United Church of God congregation wants its own building
By Dixon Cartwright
BIG SANDY, Texas--Whether they have to buy, borrow or build, the local United Church of God brethren want a building they can call home.
Seventy-five of them met in an old skating rink here the evening of Sunday, Aug. 26, to figure out how to acquire a permanent structure to meet in for Sabbath services and to use for other activities. The congregation--one of many governed by the United Church of God an International Association around the world--meets weekly 15 miles north of here in Gilmer, seat of Upshur County.
The 120 or so local UCG brethren have met in a civic center, fair building and motel meeting rooms since they parted ways with most of their brethren in Big Sandy in May 1998.
At that tumultuous time in the history of the Churches of God in East Texas, a split happened. Some 250 church members, then meeting each Sabbath in a high-school auditorium in nearby Hawkins, went their separate ways.
Ironically, work was well under way in the spring of '98 on a church building within the city limits of Big Sandy that would seat as many as 600 of the brethren comfortably and would provide plenty of room for sermons and Bible studies, potlucks, Sabbath school, movies, baptisms, weddings and funerals, even a Feast site.
But before the members could move into it, they split. Pastor Dave Havir of Big Sandy and about 220 church members remained with the building and severed their ties with the UCG, and about 110 of them stayed with the UCG and found another place to meet. (Current attendance at the Church of God Big Sandy is about 170 and at the UCG in Gilmer about 120.)
Next year in Big Sandy
The recent consensus among the Gilmer brethren seems to be that the UCG group, which goes officially by the name UCGIA in East Texas, would like to come back to Big Sandy, known in these parts as the needlecraft capital of the South.
The environs of Big Sandy, with a long and checkered history with the Worldwide Church of God and its descendants and for many years the site of one of the WCG-sponsored Ambassador Colleges, are still the home of a lot of the brethren.
We want a building
Roy Holladay, pastor of the Gilmer group, who moved to the area from Florida in 1998 immediately after the split, chaired the recent meeting about a possible UCG building.
He noted that it hadn't been all that long since the Gilmer brethren seemed not to be interested in anything but a rented hall. But, over the last few months, the consensus seems to have shifted, he said.
Indeed, the 75 people at the meeting here seemed to be of one mind: We want a building!
The discussion revealed no opposition to the general concept, but the participants had differing ideas about exactly what kind of a edifice they should buy or construct.
Many expressed the opinion that a "multiuse," "multifaceted" or "multifunctional" facility was the only way to go. But a few raised their hands to voice objections to a building with too many uses.
The greater glory
Scott Hammer of Gladewater, son of the man who donated the land in the early 1950s that became the core of the Big Sandy campus of Ambassador College, said he doesn't like the concept of a house of worship that would be too closely identified with spectator sports.
"I would hate to see us build a building for the greater glory of basketball," he said.
Others, though, opined that, as long as you're going to build, you might as well make the ceiling high enough, the walls far enough apart and the air conditioning efficient enough to accommodate at least a half-court basketball court, preferably one without a bare-concrete floor.
Yes, chairs would have to be taken down and set back up in such a building for Sabbath services between basketball practices and games.
But, commented Ellis Stewart of Big Sandy, "it's not going to be hard to take up 300 chairs. We've taken up 2,500 out on in the field house [on the Ambassador campus], and it wasn't all that hard when you had people working together."
Some in the audience, such as Christine McNeely, a teenager from Hawkins, pointed to the benefits of basketball to the youth of the church.
"I remember when I was in YES [the WCG's Sabbath school] and really little and I could not wait until third grade because that's when you started playing basketball. In public school you don't start that stuff until seventh grade. For the youths younger than us, it would give them a chance to start at a younger age to learn sports and teamwork."
The church is not a plant
Steve McNeely, Christine's dad, said a building could help "further the gospel" and "grow the Church of God."
Mr. Holladay quickly took exception to Mr. McNeely's wording.
"We don't want the term 'grow the church' to get out in the sense of how Worldwide used that term," Mr. Holladay said. "They talked about how we grow a church," but "we know that God calls."
Still, allowed Mr. Holladay, a building can have its benefits, and they include "giving stability" to the congregation and helping in the care of its young people.
When Mr. Holladay called for a show of hands to determine who wanted a multiuse facility and who was in favor of a facility that would be more church-service oriented, almost everyone voted for a structure with multiple uses. Only one or two hands shot up in opposition.
Question of ownership
Some in the meeting said they had wondered who would own a building: the congregation or church headquarters. Mr. Holladay read from a "policy statement" from headquarters that enunciated the rules that govern local-building ownership.
To "ensure that the local church's assets are protected," Mr. Holladay read, "all approved local church buildings must be held in the name of the United Church of God an International Association, the religious nonprofit corporation."
He said that national corporate ownership would eliminate "worry about a local congregation running off with the building."
If "something were to happen to the local church," he said, "the corporation has the asset it could use."
Mr. Holladay's allusion to a congregation running off with a building could reflect the view of some of the UCG members here that they should have ended up with the nice church building already standing on the west side of town, the one used regularly by members of the congregation Mr. Havir pastors.
The Journal asked John Warren of Big Sandy, chairman of the board of the Church of God Big Sandy, if anyone is barred from attending Sabbath services in the COG Big Sandy's building.
"I would say that many of the attendees of United in Gilmer have been in our building," said Mr. Warren. "We use it for a number of different activities, whether for local programs or whether for a church program, but the brethren in Gilmer are always welcome.
"A lot of them even helped with the building of the building, so we certainly feel like they are welcome any time they want to attend with us."
Mr. Warren said he also would like to announce to the Gilmer brethren they are "most welcome" at Feast of Tabernacles services in the building, which this year will begin the evening of Oct. 1.
"Because of the number of elderly and others who stay here, we use the building as a Feast site every year, and the Feast site is not just for those who attend with our congregation. It is for anybody who would be interested in enjoying a traditional Feast setting."
Where's the funds?
A building costs money, and money doesn't grow on trees. So where will the money come from for a UCG building?
That's what Buck Hammer wanted to know. Buck, father of Scott Hammer, was also present at the meeting.
"I sort of like ownership," Buck Hammer said during the meeting here in the former skating rink, which is a venue for weekly dances for senior citizens. In fact, Mr. Hammer owned the skating rink in the 1940s.
"I hope we can come up with some good ideas and decisions that will be according to God, that He will like what we're doing and we'll have His blessings," he said.
Mr. Hammer, and later Mr. Holladay, said the estimated $350,000 that the building would cost would come from local fund-raising efforts and from a subsidy from the UCG's home office, in Milford, Ohio.
Mr. Holladay cited the example of the Houston North UCG congregation, which raised $25,000 to $30,000 a year to finance its new building, "and they did it by selling fruit, basically."
Melton McNeely of Hawkins commented that he would rather shell out cash than participle in fund-raising efforts.
"I'd rather make a donation than spend the time selling fruit," he said.
Mr. McNeely, a certified public accountant, mentioned that Houston North, besides selling fruit, benefited in its fund-rising efforts from a single large donation: $125,000 from one church member.
Mr. McNeely told the members assembled to discuss the building project that the church would be happy to receive contributions for the building from anybody who would want to contribute. (Donations, tax-deductible in the United States, can go to UCG Building Fund, P.O. Box 492, Hawkins, Texas 757565, U.S.A.).
Besides Mr. Hammer and Mr. Stewart, several other Church of God old-timers were in attendance. One of them was Frank McCrady Jr. of Gladewater (not to be confused with his son, Frank McCrady III, who lives in Ohio). As a Church of God pastor for years, "I've rented quite a few buildings in times past," Mr. McCrady said."
He told a story about the Worldwide Church of God's history in Houston, Texas, in the '60s, when he served as pastor of a WCG congregation there.
People would ask him, "Where do you meet?"
"In southeast Houston," he would reply.
"Where in Houston?"
"Well, in a building."
"Well, the Belair Ballroom."
"Isn't that a honky-tonk?"
The Belair honky-tonk smelled like "booze" and "vomit," said Mr. McCrady, and was an embarrassment to him and his flock.
"We've met in theater buildings where you have to scrape the gum off your shoes. We've met where you had to go in and clean up before services. Cleaning up and smelling it sort of takes away some of the aura of the sermon."
Mr. Holladay concluded by announcing plans for a survey of the general membership of he Gilmer congregation.
If the local brethren are found to be in fundamental agreement with the building plans, then a local ad-hoc committee would prepare a proposal that would go first to the ministerial-services department at UCG headquarters in Ohio.
If ministerial services turned down the proposal, it would be automatically appealed to the 12-member council of elders, of which Mr. Holladay is chairman.
"I would actually have to recuse myself," he said. "I would have to step aside from any balloting on this."
If either ministerial services or the council approves the proposal, then work can go forward on it, said Mr. Holladay.
Homeless in Gilmer
Mr. Stewart, a Big Sandy businessman and a Church of God member since 1956, says he'd much rather be back in Big Sandy than continue to meet for Sabbath services in Gilmer.
"The location is very important," he said. "Over 50 percent of our people live in Big Sandy."
And another thing: He doesn't like the rented Gilmer Civic Center, even though it's one of the nicest meeting places in East Texas.
"We don't have any meeting rooms, other than the main auditorium," he said. "We don't have a kitchen. We don't have a mother's room. We don't have a place where we can invite brethren from other church areas. We're always getting bumped and then having to meet in the Yamboree [county fair] building or a motel in Longview. We have to work around the landlord's schedule. We have to make reservations every week for a place to stay.
"We just don't have a home."
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