New congregation at GR church means new life

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A church faced with a dwindling membership will be turning over its church building and property to a Sudanese congregation in need of a permanent home. 

For the congregations and for the West Side neighborhood it resides, it is a way to ensure the property remains a house of worship. 

Wallin Congregational Church started on 1st Street on the West Side more 115 years ago before moving to the neighborhood across the highway from John Ball Park at 1550 Oswego Street NW. 

Tom Charles has been a member of Wallin since 1968, in a sanctuary that held about 400 people. 

“Well, on Sundays it was full, and we had Sunday school for the kids — I think we had two choirs,” Charles said. 

But Wallin has seen an affliction that is hitting most mainline religious institutions — dwindling attendance. 

“We were fortunate to have an endowment fund that helped us get through because the contributions on Sunday didn’t cover much,” Charles said.  

They were holding services in a small room, not the sanctuary, as the number of attendees dropped when longtime members left of passed away, and there were no families and children to take their place. 

“Well, 12 or 15 would be lucky and it could be as few as three or four,” said Ila Flo Barfuss, a retired pastor of the church before it dissolved.

Meanwhile, in East Grand Rapids, a thriving congregation of Sudanese Christians were sharing space provided by Mayflower Congregational Church at 2345 Robinson Road SE since 2012. 

The Sudanese congregation was led by Rev. Zachariah Char who came to the United States in 2001 with other Lost Boys of Sudan who trekked 1,000 miles to flee civil war in their homeland. He would become the second person from Sudan to be ordained in the U.S. Episcopal Church. 

Now, the Sudanese population is the fastest growing segment of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. 

“We have a good number of children. They need classroom, they need Christian education, they need community,” Char said. 

Char heard that Wallin was looking at transferring to a new congregation and soon the Sudanese congregation was filling the sanctuary. 

“We hadn’t heard children’s voices like that in this place for years,” Barfuss said. 

The remaining congregation decided to dissolve the congregation and to give the church to the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan for the Sudanese congregation looking for a permanent home. 

“It felt right. It felt like God’s hand was here,” Barfuss said. “When they come in, we don’t shake hands now, we have hugs. It’s neat.” 

They say the church will also serve as a place for the Sudanese community to come together for cultural activities. 

Katie Forsyth, spokesperson for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan, said the congregation is a resource hub for new families arriving to the United States, providing outreach and education for both Dinka and English speakers. 

The church will also be open to the community for gathering places, weddings, funerals and there will be a monthly English service, which is good news for neighbors who worried the church would become high density housing. 

“We’re all very happy to hear that it was just going to be another church and it will keep the feel of the neighborhood, which is what we were hoping for,” said Gere Keyes, a neighbor who has lived in the neighborhood for 28 years. 

The church also includes several classrooms, a commercial-grade kitchen and multiple meeting areas, along with almost three acres of land. 

“We will keep this building as a house of God and also pass it to the next generation as the former generation passed it to us.” said Char who will now be able to become a full-time paster as a result of the move. 

The church will have a service on Feb. 14 where the official transfer will take place. 

The plan is to as many people who have been part of both congregations as well as people in the neighborhood and the community there as possible. 

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