October 31, 2015 is a date that is indelibly burned into the memory of the members of Ashland’s Salem Baptist Church community.
On that Halloween eve, they gathered in horror at the site of their beloved church, as flames shot through the roof, totally razing their place of worship on Beaser Avenue.
Sunday October 30, 2016 will be just as indelibly etched into their memories as the day they broke ground on a new church building, bonding in faith and fellowship, sharing chili and community in a grassy field where they hope a year from now will see them celebrating God in a new house of the Lord.
The church members had just come from the Ashland High School gymnasium where they have been holding Sunday worship services for the past year since the fire, and they gathered and chatted, sitting on folding chairs and enjoying bowls of hot chili cooking fragrantly on portable LP gas burners. The air was crisp and cool but not yet freezing, and people spoke optimistically of beginning the project before the frost set in and winter snows bury the site under a blanket of white.
“We are hopeful to get that pile of dirt moved and the land graded in maybe two or three weeks,” said Ralph Larson, a member of the Salem Church Building Committee. “The question is, are we going to be able to pour concrete, and that really depends on how the weather is; if there is frost, they won’t start. If there is no frost for a while, we are going to look at digging and pouring the footings. They can actually put metal up all winter long, if we can get to that point. But we don’t know if we will be able to get to that point. Pray for no frost until the end of November.”
Salem Pastor Rod Larson read from scriptures before the congregation witnessed the ceremonial groundbreaking for the new church.
“Do you remember what our theme was, last spring when we started this?” he asked.
“Rise up,” replied a number of members of the congregation.
“We looked in the Old Testament, when the people of Israel were building the temple, stating with David collecting the resources to build the temple,” he said. “We looked at scriptures there that had to do with staying on mission and giving, and I look back and there were a few verses that are really appropriate for what we are doing.”
Larson then quoted from Chronicles.
“Oh Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, our fathers preserve this forever in the intentions of the heart of your people and direct their heart to you,” he read.
“David was talking about wanting the people’s hearts to be directed to God. The building matters, because it is a tool, it is a resource. But really, what matters is above every other thing in terms of what God calls us to do, is our hearts being directed towards him, even as we are breaking ground and we are excited about getting going here, still our heartbeat at Salem is that we want our hearts to be directed towards God and to be held to that.”
Larson called Sunday’s ceremony “a step in the journey” and noted that there was much more work to do.
“The timing of it is unsure; we are trusting in God — he has that in control — and we will try to remain faithful to what he wants us to do.”
The groundbreaking ceremony involved a number of shovels and members of the church’s leadership. Their was a fair amount of good-natured ribbing as shovelers struggled to cut a shovel full of thick sod for the photo-op, but after a few moments, the turf was turned, and the Salem Baptist Church rebuilding project was officially under way.
There was a photo taken of the congregation posed in front of a grass-covered knoll on the property. On its crest a lone cross stood, marking the spot where the future church would stand. At the front of the congregation, a small number of the church’s most elderly members stood in honor of their long membership; for all of them, this was their third church building.
“I think it is a blessing of God’s hand,” said church member Roger Larson of the plans for the new building. “Going back to our heritage of the Swedish immigrants, my grandpa was one of the first ones in the church, when it was first built. For us to see this crowd of people, rejoicing together in what God is going to do here, is wonderful.”
“All I can say is thank you Lord,” added his wife, Nancy Larson.
Rod Larson said there was never any question, even on the night the church burned, that it would be rebuilt, and the fact that the subject of that fervent hope is on its way to becoming a reality is due to a number of factors that go well beyond the church membership.
“We are grateful for the support of the church itself, but also the community; from day one, they were just incredibly supportive, and still are,” he said. “That is how we are able to be where we are at today,” he said. “Just everyone getting together, and obviously God is orchestrating it.”
Larson said the way the project has come together, was sufficient to make one believe that a higher power was involved.
“When you look at it in hindsight, we couldn’t have planned it that well, even getting this property wasn’t on our radar at the beginning,” he said. “We were looking to build across the road and now we can look back and see how God has directed us to this place and how it is even going to be more adequate and sensitive to the community and wetland issues, so we can take all that into account. We want to be good stewards and we want to be good with our community.”
Part of the plans for the project area include a separate development from the church, a 24-unit community based assisted living residence development and a pair of three story apartment buildings each having 24 housing units.
That development is planned by Dallas-based CP Homes, a division of Pacrim, US LLC. According to their web site, that company is involved in a variety of real estate and other ventures. They develop and operate assisted living developments throughout the United States.
The church purchased their property from the CP Homes and Larson said the two developments should be a perfect fit for each other as well as for the community in general.
He also acknowledged that the development has a long way to go.
“There is a lot of work to be done, and it’s going to be an interesting journey even to see if we can get started this fall,” he said.
Larson said local firms would be used as much as possible in the construction of the building.
“Two weeks ago our Elder board approved going local with the financing, and we are trying hard to keep everything local, to bless the community,” he said.
He admitted he couldn’t wait for the completion of the project.
“It would be very exciting if we could get it in by the end of 2017,” he said.