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Difficult decisions provide resources and hope

St. Thomas House
© Bob Williams

by Rebekah Thornhill


After St. Thomas Lutheran Church in the Bronx determined that they had completed their mission and voted to close, our synod’s leaders looked for ways to continue to support ministry in that neighborhood and throughout our synod. Soon the newly renovated and renamed St. Thomas House began its two-year ministry of housing interns and providing meeting space for many, including a synodically authorized worshiping community called Ascension Table.


In the two years that followed, the neighborhood around St. Thomas house continued to change. This stretch of about 70 blocks along the Grand Concourse saw a drastic urban renewal. As expected, housing developers are finding interest in this area, looking for ways to enter into the market themselves.


As one developer became interested in purchasing the lot directly next to St. Thomas House, they were persistent in asking us to consider selling St. Thomas House. For six months, we consistently said no. However once the developer purchased the neighboring lot, we began to learn about their plans for that site. As we heard about a 12-story apartment building being built right on the property line, we took proactive steps.


Our synod immediately engaged with a structural engineer to determine what this construction might mean. In his professional opinion, he believed that it was likely the foundation of St. Thomas House would be damaged, the retaining wall that parallels the exterior stairway to the basement would collapse, and that the rear porch above the retaining wall would also collapse. This was in large part due to the fact that in order to support a 12-story apartment building, the developer’s contractor would be driving piles 25 to 35 feet into the ground, all within a foot of St. Thomas House.


We carefully weighed all of the options. Our synod could expend a considerable amount of money to rebuild the foundation of the back porch area, shore up the back retaining wall, and install a system in the basement to shore up the first floor of the house to protect against any damage that might happen to the stone foundation of the house.


However, other factors also came into play in the decision-making process. St. Thomas House itself is built so close to the property line there would only be 8 inches of space between our house and the new structure. Not only would this drastically reduce the light coming in the windows on that side of the house, we had to think about keeping everything safe and inhabitable. Needing to expend funds to provide additional ventilation for all three bathrooms seemed to be just the start.


As the challenges mounted, our Synod Council deliberated carefully on the decision to sell or retain St. Thomas House. After much discussion and prayer, our synod council voted to enter into contract to sell the property.


Although this difficult decision had to be made, we are not abandoning the Bronx or the ministry found within St. Thomas House’s walls. As we near the closing, with the buyers consent, we are removing as many reusable items as possible, ranging from appliances to cabinets and offering them first to congregations in the Bronx. We’ve also made arrangements for intern housing through 2016 with another MNYS congregation.


The synod staff has already been engaged with Bronx pastors and congregations over the past two years as a part of our strategic plan. "This is not something that is changing," says Pr. Marc Herbst, Assistant to the Bishop for Strategic Planning. "We are continuing to look for ways to regroup the churches in the Bronx and help to bolster ministry throughout this borough. This is one of the aims of our strategic plan: to find ways to help infuse energy and resources in areas that have been struggling."


Such is the aim of moving Ascension Table, once located at St. Thomas House, to St. John’s by the Sea, Long Beach. "This is a great match for both Ascension Table and St. John’s," says Pr. Lamont Anthony Wells, MNYS Director for Evangelical Mission. Supported by both our synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Ascension Table is a mission development that pursues wholeness through worship (Communion Table), building healthy relationships (Dinner Table), and learning viable skills to serve the city (Artisan’s Worktable).


"We’re already seen the pastors of the Southwestern Nassau Conference gather in support of the ministry of St. Johns," says Pr. Wells. "For months they have been sharing worship leadership and seeing growth in attendance and engagement with the community. Joining Ascension Table to this mission will help invest in what could become a thriving ministry in Long Beach."


In originally reflecting on St. Thomas House, Bishop Robert Rimbo remarked that although we were blessing a building, people are at the center. "People are God’s great legacy." We pray for a legacy that continues to partake in the wonder and even trepidation of St. Thomas and the dedication of all those who have shared in our common mission.

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