After a year of turmoil, Vineyard Community Church arrived, joyful and triumphant, at its new location on Eastland Parkway, with a standing-room-only crowd for its early Christmas Eve service.
In his opening prayer, lead pastor Kevin Clark expressed his thanks to God "for this great, great day."
"You have guided and directed us, even in light of doubt and wondering. You have brought us to this Eastland neighborhood ... and we are very excited," Clark said.
In August, Vineyard dropped plans to pay $1.5 million for the former Julia R. Ewan school building in the Fairway neighborhood off Richmond Road between Idle Hour Country Club and Henry Clay Boulevard after many residents objected.
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At a public hearing in July, neighbors expressed concern about increased traffic on the area's narrow streets, parking, noise and outreach programs the church might have to serve the poor.
The evangelical church with 600 members ended up buying the former Aldersgate United Methodist Church building and three acres of land at 1881 Eastland Parkway for $650,000. The property was owned by St. Luke United Methodist Church.
While the building is not as large as where Vineyard had been meeting, space formerly occupied by Bluegrass Community and Technical College at 817 Winchester Road, there is land for expansion, Clark said.
In the brightly painted nursery, Shara Klinefelter played with toddlers on the floor. "I'm glad we have a home," she said, "because it was a rough road getting here."
"I think it's where God wants us to be," said Vineyard member Don Spugnardi, adding he didn't think the Eastland neighborhood was "any better or any worse than Fairway. It's where we landed."
Vineyard recently mailed 5,000 fliers to Eastland residents inviting them to church.
Accepting that offer was Christa Louis and her three teenage children, who walked to the Christmas Eve service from their home nearby. The family moved to Lexington from Florence. Louis said she came hoping to meet new people and find a new church home.
This time last year, Tom Sherry was living under the Loudon Avenue bridge, and he credits the church for his being "alive today spiritually, mentally and physically." Sherry, 51, said of Vineyard, "We're for people who are messed up, broken down and need a better life."
Intensive renovations have been going on in the front half of the church building for six weeks to get ready for Christmas Eve. They include a new heating and air conditioning system, a fresh coat of paint on walls and ceilings, new carpet, lights and a coffee bar. Pews were removed from the sanctuary, and openings into the fellowship hall were enlarged.
Painters were still at work just hours before the first Christmas Eve service at 2 p.m.
Clark called it "an extreme church makeover."
Construction continues in the back half of the building where church offices, classrooms and activity areas for children will be. Clark expects the work to be completed in February.
He made a special point of expressing "kudos" to Fairway neighborhood residents. "People donated lots of toys and lots of the people volunteered in the Christmas Shop" at the Winchester Road location, he said.
With time to reflect on losing the Ewan property, Clark looked positively at the Eastland neighborhood, where there are $300,000 houses and Section 8 housing for less-affluent residents, he said.
Eastland fits "who we are better than any neighborhood — socially, economically and racially," he said. "I think we are positioned to love people in this neighborhood and bring about positive change."
The church had three Christmas Eve services. But after a whirlwind several months, Clark said, the church was taking the rest of the weekend off: There won't be services on Saturday or Sunday.