Lexington's Vineyard Community Church pastors thank the Fairway neighborhood residents who opposed their move into the former Julia R. Ewan school with a well-publicized anti-church campaign in 2010.
Yes, thank them.
If not for the neighbors' opposition, Vineyard would never have wound up in the former Aldersgate United Methodist Church building at 1881 Eastland Parkway, where it has met with great success.
The church has picked up 100 more members and now plans a $450,000 expansion that will increase the church's footprint by 5,000 square feet. The church hopes to break ground by the end of winter.
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The Eastland neighborhood, which includes a diverse mix of older apartments and housing types, including starter homes and $300,000-plus homes with large yards, has been welcoming, said lead pastor Kevin Clark.
The church has established relationships with its neighbors, Big Blue Bird Early Childhood Center and Dixie Magnet Elementary. A teacher from the school now runs a homework-help program at the church.
Aldersgate's building woes were many: The former church battled water coming in through its roof and the basement. Its sanctuary was adorned with '60s-era harvest-gold pews, and a bucket sometimes would sit in the aisle in front of the pulpit during Sunday service to catch runoff from the rain. The basement, where the church's youth group met, smelled constantly of dampness.
By the time Vineyard began holding services on Christmas Eve 2010, the church had undergone a transformation.
Said Clark: "We told the architect we wanted to go for a hip chapel."
They got it.
Video screens saturate the building with light, decorative painting and artwork dot the walls, and Ikea shades cover the light fixtures. Where there once was an unadorned plastic table in a fellowship hall now stands a coffee bar where Vineyard offers coffee and doughnuts in what it calls a "10-minute party" after each service. A youth room in the basement, formerly the refuge of castaway couches, boasts shiny café tables and a 60-inch video screen.
There's an office suite on the second floor in a formerly drab complex of Sunday school rooms. Vineyard also had to create an entire drainage system from the parking lot to a nearby creek bed.
The upcoming expansion will give the church additional room for its sanctuary, needed because the church lost square footage in the move from its former site on Winchester Road, going from 22,000 square feet to 15,000.
The sanctuary's capacity is now 242. After the expansion, it will be 400, enabling the church to consolidate its three Sunday services into two. In the meantime, it is encouraging some worshippers to attend its Saturday night service.
After the first expansion is completed in 2012, the church might consider adding another parking lot that would provide more than 40 additional spaces on the 3.1-acre site.
The Vineyard is part of a worldwide movement of churches that are Protestant, evangelical and believe in "walking the talk" by aiding the impoverished and disenfranchised in their communities.
Clark decided to "plant" a Vineyard church after he and his wife visited one in Colorado. While Clark was planning the church, he met then-Realtor Jimmy Fields at an open house. The two started talking about the church Clark envisioned.
Fields remembers the meeting: "I said, 'That will work; Lexington is ready for a church like that.' "
Fields is now executive pastor of the church, in charge of its administration.
The church had a dozen people at its first service in a hotel conference room off Richmond Road. It later moved to Carmike Cinemas and then to the Winchester Road space.
Because some Fairway residents complained that the church would be too disruptive and bring too much traffic to the largely upscale neighborhood and its narrow streets, city government stepped in with a number of qualifying conditions that the church would have had to follow, which is when Vineyard decided to look elsewhere.
Church members were initially shocked by the Fairway opposition, Clark said.
"We thought, 'They just don't know us,'" Clark said.
After Vineyard decided to look elsewhere, the Lexington Hearing and Speech Center bought the Ewan building in December 2010.
The bid for the Ewan building was the church's second try at securing a new location after a move to the old Rainbo bread bakery on West Sixth Street fell through because of environmental problems with buried storage tanks. The church had been meeting at 817 Winchester Road and was reluctant to leave the area immediately in and around downtown, fearing its ministries might suffer — which its leaders say has not been the case at its Eastland location.
Clark commended the Fairway neighborhood for donating generously to a Christmas toy drive in which the church participates, but he said the church's focus now is on growing where it wound up planted — within easy reach of downtown, if not within walking distance.
"Before we make an impact on our state or city, we want to make an impact on Eastland," Clark said.