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‘God’s been good’ to New York church

Diverse congregation celebrates the purchase of its first permanent building after leasing a hotel ballroom for years.

MIDDLETOWN, N.Y.  — Even with a GPS, finding the Middletown Church of Christ  can be difficult.

It’s hidden behind a pancake restaurant inside a worn-out Howard Johnson Hotel that often houses homeless people and recovering drug addicts.
For two decades, the congregation has worshiped in a hotel ballroom in this Hudson Valley city of 28,000, about 60 miles northwest of New York City.
Recently, though, the church purchased its first permanent facility, an old town hall that members intend to refurbish — with their own sweat and support from Christians across the nation.
“The Lord has blessed the church in Middletown in a way that has amazed us all,” said Grant Southwell, an Oklahoma native and financial consultant who handles the preaching duties most Sundays.
“Even with the economic downturn, real estate in New York state is not inexpensive, but we were able to purchase a building that should serve us many years and at a price that was well below market value,” added Southwell, who said the building cost $234,000 plus interest but may need to be insured for three times that amount.
The small, growing congregation — which drew 60 souls on a recent Sunday — mixes whites, blacks and Hispanics as well as immigrants from Barbados, Ghana, Italy, Jamaica and Nigeria.

The church reflects the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of Orange County, which saw its Hispanic and black populations surge between 2000 and 2010.
“In the last five years, we have been blessed with people from all walks of life coming in,” said longtime member Charles Auston, a former Brooklyn resident who organizes a monthly singing service at a nursing home where his wife, Wanda, resides. She has Huntington’s disease.


Member Victor Ortiz was born in Manhattan but later moved to Puerto Rico, where he attended a Spanish-speaking Church of Christ.
As an adult, Ortiz fell away from his Christian roots. But he returned to his faith seven years ago and found a home in the Middletown church.
“I think what you see in our church is definitely what you would encounter out here in the community,” Ortiz said of the racial and ethnic diversity.
“At our congregation, it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” he added. “There’s the aspect of Ephesians — being one body, one mind, one God, one Lord and one baptism — and everything else disappears.”
Charles Andoh, who grew up in the Nsawam Road Church of Christ in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, and his wife, Fola, a native of Nigeria, said they felt an immediate spiritual kinship with the Middletown congregation.
“Whenever the people of God are doing things the right way, it’s always the same,” Charles Andoh said. “It never changes.
“So many of the songs that we sing, we used to sing in Ghana,” added Andoh, who said he enjoys leading “We’re Marching to Zion” because it reminds him of home.

Far from the Bible Belt, the Middletown church serves a county with 375,000 residents but only 185 total adherents of Churches of Christ, according to a national directory published by 21st Century Christian in Nashville, Tenn.
Members describe the purchase of the 9,000-square-foot building as the answer to prayers. “Very long, many, many prayers,” said longtime member Jane Godfrey, who recalls the church forming as a group of about 15 Christians meeting in homes.
Viewing upstate New York as a mission field, congregations in at least six states have contributed to the Middletown church’s building fund.
Supporters include the Maysville Church of Christ in Gurley, Ala.; the Westside Church of Christ in Crossett, Ark.; the Cape Cod Church of Christ in Massachusetts; the Highland Church of Christ in Tecumseh, Okla.; the I-85 Church of Christ in Greenville, S.C.; and the Fifth Ward Church of Christ in Houston.
The church hopes to move into the old town hall in September. A new roof has been put on, and a group of Sojourners — retirees in recreational vehicles who travel the county helping fellow Christians — plan to work on the renovation in July.
“God’s been good. When it looked like there was no way, he made a way,” said member Greg Johnson, who grew up in the Fifth Ward church in Houston. “I don’t think it was an accident that all of us came from different places and ended up here.”
Johnson said the building will allow the congregation to organize community events and youth activities such as Vacation Bible School. “That’s tough to do at the Howard Johnson’s,” he said.
The hotel has a government contract to house homeless people and recovering addicts.
“We’ve tried to maintain good contact with the management there, and there’s been a lot of times we’ve helped residents in the hotel,” Andoh said. “We’ve taken food up there. We’ve taken games and toys for the children.”
But the lack of a permanent facility and, in some cases, the hotel’s reputation have hindered evangelistic efforts, he said.
Friends and neighbors who do visit find a loving congregation that transcends colors and cultures, members said.
“They hear the truth, but I think they’re just overwhelmed by the love,” Johnson said. “When they see that love, it prompts them to come back. The more they come back, the more they hear God’s word.”
Southwell said he can’t help but see God at work in bringing together the diverse group of Christians.
Working on a domestic mission field, he said, “you almost feel like you’re in a desert.” In that desert, the church becomes an oasis.
“And you come to the oasis,” Southwell said, “and whatever personal differences you may have — or historical or background or cultural differences — they all go away because you’re all thirsty. You come together, and you get that thirst quenched.”

  • Feedback
    Blessings on all who are helping this congregation as well as the members. I pray you can have a rich harvest among those in recovery at Howard Johnson’s and those whose lives are troubled. You sound like a congregation I would like to be part of.
    Anita M Johnson
    San Jose, CA
    July, 10 2013

Filed under: National

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