Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Whole Story of St. John's Church in One Place

Here is the (short) story of the history of and building of the temple for St. John the Evangelist Mission in Tempe.

We began the Mission four years ago in Bill and Cathy Gould's living room with 4 families. After a few weeks, we moved from there to a chapel at a mortuary rent free for about 6 months. Management changed and told us we couldn't meet there any more. We moved back into the Gould's living room again.

We found a house in a residential area and after a year the neighbors complained, so the City Planning and Zoning people went after the owner and we got evicted. We spent the next two years in a delapidated strip mall behind two bars and a Chinese restaurant and next door to a ballet school. The walls were thin and we spent most Vespers and evening services chanting to a tinkling piano and the thumping of heavy footed ballerinas. We were constantly looking for affordable space zoned for "assembly". At every turn the city nixed occupancy due to some city code. And we couldn't afford enough space to grow into.

Our priest, Fr. Damian, had an opportunity to meet with the Mayor of Tempe and had a frank discussion about how hard his staff was making it for us to establish an Orthodox Church in his city (one of the largest in the U.S. without an Orthodox Church.) A month later the head of planning and zoning called and referred us to the owner of a manufactured home display. It has four houses, a park-like setting on two acres. The owner was looking for a tenant to rent the land to cover his taxes. He said we could do anything we wanted to the buildings because he was planning on bulldozing them down in the future anyway if he ever developed the land for offices (not likely in the near future since the economy tanked). The City Planning and Zoning department were given a directive to work with us, and they bent over backwards to get us into the property and obtain permits for building etc.

When we looked at the property it was a scary prospect and a stretch for our small group. Our Bishop said, "Step out on faith, but don't walk off the edge of a cliff..." It was all a risk, the cost was counted and we decided to step into the arena. The worst case scenario was we lose all of our savings and move back into a store front again. As we moved forward there was a blessing at every turn. Even things that went wrong ended up being "right" and working out better in the end than we could have imagined.

One of the buildings on the property was an unfinished two story mountain chalet. We met in the living room of the front office building while we set out to transform the chalet into an Orthodox temple. Our goal was to be in by Pascha. We obtained our permit on Feb. 3, 2009. We moved in on Lazarus Saturday, 58 days later.

This is the chronological blog and photo record of the building of the Church and the stories of the donations, help, and miracles that made it happen.

(Additional pictures of our Mission and its history can be seen at our Mission's website's galleries HERE)

The Permit Demolition and Framing
Starting the Dome Framing the Ceiling
Dome Update
Beginning Sheetrocking
Dome Plastering
Drywall Rookies to the Rescue
Detail Work Framing the Arches
Looking Like a Church Removing the Loft
Drywall Finishing
Painting the Ceilings
Necessities and Frills Handicap Access and Gingerbread
We're IN! Inspections Passed
Finishing Touches, the Race to Holy Week
Move In Day, Finishing the Iconostasis on Lazarus Saturday
First Divine Liturgy
Videos of Our First Services
Holy Week and Finishing Construction Details
Palm Sunday and Bridegroom Matins Video
Our First Holy Week
First Pascha and Traditional Potluck Feast
Agape Vespers and Barbeque

Glory to God for Fr. Damian and the parishoners and catechumens of St. John who worked, donated and prayed for the past three months (and past four years!), Pastor Gary and the men of the Tempe Christian Resource Center, Dale Martin's Air Conditioning company, Matthew and his technical high school's electrician's class, the electrical supply house, the plumbing supply house, the concrete company, Atko Drywall Supply, the insulationand door companies and so many others who donated or sold us materials for pennies on the dollar, and to Eleni's parents in Chicago who donated the chandelier... anyway, you get the idea.

May the future generations know we did this in faith for them.


Bill M said...

So... what, you and Bill have been too busy to do a new "Our Life in Christ" program? :)

It's been fun to watch the process from afar. I confess to some envy that I'm not able to be a part of something like that here. But who knows, perhaps our time will come some day.

Not trying to be all "Church-Growth" on you with this, but I'm curious about how many are now in your church. What has your growth experience been like over four years?

May you and the St. John church enjoy many years of blessing in that place!

Steve Robinson said...

Hi Bill M, LOL! Yeah, the Mission has been keeping us busy lately. Being on Parish Council and being Subdeacon and Reader (husband, father, employed, etc.) its a lot of stuff to attend to in only 24 hours sometimes. I love Mission work, its all I've known since becoming Orthodox (this is the 4th Mission I've been involved with establishing). Its not for everyone, but I think I'd go crazy in a large established parish. Anyway, growth is a real issue, HOW you grow is a real issue too, not to be taken lightly. If I recall, I don't think we had any real inquirers or baptisms until well into our second year. We baptized about 5-6 the next year and we've had 12 baptisms since Theophany. Several of those this time were people who live in northern Arizona who commuted for catechism and services etc. We probably have 20 active "family units" now. A couple years ago we lost almost half our congregation with people moving due to family, school and work and were virtually back to square one. We don't advertise, we don't door knock, we have a website and a Yellow Pages listing and we have people find us. One recent convert heard Bill and I on our local radio program 6 years ago in the parking lot of Target and finally decided to visit an Orthodox Church. So, you never know what seed is planted and how long it takes to sprout. Some visitors stick and some don't for various reasons. Some people were really turned off by the "slum store front", and some hung in with us because they liked the people. As Fr. Peter Gillquist says, "There are pioneers who blaze the trails and there are settlers who come after the town in built." Neither is more "holy" than the other, just different talents. So far our involvement in the community has been through the Christian Resource Center and various charitable activities. Now that we are close to ASU we'll probably do some OCF related work and possibly some advertising and activities on campus next fall. My personal take on evangelism is it happens as we live and if we are faithful in the small things, as Acts 2 says "The Lord added..." Programs can work, but personally I'm not a big fan. After ten years and a couple dozen "converts" I've found hospitality is the best "program"...just invite people into your home and life and genuinely fall in love with them.

Bill M said...

Thanks. Growth can be a wrong focus, and a corrupting motivator. But it is also part of the story, and - where there is health - a real result of worship.

I like your emphasis on hospitality as evangelism.

Ranger said...

When we were looking at buying property in our area for a Mission, we were about to "bite" on a small house, with about 800 square feet, and 800 down.
But, right before we comitted, The city called and told us there was a commercial property available. It had 2500 square feet on one level, and a vacant lot next to it. The owner offered it to us at a set price, and it appraised $16,000 higher.
It has been a blessing. We opened it a year ago, and a few months a go we hadn't "grown" at all. Since Pascha, we have one Inquirer, soon to be catachumen, driving in from over 2 hrs away. One young Orthodox lady moving to a small town just north of us in June. Another Orthodox lady and her child, perhaps moving here to be a Teacher. And another Inquirer moving in from Buffalo NY. And I almost forgot about our on again off agin catechumen, who has seemed to make a firm commitment, and perhaps will be baptized in June.
I can tell you, without a doubt, that we have done hardly anything to encourage such growth. And it has come all so unexpectadly. Praise God!

Juvenaly Martinka said...

Thank you for this. I have been keeping track of your little mission for some time now. We have spent the last 2 yrs in Fresno, CA and it looks like we will be heading out your way within a year. It has been a great journey for you all and I am glad that I could witness this, as it has given me strength in times of adversity. I plan on emailing Fr. Damian in a day or two and I will keep coming back to see how things progress. Looking forward to moving day when we can relocate back "home" to AZ and become a part of this little community. Glory to God for all things!

Steve Robinson said...

Juvenaly, Looking forward to having you join us. Keep us posted!

justjamey said...

This is wonderful! I only wish I had seen this page before I visited. What wonderful work you guys have done!

Steve Robinson said...

Thanks Jamey. Unfortunately the owner sold the property to Quik Trip, we had to move out and it looks like the Church will get bulldozed Jan 1, 2011. We had hoped to be there for 4-5 years and possibly buy the property but oh well. God works in mysterious ways as they say.