A Bookstore, Barn Raisers, A New Church

By Fr. Thomas Moore

Uncovering the strengths of the parish to meet the challenges of growth

When a priest arrives at a new parish, he intuitively begins to assess the strengths and weaknesses of many areas of the community’s spiritual life. I made many such observations within a few weeks of my arrival at Holy Apostles Mission. Among many other observations, three led to unique responses, which I have been asked to share here.

Aside from the spiritual and liturgical needs of the parish, several related issues about its physical situation struck me. First, although the mission had imaginatively refurbished an old warehouse into a beautiful little church, it was on a back road in a residential and light commercial area with very little foot or vehicle traffic. Second, it was never open except for services. Third, and seemingly disconnected from the first two, many members of the church had enjoyed doing “construction” type work on the church, and took great pride in the way they had transformed it.

As a result of these observations we put a plan into effect. I can’t say it was a conscious plan. That is to say, we did not know that all three of these separate threads would bear fruit the way they have. Attentiveness to each, and discovering and encouraging gifts and talent opened the door for the Holy Spirit to pull disparate elements into a plan we could not foresee. St. Innocent’s quote, “Truly God directs our steps in the way we should go,” should comfort all who contemplate taking the risky steps necessary for growth.

Implementing the “Plan”

The first thing we decided was that we needed a more accessible and available public face. We proposed to find a small storefront in a busy section of town and open a bookstore. The parish committed $5000 to stock it, and committed to help with the rent until it could be self-sufficient. This proved to be more difficult than we had expected. Rents anywhere in popular or more desirable areas of town turned out to be more than we could afford.

At the same time, some of the parishioners who had enjoyed renovation work on the church organized themselves into a ministry of the church we dubbed the “Barn Raisers.” One Saturday a month we got together and did charity construction work for members of the church who had simple jobs they either could not afford to do, or could not do themselves. One month we put a new roof on a single mom’s home. Another family was helped to get its home ready to sell, so it could move closer to the church. On another occasion we helped a local Mennonite contractor build a barn for our local monastery.

We did not have a formal procedure for requests or procurement of materials. We started by simply helping each other. Eventually, someone would mention so and so in our parish was broke and needed some help and we would all agree to go. In some situations we brought materials and in others they were supplied. Each month we would compare schedules and ideas for the next few months, varying our “Barn Raiser Saturdays” as schedules permitted. Not everyone could come each time, but the same group was consistent over a course of a couple of years. This proved to be a time of great fellowship, and “built” goodwill among community members, but none of us expected it to bear the fruit it subsequently did.

In our search for a bookstore, I found an old, dilapidated building on a busy street among alternative types of stores (cafes, bars, and antiques) not far from the church. After some detective work, I met the owner, and after some discussion, he agreed to let us have the building rent-free for a year, if we would fix it up. You have probably already figured out the solution. Within a month our “Barn Raisers” had completely renovated the building, and we had an Orthodox bookstore with no rent for a year! One of the retired women in our parish had always wanted to run a bookstore and offered to keep it open five days a week. We had an extension phone line put in from the church so that when anyone called the church, he or she spoke to a live person at the bookstore. We offered coffee, classes—some basic, very informal discussions on Orthodoxy, Bible studies, and our life in Christ - and someone with whom to talk. The store flourished.

At the end of that year we were able to combine a tax write-off with a modest rent, and the bookstore stayed open for the next three years. During that time, many people “discovered” and or deepened their journey to the Orthodox Church. It provided a neutral meeting place for many people of diverse backgrounds, and functioned as an “office” for me. Many times it led to lunch or coffee discussions at local cafes. Soon the bookstore and I, always dressed in cassock and riassa, became well known in the area.

Outgrowing Our Church Building

This might be the end of the story, except that with all this and other exposure, our church had almost tripled in attendance and we were quickly outgrowing our building. With little money to spare, we spent the last couple of years exploring our options, looking at other pieces of property, and finally decided to buy a small building next door in which to expand. We were not very excited about it, but felt it was all we could afford.

When Archbishop DMITRI came for his yearly visit, we submitted our plans to him.

He directed us to find a new, larger building with more visibility. Obediently we renewed our search, and almost immediately found a large undeveloped warehouse with a showroom in front, on one of the three major highways close to downtown Columbia. However, purchasing it would take all of our building fund for the down payment, raise our mortgage considerably, and leave nothing for renovation until we sold our building.

Again you are probably already anticipating the end of my tale, but the details are exciting. We bought the building. Despite realtors’ warnings that ours would be difficult to sell because of our asking price and location, we put a “For Sale” sign out front, and sold it ourselves in three days. Within a month “Barn Raisers” renovated the showroom, and we moved the bookstore. Due to its growth and popularity, it now contributed $300 a month toward our new mortgage! We entered into a contract with our old friend the Mennonite contractor to supervise the “Barn Raisers” in refurbishing our new building with a time frame and phases we hoped to afford.

We were able to begin worshipping right away in the concrete block building without disrupting our services, and we are now completing the work on our new hall and play area for the children. Many parishioners and friends outside of the “Barn Raisers” group came two evenings a week and on Saturdays to help. We had to suspend our “Barn raisers” charity work to others for “a season,” but everyone now has a sense that God is moving us ever toward a greater work together. We believe that if we continue each day to discover, develop, and foster other gifts He has given us, He will continue to reveal more about His plan for how we should use them and the Way in which we should go.

Fr. Thomas Moore is pastor of Holy Apostles Mission, Columbia, SC and is a member of the OCA Department of Christian Witness and Service.