There is nothing more painful than the betrayal of people you have trusted. Church can be a joyful community, where our relationships are so close, they feel like family. Many find their purpose in …
There is nothing more painful than the betrayal of people you have trusted. Church can be a joyful community, where our relationships are so close, they feel like family. Many find their purpose in the life and work of a church and find their identity with a local church. When betrayal comes by church members or worse, by the leaders of the church, it can have a devastating effect on a person’s spiritual life. It is as if our sacred home has been vandalized.
Sadly, many have experienced the pain of being hurt by a church. Churches have divided over the social issues of women in ministry, LGBTQ inclusion, divorce, and in the case of the early church, circumcision and Scriptural interpretation. In some cases, the issues may be smaller, but the pain is real.
Fleming Island United Methodist Church began with 250 people on their first service at Paterson Elementary in 1995, and then grew to have their own site. A little white World War II chapel was moved from Orange Park United Methodist Church that had previously been at Camp Blanding. This served as the sanctuary for the newly formed congregation. The church grew to double its size and brought in young families, reaching people who had never been part of a church before. The church had plans drawn up to build a new sanctuary, fellowship hall, and gymnasium. Only one of those buildings was ever completed.
Pastors in the United Methodist Church are itinerant, so when the beloved founding pastor, Dawn Lawton, moved to another church, the church not only struggled with its feelings of grief as she left but also struggled to adopt a change in vision that the new pastor brought. People were hurt by this transition and many left the church. The congregation of 500 shrunk to 100. Eventually the congregation stabilized, but was never able to regain the number of members it had in the early life of the church.
After a new worship center was built, the little white chapel, known as Grace Place changed from being a sanctuary to a recreational space for the youth group. There was a nine square court duct taped on the middle of the floor, a pool table, and many other active games. It also became a place for unwanted items, clutter, and storage. When the church held its 20th anniversary celebration, church elders sought to clean it up and downplay the damage, but it was heartbreaking to everyone who had experienced warm and vibrant worship in that space to see Grace Place reduced to a rec room.
Grace Place became a metaphor for the life of the church. As the building showed signs of neglect and damage, the congregation also struggled with feelings of betrayal from the conference every time a new pastor was appointed.
In 2016, a group of military historians came to visit the chapel to identify its history. During their visit Russ Kamradt, a dedicated church member and retired U.S. Marine, decided to head up a renovation project of the historic chapel. Initially his idea was to clean the carpet and put up some bead board on the walls to cover the damage. Like many construction projects, it grew to involve donations from many people in the community, including a new pulpit and communion table from Englewood Baptist Church. A stained glass window that had been donated to Fleming Island Presbyterian and was no longer needed when that churched closed was re-donated to Grace Place. The old carpet was pulled up to reveal beautiful hardwood floors which were refinished. The interior had new drywall installed and was completely repainted. Russ Kamradt headed up his “three wise men” a group of retired men who did most of the renovation themselves along with their “wonder woman,” a retired police officer in the congregation who worked together two days a week for over a year to renovate the building.
As Grace Place transformed, the church also experienced renewal, with new members joining the church and a revitalized mission team engaging in partnerships with local, regional, and international missions. The church established a sister church partnership with a church in Cuba, partnered with Mercy Support Services of Clay County and Family Promise of Jacksonville, and have supported local food pantries, the local shoe drive for needy children, and the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home. The number of children and youth involved has tripled. The church now has a vital small group ministry where people grow deeper together in their faith. Fleming Island UMC was among approximately 46 churches in the North East District that were not considered vital, but this year, the church has hit the 8 out of 10 metrics needed to be considered a vital congregation. The church recently held the first wedding in Grace Place since the renovation and hopes to have many more weddings in this beautiful venue.
Transformation is what the Christian life is all about. We were lost and then found. We were brought from death to life. Jesus of Nazareth spent his ministry healing the sick, feeding the hungry, comforting the grieving, and building strong relationships with his disciples. Even Jesus experienced church hurt from the religious leaders and betrayal from those in his inner circle. As he hung on the cross, he asked for forgiveness for those who hurt him. On Easter morning, we celebrated the risen Lord, the only one who can conquer death. In our joy, we rejoice that no matter how much pain we have experienced, no matter how dark our worst days are; Jesus can heal us and bring us into new life.
We invite all who have been hurt by another person, or by life’s circumstances, to forgive and then to walk forward in faith, responding to the invitation of Jesus to come and follow.