The Walnut Avenue Church Story
by Michelle Greene Wheeler
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The Walnut Avenue Church Story
In 1982, on a hilltop once used for annual fairs, a sixty-unit public housing complex was built to house the low-income residents of Spruce Pine, North Carolina. The modern townhouse-style apartments were a ray of hope for some, but was soon seen by others in the community as a hot-bed of immoral and often illegal activity.
Any time sixty families live in very close proximity to one another, there are bound to be some problems. Some of the reputation that the complex earned was truthfully deserved. But much of it stemmed from the actions of a handful being exaggerated out of proportion, and blame being assigned to all who called the apartments home. Many who turned to the apartments for shelter were in terrible circumstances. Single mothers who were attempting to keep what remained of their families intact. Women who had, thankfully, been able to escape abusive situations. Families who, through illness or factory shut-downs, suddenly found themselves without any means of income.
Each and every apartment held a unique story. A story worth hearing, if only someone would take the time to listen. Most held situations worth responding to, if only someone would recognize the need for action. Almost all held hurting people, searching for answers to life's tough questions, if only someone who knew where those answers could be found would share what they knew. If only someone would share the hope and love that a living Savior could provide.
Every now and again, various churches from the area would knock on doors, inviting residents to visit their churches. A few churches would try sending their vans around the complex on Sunday mornings, but more often than not, they were met with drawn shades and closed doors. Many residents would never go because of their fear of feeling uncomfortable. Few of them owned "church" clothes. And when most were struggling to make ends meet, buying new clothes was simply out of the question. Because of living in such a small town, many residents were afraid that there would inevitably be that handful of people at these churches who knew their story, had seen all their mistakes and flaws, and would look down on them or make them feel unwelcome. Some were simply running away from religion. Having had prior disappointments with churches they had attended in the past, or feeling as though they could never be forgiven for things that they had done, a few residents shied away from church and even God.
There were several ministries through the years that would come to the complex and hold services in a setting on their own turf so that the residents would feel more comfortable. But time after time, these ministries would move on shortly after moving in.
But all that changed in the fall of 1998, when Randy Bonner brought his wife Michelle and their two small children from Alabama to the mountains of North Carolina to start a church in the middle of this public housing project. Not only did he and his family bring a church to the apartments, they also moved into one of the units themselves! It was a radical idea, leaving a newly built home, financial security and all their friends and family behind to come to a town where they knew no one and had no assurances of how they would be able to support themselves.
But God had thankfully called them to this very purpose, and had impressed upon their hearts the understanding of one simple principal: that those who are rejected the most are those who need the message of Jesus the most.
Before the first service, research was done in the little town to gauge the need for this new ministry. The results of that research showed that not only were most of the residents in the complex currently unchurched, but that there were 5,000 people within a 5 mile radius of the center of town who also did not attend a church anywhere. Randy spent time in the project community as well. He relayed to the residents that modeling the church after the example of Jesus, every one who entered would be accepted, and that no one would be rejected. He explained how everyone should come just as they were. That it didn't matter how they were dressed, and that even he would be wearing jeans without dress shirt or tie to each service. He also conveyed to them how the sermons would be relevant to their lives and that the music played and sung would be songs of worship and adoration offered directly to God. And most importantly, Randy let each and every resident know that Jesus loved them, no matter what story their past held.
There were plenty of comments about what Randy and his family had done and the idea of a church in government housing. Some of the comments were encouraging. Most of them were the absolute opposite. Some thought that this man had to be more than just a little crazy. Some would shake their heads and say that planting a church in such a seemingly despicable place was futile. Some thought that there were enough churches in the area and that residents should go to one of these rather than begin a new church. A few predicted that this new ministry would follow along the same path of the ones who had come and gone before it. They figured that Randy and his family would pack their belongings and head back to where they had came from within months. Some even thought that this new approach to church was doctrinally unsound. But, to the glory of God as always, Randy knew that whatever our Heavenly Father has ordained by his grace cannot be torn asunder by man's thoughts or words.
The community building that lies in the center of the complex was filled nearly to capacity that first Sunday. The response to this church that was different from any the residents had ever attended before was heart warming. Though those who attended varied during those first fledgling months, soon there grew a core group of new members to experience of birth of Walnut Avenue Church.
One of the men in attendance on that historic Sunday was the first of the many lives to be thoroughly changed. Adam Wheeler had lived in the apartments since he was three years old. Now married, with a son and step-daughter of his own, his family lived within yards of the unit where he had grown up years before. Soon after moving into the apartments, Randy invited Adam to join him for an afternoon of trout fishing. On the way, Randy began talking with Adam about Jesus. Before the two of them even reached the river, they found themselves by the side of the road in Randy's Isuzu Trooper. There, in what was probably the least likely of all places, Adam accepted Christ as his personal Savior.
Stories like Adam's have been repeated many times in the eight years since Walnut Avenue Church was founded. Several mission groups from throughout the South have donated time and materials to assist with holding Vacation Bible School sessions during the summers for the children who live at the complex. And a number of those children, as well as teens, have made professions of faith while attending these and regular services. Residents who have accepted Christ have been eagerly baptized in partnering Baptist churches in the area, a mobile baptistry brought to the community building, a local fitness center's indoor pool, and even the Toe River which flows through the middle of town. Each Sunday, an hour before the worship service, there is a children's service which ministers to the little ones in the community. Numerous times, there have been residents who faced some type of urgent need, such as utilities about to be cut off or empty pantries, that the members of the church have been able to offer help with. The list of great and small blessings that God has brought to the families who live in the complex through Walnut Avenue Church could go on and on. Just as long would be the record of blessings that the members themselves have received through God's great mercy and grace.
Of course, because of the high turnover rate of tenants in the apartment complex,
some of the faces at the church have changed through the years. But this fact only serves as a vehicle for the ministry to show God's love to more hurting people. Each new family which moves in creates a new opportunity to minister. At Walnut Avenue Church, their fervent prayer is that God will continue to open doors as well as hearts in the community. And that He will continue to provide the resources needed, along with the stamina and strength that it takes to be a part of such an active, unique ministry.
The majority of that original core group are still there. Their faithfulness to the work that He has allowed them to be a part of is inspiring to those who have seen the trials that the church has faced, and the dedication that each has displayed. Please join with the church members in prayer for this awesome opportunity and tremendous responsibility of exemplifying Christ to this neighborhood of people who so desperately need the strength and peace that only He can offer. Pray that Walnut Avenue Church will be blessed in their efforts to be God's shining light that cannot be hid on the old fairground hill.
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