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HOUSTON:Unable to pay millions needed for repairs, Episcopal Church will close

HOUSTON: Unable to pay millions needed for repairs, East End Episcopal Church will open doors for last time
Joyful noise is going silent

By KATE SHELLNUTT
HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Feb. 25, 2011

Ministry of Dance members practice their worship presentation in the sanctuary of the Church of the Redeemer. In the background is the historic East End Episcopal church's famed mural, called Christ of the Workingman.

As much as Church of the Redeemer's members will miss the glowing mural of the risen Christ, the sanctuary echoing with music, the basement lined with old photos and the historic buildings themselves, they're most heartbroken to leave the place where they served the Eastwood neighborhood for more than 90 years.

Redeemer can't afford the $7 million needed to bring the church up to code, so after Sunday's service, the congregation will move from its crumbling structure to a shared space in a nearby Lutheran church, where a group of small-but-committed parishioners will try to keep up with its outreach programs.

"It's not just about us," said Daniel Coleman, who has led the 70-member congregation as senior warden since September. "We want our congregation to continue the ministries we have here," including gatherings for neighborhood kids, Scout troops, a bike repair shop and weekend meals for the homeless.

Combined with declining membership and the recession, the church's outreach contributed to its troubles. For decades it deferred major building repairs to invest more in serving its East End neighbors.

Redeemer pioneered the charismatic renewal in the '60s and '70s, leading the way for contemporary worship commonly seen in churches today -

praise choruses and Power Point displays, said Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist.

Now, the historic church doesn't have the funds to pay a rector's annual salary, at least $50,000, and struggles to keep up with electricity bills of $45,000 a year.

When Redeemer approached the Episcopal Diocese of Texas in the fall with a plan to redo the church piece by piece, assessors found it wouldn't be worth the cost.

Along with Studio Red Architects, Tellepsen Builders, which built part of the church in 1932, was the one to declare Redeemer too far gone .

Many repairs needed

The church would need new heating and cooling systems, electric work and structural repairs. For safety and financial reasons, they have to leave the church, which will likely be demolished.

"I believe that the lesson we have learned from this is that the tools of the electrician, plumber, HVAC technician and structural engineer are no less sacred than the tools of the altar," said Coleman. "Every successful congregation needs both an outward and an inward focus: outward to the needs of their neighbors and inward to needs of their members."

Redeemer was one of the first Episcopal churches to bring in guitars and drums to accompany organ music, adopting a Pentecostal-style of worship under the leadership of the Rev. W. Graham Pulkingham, its rector in the '60s and '70s, said Julia Duin, author of Days of Fire and Glory, a book about the charismatic movement.

Pulkingham coordinated communal living for hundreds of recovering drug addicts and ministries like a coffeehouse, health clinic, street-evangelism team, resale store and bike repair shop.

Some of what made Redeemer worship special in its early days has become adopted across Christianity.

"A lot of competition has arisen that wasn't there in the '60s," Duin said. "Why would people want to go to a poor neighborhood in Eastwood when they can just go to ... Lakewood?"

Their new home - at least for now - will be at Redeemer Lutheran Church, fewer than two miles up the road. In addition to the shared name, the congregations are in full communion with one another, meaning Redeemer's pastor may celebrate services. They've agreed to share the church space on a month-to-month basis .

"Being a part of a church that has had such a significant role in the charismatic renewal, I have wondered what in the world was the Lord up to, pouring his spirit into a place and within a generation, things change," said Keever Wallace, a worship leader. "This is a really, really hard thing to do. We're all still in shock."

While a few hundred churches across the country have shut down or foreclosed as a result of the recession, Redeemer's case is rare. 'The Lord's presence'

Though Redeemer has been assured that its mural will be saved and preserved, members can't imagine worship without it.

"What I will always remember is a sense of the Lord's presence when I walk in the sanctuary and look at the mural of the resurrected Christ," Wallace said.

kate.shellnutt@chron.com

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