After the fire
After the crooked contractor, the legal problems, the construction delays that dragged on like a bad sermon on a hot day
After lightning struck the chimney and the driver slammed into the roadside marquee and the codes changed and the permits expired and too many members either left or died
After six years, two months and 22 days of setbacks that would have left Job shaking his fist at the sky, Newell Baptist Church needed a lift.
Two Sundays ago, it got one.
On May 6, the doors of the new church elevator opened at last, and for the first time, the elderly members of the 118-year-old congregation had a stairless route from Sunday school class in the basement to the sanctuary on the first floor.
The Lord always works things out, says Hank Thomas, head of the church deacons. But he sure took his time.
The genius of elevators is that they work along predictable lines. Getting from Point A to Point B is only a button away. But life, with its own ups and downs, doesnt run inside a state-approved, reinforced shaft.
As a result, Newell Baptists elevator has long since become a symbol for all that had gone wrong at the little church, and why now so many things feel right.
Theres an air of optimism here, says Carey Traynham, the finance chairman, we havent had for quite some time.
Good times and bad
The Bible has plenty to say about the balance of good times and bad.
Like a lot of small churches, Newell Baptist in the University City area had trouble attracting young families. The aging congregation struggled with the stairs to get from Sunday school to morning services. To avoid the climb, some members started skipping one or the other.
So imagine the excitement in 2005 when a church member donated almost $200,000 for an elevator.
The planning began, the permits were lined up. But almost immediately the problems started.
On Dec. 9, 2005, some wires in a sound system the church already planned to replace caught fire. The building was badly damaged. Insurance covered most of it, but the church saw a chance to make improvements that it would need in the future.
The contractor took care of those first, then built the elevator shaft and ordered the cab. It was delivered to the church. Newell Baptist gave the contractor $48,000 to cover the purchase.
The bad times were about to get worse: The contractor and the church money disappeared.
He skipped town; we couldnt find him, Thomas says. I dont think the FBI could find him.
Soon afterward, Traynham opened a letter addressed to the church and found that the elevator company wanted its money. Since the cab was on church property, it put a lien on Newell Baptist until the debt was settled.
That meant no elevator work. Newell Baptist eventually settled with the company for an additional $16,000, coupled with legal bills and months of lost time.
By now the recession had hit. Another contractor was hired but quit the project. Pastors came and left. Attendance shrank.
The saddest part of the entire episode is that some of these precious members who needed the elevator the most have gone on to be with the Lord, Thomas says.
The work goes on
The church took out a $300,000 loan to cover all the extra costs from the improvements and the elevator. Thats $2,600 a month, and every month Newell Baptist, now well under 100 members, grits its teeth and finds some way to pay.
And yet the work went on. In time, the feeling around the church lightened.
Attendance is rising. Interim minister Scott Keith looks like a keeper, and after six years, two months and 20 days of being overwhelmed with its own problems, Newell Baptist has begun looking outward, toward its future and how it can fit best into its changing community.
Except for one last detail.
On May 4, state inspectors showed up to give the elevator one last look.
Thomas, a member of Newell Baptist since 1963, was on hand, and when the state guys were finished, they handed him a permit sticker, the one all elevators have, the one with Labor Secretary Cherie Berrys smiling face.
I told them I had never seen her look that good, Thomas says.