Janine Colter had been into the little building at 647 Maple St. more times than she could count — including a time when she couldn’t count.
A member since birth, she’d been inside every square inch of the St. James African Methodist Church. She had seen it through the eyes of a child, a mother, a trustee and a choir member.
But on that Saturday in May, she was going to see it as she’d never seen it: resurrected.
That’s because that night, May 9, was the first time Colter or any of the other longtime members of St. James had seen the church healthy and whole in more than four years.
Back in 2005, heavy water damage caused an infestation of mold and rot that forced members to shutter the North Lawrence landmark. Then came a spate of squatters and calls to the police. And lastly, in the final stages of rebuilding, a dispute with a contractor.
But none of the past trials mattered that night as Colter walked through the doors, a fellow church member urging her to close her eyes before entering.
“I was one of the last ones to arrive that day, because I work Saturdays, and one of the other trustees said, ‘Close your eyes,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘Just close your eyes!’ and they led me into the church,” Colter says. “And I opened my eyes ... and I just started screaming with joy and shouting, thanking God, because it was truly amazing going back and seeing the walls of the church back up the way that it should be.”
The church’s first service to be held at the Maple Street building since 2005 was held the next day, Mother’s Day, with the Rev. Theodore Lee presiding.
“It was just, it was an awesome day,” Colter says. “To sit back in the choir stands and sing songs and (have) tears flowing down my face, because it was just like, this is was this about. There’s nothing like home.”
That return home had been a long time coming with several starts and stops along the way.
It all started in 2005, when the then-139-year-old church suffered during a series of heavy rains. The resulting 5 feet of water in the church’s basement, as well as leaks in the roof, were just the beginning of the church’s problems. Soon, a hazardous black mold encroached despite members’ efforts to dry out the building.
At the time, the church was 240 members strong and had won Church of the Year honors at the AME regional conference. Undeterred by the building’s problems, the congregation soon began meeting at other locations, that over time included everything from the Union Pacific Depot, the Holidome, the Boys and Girls Club, the East Lawrence Recreation Center and even Colter’s beauty shop, the Hidden Jewel Salon & Spa.
“If there were no facilities available for it, we would have church in the salon,” Colter says of the Hidden Jewel, 1246 Haskell Ave. “If there were meetings that needed to be conducted, a lot of times we would have it at the salon.”
But the location merry-go-round wasn’t the only ever-changing factor. Soon after the building damage, the church’s celebrated pastor, the Rev. Gregory Gray, went his own way, taking much of the congregation with him.
Between the schism and the lack of a permanent location, the church family began to dwindle, as did the funds to fix the ailing building.
By the time the current pastor, Lee, began helping out at the church, the congregation was down to the bare bones and the Maple Street building had been rife with squatters claiming it for their own.
“To me, it was more in the abandonment category,” Lee says of the building two years ago when he began his relationship with the church. “It was almost like, you know, it could be torn down ... it was at that level.”
From there, the church worked hard to raise the money to fix the last of the building’s problems, all the while staying involved in helping others within the community through fellowship, food drives and other projects. But despite the fact that the money was raised by the active congregation, now numbering close to 30, the church’s problems were far from being over says Kwam Nelson, president of the church’s trustee board.
“There were some things that went on with us trying to get back in that stopped us,” Nelson says. “I mean, a couple contractors ... kind of flaked out on us, you know, we gave them the money and they flaked out on us. It’s kind of been an interesting couple of years.”
Work to be done
Nelson says that one of the more recent “flaky” moments have led to “legal proceedings” but did not go into further detail. Instead, he’d rather talk about the happy ending, which came about with help from a church member named Willie Fleming, Nelson says.
“In the meantime, we prayed on it, and what had happened is we have a licensed contractor who is part of our trustee board,” Nelson says. “He happened to have a month open where he didn’t have any work or anything, so he went in with our donations, he went in and put up all the walls, the dry wall, redid the floors. We had mold in there and he went ahead and got rid of all that. Plumbing. Wiring. Everything.”
Now back in the building, there’s still work to be done in the basement, but the congregation can live with that. In fact, they can live with anything, says Colter, because St. James was never really shuttered in her opinion.
“Because the church is the people,” Colter says, “it’s not just the building.”