Renovated church sparks hope downtown

WARREN -- A tiny, recently renovated, 110-year-old wooden church stands as a beacon of hope for the rebirth of the city's downtown.
"It makes me both thankful and grateful," the Rev. Gayle Salter said of completion of a recent renovation project at her Eastside Church of God. "We have been extremely blessed."
The most recent renovations, funded by the parishioners and costing more than $50,000, were dedicated this year at the 1895-vintage church at 137 Vine Ave. S.E. These included installation of white vinyl siding, new shrubbery, a new exterior sign, and installation of a entrance ramp and handicapped-accessible restroom on the sanctuary floor.
The siding was installed because the exterior paint was absorbed by the wood and peeled and chipped within a few years, the Rev. Ms. Salter said.
The renovations make a statement "that we care and that we have pride in ourselves, in our church and in Warren," she said.
Bought church in 1991
Ms. Salter founded the congregation in 1988, and it used rented quarters at the Warren YWCA until it bought the former Russian Orthodox Church on Vine Street in 1991, saving the historic edifice from the wrecker's ball. The racially and ethnically diverse 60-member congregation is affiliated with The Church of God in Anderson, Ind.
Soon after buying the building, the congregation installed carpeting and a new interior stairway from the sanctuary to the basement and painted the interior and exterior. A new roof was installed about five years ago.
The sanctuary is bathed in sunlight through brilliantly colored, north- and south-facing stained-glass windows with floral designs, which are as old as the building and which Ms. Salter calls "priceless."
"If you're here on a Sunday morning, and the sun is shining through these windows, it's an awesome feeling,'' Ms. Salter said of the large arched windows.
The sun shines on the altar area through a round east-facing stained-glass window, and a west-facing stained-glass vestibule window depicts Christ's ascension into heaven.
Four chandeliers hang from the ceiling of the sanctuary, which can comfortably accommodate more than 80 people in an intimate worship setting.
Good neighborhood influence
But the church's influence on downtown goes far beyond the attractiveness of its building, which is one of the first things seen by people arriving in the city at the adjacent Greyhound bus terminal.
"When we first got the building, there were things around the church that I believe we prayed away," Ms. Salter said. Prostitutes, who once frequented the area, have left, and the church's presence discouraged a bar from locating across the street, she said.
"We have definitely made an impact."
The congregation helps its neighbors through two major annual efforts, one of which is an August giveaway of back-to-school supplies, clothes and shoes. The eighth annual giveaway benefited more than 570 schoolchildren this year. Parishioners collect supplies for that giveaway all year.
Supporting students
The congregation's other major annual project is a "day of meals" prepared by parishioners and served free in the church basement to all students and staff at the nearby LifeSkills Center, a charter high school, which shares a parking lot with the church.
"It's our way of meeting these children and telling them that 'We're rooting for you,''' said the pastor, who will be the school's graduation speaker this year.
A message on the church's newly installed exterior sign proclaims: "When God shuts a door, he opens a window." The message tells people not to despair because, when God shuts a door, "There will be another avenue of blessing," the pastor explained.
"Our goal is still to make a difference in this area," Ms. Salter said. "We see a lot of broken people that walk by or sit on our steps, and it's a constant reminder that there's still so much more to do."

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