population needed places to worship.
The situation would dovetail perfectly with the idea of affordable Maranatha churches—evidence of God’s perfect timing.
A demographic shift is taking place in the United States. The Hispanic population has been growing rapidly; the 2010 U.S. Census reported the group growing at a rate of 43 percent between 2000 and 2010. Hispanics are 16.7 percent of the United States population, the largest ethnic group in the country.
This national trend is mirrored in the growth of the North American Division Adventist Church. Ernest Castillo, a general vice president in the North American Division, says Hispanics make up 17 percent of total membership in the NAD today.
“[The membership is] growing to the tune of about 8 to 10 percent per year. The Hispanic work is mushrooming around the NAD,” says Castillo. He says in 2012 alone, there were 15,000 baptisms.
Castillo attributes the rapid growth to small-group ministries. He says often individual church members invite neighbors to watch evangelism meetings or have Bible studies. There is also a cultural component that facilitates the process.
“Our Hispanic constituency is evangelistic by nature,” says Castillo. Large-scale outreach initiatives are common in Central and South America, and pastors and lay members alike have a zeal for evangelism. This expectation has carried over into Hispanic churches in North America.
However, the growth isn’t without its problems. The sudden swell has created a shortage of church buildings. And with the Hispanic culture of evangelism, there is much frustration from not having permanent space in which to share the gospel.
This dilemma has been especially pronounced in the Southern Union Conference, a region encompassing eight states. According to Jorge Mayer, director of Hispanic ministries for the Southern Union Conference, there are more than 200 Hispanic churches in the region, but no more than 20 percent own their buildings.
“One of the most constant requests that comes to my office is ‘How can we build a church? How can we raise the money? We need a place to worship. We want more activities. We want to minister to the communities,’” says Mayer. “The congregations have no place to store food and materials, and they have no space to provide seminars and training on a regular basis.”
Obviously the solution is for congregations to fund-raise for a building project. The problem is there is no money in these congregations. While fiscal challenges are common in churches across North America, this situation is unique in that the burgeoning Hispanic membership is largely among immigrants, many of who work low-paying jobs in manual labor. Yet their poverty doesn’t stop them from giving generously to the church. It’s just that in many cases it still isn’t enough.
Planning a Strategy
In 2010 the Maranatha board noticed the growing membership of Hispanics in North America and voted to create a plan to encourage participation on mission trips. Maranatha connected with Jorge Mayer and ended up at a Hispanic coordinator’s conference in theSouthern Union Conference.
“We were sitting around the table, talking about Maranatha’s mission, and why we were interested in working with Hispanic populations. We talked about organizing a Hispanic convention when someone asked, ‘Do you help congregations build churches in the United States?’” says Fiess. “We were caught off guard because we weren’t expecting that question. And we said, ‘Absolutely. What are your needs?’”
Maranatha’s response launched the conversation into new territory. The Hispanic coordinators began talking animatedly about the need for churches. The coordinators ticked off all the groups in their conferences that could immediately use a church.
“As we talked, we realized these were all congregations that needed small, basic buildings. Many are located in rural parts of the country where you wouldn’t need anything fancy or complicated,” says Fiess. “That refocused us to the whole concept of the standardized, affordable church.”
Roger Hatch, a longtime Maranatha board member, then dusted off the first drafts of the template that had been drawn and pushed to the back burner. He was ready to attack the project with a new and more urgent purpose.
“We tried to see what in the world we could come up with for the small church and priced it out,” says Hatch, who was at the Hispanic coordinators’ meeting. “So the first one we worked on seated about 250 to 300 people, and it came in around US$400,000 to $500,000. Right off we said this is too much; they can’t afford it. So we got busy and started revising our plans.”
The goal, based on feedback from Hispanic leaders, was to build a church for approximately 125 to 150 people and keep the price tag under $200,000. Hatch kept whittling away at the plans, researching other small churches that had been successfully and affordably built. Finally he and Maranatha’s construction committee arrived at a solution, estimated to cost $215,000 with the use of volunteer labor.
They also had a congregation ready to test it.
The New Albany Spanish congregation in Mississippi had been a vagabond group, moving from one rented location to the next. But they had finally saved enough money to build, and union conference leaders immediately put them in contact with Maranatha. In June 2012 volunteers arrived to break ground on the first Maranatha “affordable” church.
But while the New Albany project was under way, another church was praying. In Alabama, 150 miles away, about 70 members of the Decatur-Hartselle Spanish group were still praying about their dilapidated church. Another winter was approaching, and with a rotting roof and leaning walls, they felt anxious and unsafe in the building.
“In every prayer group we clamored to God, saying, ‘Lord, give us a church. Give us the church that You deserve.’ ” says Aguilar.
When they heard about the New Albany project, members drove out to help their sister church. Being in New Albany offered something else: It gave them hope.
“Well, we said, ‘If they are going to build the church for New Albany, couldn’t they help us with our church too?’ ” says Aguilar.
It turns out that the pastor, David Huaringa, had the same idea. Huaringa was pastor of both churches—Decatur-Hartselle and New Albany—and while at the New Albany worksite, he pulled Hatch aside for a favor.
“The pastor asked me, ‘Roger, could you do another church this year?’” remembers Hatch. “When I went over and looked at the church, it was pretty self-explanatory why they needed a new church. That was the beginning of the project at Hartselle.”
On a beautiful October day in the Alabama countryside the sky is blue, the grass is green, and birds are singing a sound track to this bucolic scene. The only detail out of place is the incessant hammering and the roar of large machinery. This is the Maranatha job site in Hartselle, where more than 50 volunteers have gathered to build a new church for the Decatur-Hartselle Spanish congregation. It’s been less than a week, but already the framework is done and crews are starting to put on the roof. After another week of work, the church will be nearly complete.
The speed at which the church is being built has more to do with the number of hands than with the design. Maranatha’s “affordable” church may be simple, but it has everything a congregation could need: a sanctuary, a foyer, a pastor’s office, restrooms, Sabbath school classrooms, a kitchen, and a fellowship hall. All of this is expertly designed into 6,000 square feet.
As buzz about the projects spreads, Maranatha is getting more requests for assistance. Even before the completion of the Decatur-Hartselle project, leaders in the Southern Union Conference have requested a third church for another Spanish congregation.
The situation is especially urgent in theGulf States Conference, a region encompassing Alabama, Mississippi, and the panhandle of Florida. Both the Decatur-Hartselle and New Albany churches are in the Gulf States Conference, where 50 percent of the annual baptisms are among the immigrant Hispanics. Mel Eisele, conference president, has seen the Hispanic membership skyrocket—from 15 to 2,000—over the past 15 years, and he wants to provide adequate support. Eisele feels that the church construction projects, which have required some financial support from the conference, are a way to show encouragement.
“We want to take seriously the admonition of Scripture of how to treat people who immigrate into your country,” says Eisele. “This project is reinforcement of our support—this just proves that it’s not just talk.”
Eisele’s statement might be considered bold in a national climate in which immigration is a hot-button topic. But he has watched the country and the Adventist Church develop into a multilingual, multihued family.
“Today, even here in the South—the Deep South—very, very, very few churches are all-White. We may have, out of 100 churches, one or two in our entire conference that are all-White. We have Asians, African-Americans, islanders, and Hispanics. We have just a big mix and a big blend. That’s how America is changing,” says Eisele. “As long as we have a significant immigrant population, we have to focus on reaching those populations.”
Putting his words into action, Eisele took a day off from the conference offices to work in Hartselle. He arrived on the scene dressed in jeans and a hard hat. “We are here to reach people, and to me, building a facility for them to come and bring people in and do evangelism—that’s as much a part of ministry as anything else we do. . . . It’s not building buildings. It’s reaching people,” he says.
This philosophy has certainly impacted the members of New Albany and Decatur-Hartselle. There is hope in knowing that they have a church home and a conference that supports them. There is also a renewed motivation to give back in service to God.
“This experience has encouraged us to be better in sharing the gospel with others, serving better in the church, and encouraging our children to be better with the Lord, to give everything, to give all to Him,” says Aguilar.
For Aguilar and her husband, Misael, seeing the new building rise up from the ground has been a dream—an American dream—ever since Misael arrived in the United States and started the church group more than 10 years ago. He sacrificed weeks of paying jobs to work with the volunteers.
“Sometimes my husband and I talk about how when we get old we will remember everything about this group—the experience of building the church, about everyone, about Maranatha,” says Aguilar, talking exuberantly in newly learned English. Behind her the new church is being built, faster than she could have ever imagined.
“This is a miracle.”