By LESLIE COLLINS
September 25, 2013
Kansas City Grace Church of the Nazarene is tearing down walls to build up community. Literally.
For years, the old fellowship hall located in the church parking lot sat unused. Mold and mildew climbed on the walls. The foundation leaked. The roof leaked. At one point, water had flowed through the front door. The building was never meant to stand alone, but became a fellowship hall when a fire occurred at the church in the 1950s. Construction crews tore down the front of the damaged stone church built in 1935, leaving a portion of the building which later became fellowship hall. Crews covered the stone with brick, but the building was never properly sealed and eventually became a money pit.
“It was in such poor repair and it was falling apart,” said Grace Church Co-pastor Joey Condon.
Adding to the blow, the building became a regular target for gang graffiti.
But Condon’s wife and Grace Church Co-pastor Tammy Condon had a vision for the space: a community front porch.
Originally, the church planned to completely tear down the building to gain additional parking space. However, accommodating new city codes would have meant paying for an environmental impact study, reconfiguring the parking lot and actually losing parking space. That’s when Tammy thought of leaving the bare bones of the building, showcasing the stone that firmly stood underneath the brick facade. They discovered a stone archway around the front door and stone columns once hidden by interior walls.
“All of a sudden we began to have this concept of tearing the brick apart and revealing the great stone from this 1935 church,” Joey said. “We thought about creating a sacred space in the city, a meditative prayer garden where people in the community could come reflect and pray.”
Their vision then spread further.
“We thought, ‘No, we need more than that. The church needs a front porch,'” Joey said.
In the suburbs, barbecues and parties take place in the backyard or on the back deck. In Historic Northeast, the front porch is the gathering spot, he said.
“In the Northeast neighborhood, the barbecue grill’s on the front porch and the center of community life is on the front porch,” Joey said.
Not only will the space become a meditative garden, complete with trees, flowers, ivy and repurposed stone benches, the space will become a community gathering spot. Both Tammy and Joey envision hosting concerts, art shows, a live Nativity scene, movie nights, barbecues and other community events at the “community front porch.” When weather permits, they plan to host Sunday morning church services outside at the community front porch.
“It’s going to be a church without walls,” Joey said.
At Grace, the congregation hails from a number of ethnic backgrounds and reflects the diverse cultures of Northeast, he said. One of the goals of the church is to exemplify what it means to live in community, and when people drive by the Independence Avenue church they’ll see firsthand how Northeast can be a family and live in community, he said.
“We want to invite the world to our front porch,” Joey said.
Although Joey and Tammy had planned to tear down the fellowship hall for several years, demolition didn’t fall into place until this past month. About 30 volunteers from area churches and non-profit organizations stripped down the interior, recycling as much as possible. Two weeks ago, volunteers removed the roof, and last week, a volunteer crew demolished most of the structure.
“It couldn’t have happened without them (volunteers). We’re very grateful,” Tammy said. “I’m very excited. It’s been six years, so it’s hard to believe we’re finally here.”
While other community spots are gated and closed at certain times in Northeast, the community front porch will always be open and welcome to anyone 24/7, she said.
For Tammy and Joey, along with older members of the congregation, there’s a sense of nostalgia in tearing down the fellowship hall. While studying in seminary, Tammy called Grace Church home and the couple held their wedding reception at the fellowship hall. Others remember the potluck dinners and numerous other events that were held there. But, soon, new memories will be built and in a small way, keeping the bare bones is a way of preserving the past but also looking toward the future.
“It’s so exciting to see the dream come true,” Joey said. “We anticipate God doing a marvelous thing in the Northeast and we want to be a part of it. We want people to understand this is their front porch and if we can help the community in any way, that’s our mission; that’s why we’re here.”