- Associated Press - Thursday, December 25, 2014

WESTON, Ohio (AP) - Pastor Chris Boggs was in a particularly troubling quandary a few years ago. His house of worship was too small, difficult to access, impossible to expand, and overwhelmingly impractical.

He needed a new church, but the housing bubble had just burst, banks had locked the vaults and loans were tough to acquire, especially for a tiny congregation looking at the huge debt it would incur to open a building fund.

“There was no way we could borrow the money,” Boggs recalled.

So they set out to build a new facility with cash - debt free. They wanted the church to be a community center as well, to give the youth of this village in western Wood County a safe place to gather. From the beginning, Boggs acknowledged it would be an arduous task and take years to complete. Some in his flock were skeptical, while others just left.

“The concept was not so well received at first,” he said about building the Sonlight Church and Community Center debt free. “People want things now, but that was not the reality we were faced with at the time.”

The pastor and the remaining members scrambled to raise money. They did the traditional churchy stuff - spaghetti dinners, white elephant sales, raffles - but Boggs knew those efforts can hit the ceiling quickly.

“I thought if we had to do another spaghetti supper, I would throw up,” he recalled with a laugh.

The money flow was barely a trickle. The project stalled, and the pastor felt much like a farmer watching the growth of his crops stagnate in a drought.

And then it rained.

While audible whispers in the community hinted that the project had gone bankrupt, due to the pattern of stop-and-start construction, the minister decided to add a line to the sign in front of the new church’s construction site, pleading for patience since the church was going to be built “debt free.”

People saw the notice, and the pastor and his church were showered with random, unexpected, and unsolicited acts of good will. Many came from people who were not members of the small Assembly of God congregation and had never met Boggs. They simply wanted to help.

“People were moved to give. Total strangers made donations. People that never knew us sent checks. There was an outpouring of kindness and generosity that left me speechless, and my congregation will tell you that does not happen very often,” Boggs said.

Dick Conrad from Bowling Green was on his way to Weston for pizza one night three years ago, and he read the sign in front of the church. Conrad owns a large tract of woods that has a lot of downed trees killed by the ash borer - not practical for use as lumber, but still very good as firewood.

“I thought I could maybe help them out, and let them sell some firewood, and raise a little money from that,” said the 73-year-old retired Bowling Green State University employee, who cut and split all of the wood himself.

The church has sold around 70 cords of Conrad’s firewood at $130 a cord, with the money going directly into the building fund. Albeit highly unconventional, Boggs said Conrad’s gift has provided a lot of building materials for the new church.

“When you are a drowning man and you are about to go under, you will grab the tiniest piece of wood to stay afloat, and that’s where we were financially when Dick Conrad came along,” Boggs said.

“Here is a man who saw our sign and was touched by it. So just out of the goodness of his heart, he said he would give us all the wood we could sell. Another total stranger who was so giving - he kept us alive that first winter by keeping our general fund alive.”

Conrad, who in the past has donated firewood to area families struggling with unemployment, shrugs off the plaudits. He said removing the dead and downed trees keeps his woods healthier.

“It’s my heaven on earth back there, working in the woods, so the church is really helping me,” Conrad said. “They are putting it to good use, and building a church. We’ve seen the project progress, and that gives you a good feeling.”

A couple of farmers down the road from the church wrote checks. The pastor’s niece in Dayton sent money. Support also came from the congregation Boggs had been with previously in Dayton.

“I would be down and get frustrated, and then something amazing would take place,” the pastor said. “These weren’t really miracles, but they were a series of unexplainable things that just happened.”

One of those was the Jag. A friend of a friend of the pastor - another nonmember - heard about the church and its ambitious debt-free endeavor, and donated a classic Jaguar.

“That probably came at my lowest point in the project. I was so discouraged by the pace of things, but - people call me a nut if they want - God spoke to me,” Boggs said. “A guy gave me a Jag, no strings attached.”

Selling the car allowed Boggs to pay off some debts and give the building fund a much needed shot of adrenalin. After its member rolls had dropped to a low of about 40, the church now has a congregation of around 80, and growing.

“Good things have just happened there,” church member George Meyer said. “You feel other people catching the fever and wanting to do something to help out. It takes the kindness and giving of a lot of people to build a new church with no debt, and that’s what made it happen.”

Meyer’s wife, Dee, echoed those sentiments about the facility, which was dedicated last month and includes classrooms, offices, and a sanctuary that doubles as a full court for youth basketball.

“The pastor’s plan all along was to make the new church a community center, too, so it would serve everyone, and I think people just like that concept,” she said. “And I think that’s why so many jumped at the chance to help out.”

Boggs said the quirky collection of fund-raisers and donations have raised about $530,000 so far, and the nearly completed facility will be worth approximately $1.5 million. A lot of the labor and some materials and landscaping were also donated.

“People are good, they are kind, and there are good things happening in this world,” he said. “It is just so humbling to experience something like this. I hope it catches on, and spreads across America.”

___

Information from: The Blade, http://www.toledoblade.com/

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