Mark Twain, the famous American 20th century humorist, once said reports of his death “are greatly exaggerated” as he was very much alive, but reading his obituary mistakenly published in a New York newspaper.
Pastor Edward C. Lilly and members of Chester’s White Rock Christian Church may feel the same way, but in their case there was a “passing,” just not a death. In fact, Lilly calls it a “rebirth.”
In May, news reports about several properties the church owned going up for auction at the county’s annual tax sale erroneously led many to conclude that White Rock itself was being dissolved and auctioned off. Compounding the confusion was the fact that White Rock, last September, celebrated a merger with the Woodlyn-based First Baptist Church of Fairview and, since then, has been operating as The Christian Church of Chester.
Two weeks ago, Lilly and Pastor Korey V. Grice, leader of the former Woodlyn congregation, sat down with The Spirit in one of the classrooms in its sprawling 22,000-square foot facility that serves as main worship sanctuary and houses all of the church’s other auxiliaries and ministries. That building, constructed brand new in 2006 for $2.5 million, sits on land that once housed an elementary school.
Lilly said the news reports were wrong because, “There wasn’t anything on this block slated for auction…on the 300 block of West 3rd St.” He said the church owns several properties, most are vacant lots on streets surrounding the church and were purchased with future development in mind. None of the properties house tenants, nor were they ever meant to.
He said, “We bought property from the 200 block of 3rd St. all the way to Fulton St. on both sides…. and on 4th St. But when we buy the houses, typically we tear them down. We don’t repurpose them for any other reason, we tear them down. We never had a congregant live in any house, ever.
“The land is what we’re after,” he continued, “Most of them were dilapidated to begin with. The only one I wish we hadn’t tore down because we could have used it for a while, was what we called The Parker House that was on the 400 block of 3rd. Our purpose isn’t to be in the housing market or in the housing business; it’s for one property on West 3rd to be used for commercial development because it’s zoned commercially. We sit on it because we believe one day we’ll be able to utilize that land.
“Any property that we purchase,” he said, “we purchase with the goal in mind that Pastor Ed Lilly may not ever see it developed…and that land may not be any more plentiful. We own it, we control it. Then in the future, some generation can do something with it…One day someone will do something with that. Whether it’s me, if I live that long, I don’t know, can’t tell you, but I look generations ahead.”
Looking “generations ahead” is what brought Lilly and Grice together and informs the vision the two say they hope can be amplified throughout the area based on their model.
Lilly said, “We’re going to bring all the good from First Baptist and all the good from White Rock and the (new) brand, The Christian Church of Chester, will be better. That’s the goal.”
Lilly, the third pastor of the former White Rock Christian Church, came in 1993 and grew the congregation over time from six members to the pre-merger roster of 400. Still, he said, the church has space it has not been able to utilize and in his spirit, he believed White Rock had more to offer God’s kingdom.
Grice, it seemed, had a more logistical problem.
He said First Baptist, an African-American congregation organized in 1923 in the tiny suburb of Woodlyn, was tucked away in a predominately white neighborhood and not easily located, therefore creating a mammoth challenge to growth. He said he and key church leaders began looking for a new church location but what they found and liked was too costly.
“Two years back,” Grice said, “the congregation voted for the board to take action to start searching. We looked at multiple opportunities that we couldn’t fiscally afford at the time. We found a property in Upland that we were really interested in and we met with a few city officials; we were praying about possibly finding a way to move there.
“(But) we were not fulfilling the mission of Christ while being hidden,” Grice continued. “There were plenty of people who came, before I was pastor, who said they never even knew that church was there because it was just so far in the back.”
Grice and Lilly say they met one day and began a conversation about their visions and their challenges and, after months of prayer, approached their congregations about merging.
Both men say both congregations voted overwhelmingly to unite.
Grice said some of his members, “ladies that came from First Baptist to here, said, ‘That it feels like a weight has been taken off our shoulders. I’m happy and I’m just enjoying myself having two pastors.’”
“We are stronger together!” reads a press release the two issued last August, citing “a city plagued by violence, a depressed economy, and governmental uncertainty” as a clarion call for independent churches to unite.
“This is just the beginning,” Lilly said in the release and to The Spirit. “Mergers are a win-win situation. Larger churches win as they gain momentum when smaller churches join them. Smaller churches win as they get a fresh start in living out God’s purpose for their church. The City of Chester (that lists more than 100 churches within 4.7 square miles) wins because it is served better by stronger, more vibrant congregations. The Kingdom of God wins through advancement and growth of vital, life-giving congregations.”
Grice, also in the release and in the meeting, said, “As we shift the culture of the church, we can shift the culture of the city for sure.”
Lilly is senior pastor of The Christian Church of Chester and is responsible for all things administrative. Grice, whom Lilly still calls “pastor,” is responsible for all things programmatic, especially youth activities and outreach.
Both say service to the community includes Sunday worship, a food initiative called “the White Rock Café,” monthly clothing giveaways, exercise and aerobics, and youth activities and all activities are open to the public.
“We have a (clothes) giveaway that we call Heart-to-Heart,” explained Lilly, “that we run out of the sanctuary but those clothes are donated to the church. We give them away once a month, except for August. We don’t pile our clothes outside the building ever.”
“We (White Rock) did not dissolve, we have merged,” Lilly said. “We’re not going anywhere, we’re not about to dissolve; we’re not going to disappear, we’re here to stay in this building. Our intent is to do that as long as God gives us the strength.”