Members of First United Church of Christ called it "The Miracle on Cherry Street," voting to close their dying church and hope for a "resurrection" by giving their building to a new and vibrant congregation.
The "miracle" and "resurrection" have now taken place, as Nu-Vizion Christian Fellowship holds its first official services this holiday weekend in the former First United Church of Christ.
Located across Cherry Street from St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center, Nu-Vizion held "test services" and conducted numerous meetings with neighborhood groups and individuals since Pastor Will Stuart arrived in Toledo from Pittsburgh earlier this year.
But this Christmas weekend marks the church's official opening, with services on Christmas Eve afternoon and the first Sunday service at 3:45 p.m. tomorrow.
"The birth of Jesus .●.●. the birth of a new church: Pretty cool, ain't it?" said Mr. Stuart, 26, a theology student and a "slam poet."
Nu-Vizion's low-slung brick building, designed in Frank Lloyd Wright's "Prairie Style" architecture, brings with it a long history in Toledo.
The origins of the church date back to 1853, when immigrants founded the German Zion Reformed Church.
The congregation moved to the Cherry Street site in 1916, went through several changes in name and affiliation, and in the 1950s joined the new United Church of Christ denomination.
Half a century ago, First UCC drew 1,200 worshippers each Sunday, but in recent years, as the neighborhood changed and many lifelong church members moved or passed away, attendance was only around 20.
Those who remained realized they had to do something and decided to find a youthful minister to start a new church in the sprawling, wood-trimmed building.
Enter Mr. Stuart, an energetic new pastor with a background in theater and the arts.
The graduate of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and his wife, Shelley, a social worker, moved to Toledo last January to start Nu-Vizion. The couple have a 9-month-old daughter, Lily.
"We tried to craft our ministry to match the demographics of the neighborhood," Mr. Stuart said. "There are quite a lot of what we call 'unchurched' folks and a lot of folks who were churched but have left mostly mainline Protestant denominations, for some reason or other. And then it's a high-crime, low-income urban neighborhood.
"You've got multiculturalism, but it's rather a train wreck more than a melting pot," Mr. Stuart said. "There's not a lot of multicultural or multiethnic dialogue in our neighborhood."
Ted Lentz, former president of Faith UCC's board, said Mr. Stuart is exactly what he and the rest of the board had envisioned for the new congregation. While the former Faith members stepped away to make "a clean break" and give the new pastor a fresh start, Mr. Lentz and two others support the Nu-Vizion vision and serve as advisers to Mr. Stuart.
"Will is a real energetic young man, and his wife is involved with him in the ministry. They're doing a super job," Mr. Lentz said this week.
"We needed somebody who was unique and who had the makeup and the desire and the interest to hopefully make that church work. We were fortunate to find Will."
"I would say we have the right person, or persons, there," said Carl Hibscher, a member of the advisory board. "One of the jobs of the board is to transfer our experience with the neighborhood and neighborhood organizations, and let them go about their work. I think they have picked it up very well."
With his arts background, Mr. Stuart said he hopes to use music, theater, visual and graphic arts, and his experience as a slam poet to attract young people to Nu-Vizion Christian Fellowship.
Slam poetry utilizes elements of hip-hop rhythms and urban imagery, with the poets giving dramatic recitations of their writings before live audiences.
Mr. Stuart said his slam poetry does not always use religious terminology but does reflect his spirituality.
"I am who I am, and it creeps into my poetry," he said.
Sunday services are held at 3:45 p.m. to accommodate schedules of swing-shift workers and to utilize the services of volunteers who attend other churches in the morning, Mr. Stuart said.
Attendance has ranged from 6 to 40 during the test services, but Mr. Lentz said he and the advisory board expect it will take two years for the church to become solidly established.
Nu-Vizion has several other ministries and outreaches under way: free coffee every Monday from 7 to 10 a.m.; a free clothing thrift store called C.H.E.E.P. (Clothing Helps Everyone Exchange Program); "Re-Boot" worship services at 6 p.m. Wednesdays, and a discipleship and Bible study at 10 a.m. Saturdays.
The church also houses an office of the Weed and Seed program, which helps fight neighborhood crime, and local parole officers hold weekly meetings at Nu-Vizion for parolees who live in the neighorhood.
Helping run Nu-Vizion's programs are two part-time church staff members, operations manager Phil Williams, and hospitality director Tireta Bowen.
Mr. Stuart said he wants Nu-Vizion Christian Fellowship to meet the spiritual, physical, psychological, and social needs of the community.
"We came up with a slogan that sums up our goals," he said: "Sharing hope, seeking healing, and building community."
Nu-Vizion Christian Fellowship, 2014 Cherry St., will hold its first official Sunday service at 3:45 p.m. tomorrow. Information on Nu-Vizion is available by calling the church, 419-241-9358, or online at www.nu-vizioncf.org.
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