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A loving mission isn't entirely loved

May 07, 2006|By BOB MAGINNIS

Four years ago, a downtown Hagerstown church that wanted to create affordable office space for nonprofit organizations was rocked when two groups that had been its partners decided they couldn't follow through with the agreement.

For the congregation of Christ's Reformed Church on West Franklin Street, it was time to decide - stop the $3 million project or trust in their faith and move ahead without partners.

The project went forward, but the church's members still face some daunting obstacles. Council member Penny Nigh - one of the church's members, ironically - regularly criticizes the project, saying that the homeless shelter run there by REACH (Religious Effort to Assist and Care for the Homeless) is drawing undesirables to the city.

Nigh has also argued against donating money to the project, which doesn't help. Although the congregation has raised $1.2 million on its own, it obtained another $1.7 million by taking out an interest-only loan that costs - hold on to your hat - $10,000 per month.

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But things have been looking better recently. The Washington County Commission on Aging recently moved in, joining the Women, Infants and Children program, (WIC), Potomac Case Management and REACH. Only the old shoe factory's fifth floor remains empty.

With its great views of the city skyline, the 7,600-square-foot space would seem to be a prime location, except for two things. The church cannot afford to do the finish work needed to stud out the bare brick walls, then add insulation, drywall, moldings and floor covering, plus whatever walls the new tenant needs to divide up the space.

Then last month, the project took another hit, when City Councilman Lewis Metzner said he was beginning to see a "war zone" in the neighborhood.

"As we watch the downtown, the renaissance we're (also) watching the 100 block of West Franklin (Street) turning into what looks like (Washington) D.C., after the riots," Metzner said.

That remark and subsequent news coverage disheartened church members who've been working on the project for 10 years.

Members of the church committee that oversees the project deny that the Aspiring to Serve Community Center is the source of the neighborhood's problems.

Wayne Winbrenner, a committee member, said that whatever else the REACH shelter does, it keeps the homeless off the streets all night long during cold weather.

"From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., they're not committing any crimes," Winebrenner said.

Winebrenner also bristled when he recalled a council member's recent comment that his group has asked Hagerstown police to make special patrols.

Winebrenner said he checked with police and was told that the church parking lot was part of the downtown bike patrol's regular route.

"By asking the police to patrol this area and come through our parking lot, all we asked the city to do was just to do what their normal patrol is," he said.

"We need to be positive on the project. We lost a tenant because of a remark made during a public hearing," said Winebrenner.

As for the present tenants, committee members said they're beginning to form partnerships to help those in need.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Don Stevenson, said that the REACH kitchen has begun to make food for the county's Meals of Wheels program, now under the direction of the Commission on Aging.

"That kind of thing is great to see," Stevenson said, adding that the Commission on Aging has lent its large conference room to other agencies for meetings.

Frustrated as he is with the councilwoman's comments, Winebrenner curbed the discussion when it looked as if it might turn into a "rip into Nigh" session.

"We're not here to bash Penny," Winebrenner said.

"All we're asking is for the community give us a fair shake," he said.

For my part, I told members they need a capital campaign to reduce the debt and save the money they now pay in interest each month. I also recommended that they set up tours of the building, with a representative from each agency primed to tell their organization's story.

Winebrenner's point about the homeless and the shelter makes sense. If they're in the shelter, they're not sleeping under your hedge or breaking into your car. Those who want it also have access to REACH's help with various problems as well.

As for Councilwoman Nigh, there is probably no way to change her mind at this point. In her view, the homeless are potential criminals and the REACH shelter is a magnet for those who otherwise might "ride the rails" to another, more hospitable place.

But church members can reach those other citizens - the ones who aren't yet sure how they feel - and work to convince them that ministering to the poor and other unfortunates is just what a church should be doing. Unless, of course, they've revised the Bible since the last time I read it.

If you would like to see the building, tours can be arranged by calling the Rev. Stevenson at 301-733-4144.

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