The historic structure that once was home to the congregation of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church still stands proudly at the corner of 2nd & Federal Streets in Downtown Saginaw. Back in November, 2020, largely due to dwindling membership, the congregation disbanded after 168 years, leaving the current structure, which was built in the late 1950s at a cost of more than $584,000, to await an uncertain future.
It was left to a team of officers consisting of Kurt Aven, Mark Oswald, Carl Quackenbush and Bob Morgan to deal with the sale of the church. Initially listed for $500,000 within the past year they have witnessed the evaluation of their building drop from half-a-million dollars to $250,000, only to watch it finally sell for a meagre $10,000.
The story of how this came to be is an amazing tale of faith, generosity, and a spiritual shift from the world of money and power to the belief their primary responsibility was to see this beautiful haven for hope and love occupied by a minister and a congregation that truly would service the needs of the community.
Having dealt with the loss and grief of closing their church and transferring all property and assets from their trust into a new foundation, this team of trustees released any hope for profit on the sale of the property over to a desire to facilitate the dream of the new owner, Pastor Chet Atkins, who’s desire and aspirations for developing a church of outreach that can effectively service the needs of the community in many ways is finally starting to materialize on an entirely new level.
Out of the Darkness, Into the Light
The tale of Pastor Atkins ministry and how he came to acquire what is now the new home for his Gideon Church is an amazing journey far more fantastic than fiction and in many ways Biblical in terms of both its epic context and scope.
Atkins history in the greater Saginaw area begins with homelessness and addiction. “I lived in an abandoned house for three-and-a-half years here in Saginaw and was shooting heroin into my veins when I was 13-years old,” he calmly relates. “After being thrown out of this abandoned house I slept in the junkyard, which is where the police found me and I eventually became a ward of the state and went through multiple foster homes. I eventually became a gang-banger and wound up spending 7 years down in Jackson prison.”
It wasn’t until the fateful day that Atkins found a woman that loved him and gave him an anchor into his faith and a calling to ministry that his life started to change. “Only when I met my wife did my life start to change,” he continues. “She wasn’t a street woman and I don’t know why God gave her to me, but she became my compass and kept me and led me to God and the way of his teachings.”
“I started ministering back in 2013 out of my living room and was running a part-time program at First Ward Community Center for At-Risk kids and felt it was time to leave and start my ministry. I love working with kids, but my passion for the job and what I was doing was waning and it felt like God was calling me for something larger, so I ended up leaving my job and my wife and I had a big fallout to the point we were on the verge of divorce.”
“Twelve years before I became pastor, I went to Hopeville Bible College in Lansing and didn’t know if this is what I wanted to do, but when I started seeing all the peoples’ lives I was touching I knew it was my calling,” states Atkins.
“I was out of a job, but kept moving in the direction my heart was telling me to go, so I put chairs in my living room and held my first service out of my home, only nobody showed up except for my son and daughter who were living in the house with me,” he continues. “My wife didn’t even get up for the service and stayed in bed, but I kept moving forward. There were a lot of days of discouragement and crying, but something inside of me wouldn’t let me quit.”
“I pled with the Lord, ‘Did I miss You? Was I supposed to leave my job? But then all of a sudden people started showing up at my home for services. It got to a point where I rented a little room on Center and Court for $65.00 every Sunday and then a businesswoman friend of mine who owned a strip mall said she could accommodate me. Then one night she called me back at midnight and said ‘I can’t let you rent this space.’ And this is where things started to change.”
“We were down on Genesee and State for about two-and-a-half years and then found a pastor selling his church down the street from St. John’s, which is where I established the first Gideon Church,” he continues. “We needed $8,000 down for a land contract and I had about $500 dollars, but within three days we got $6,000 in donations - so again, I could feel God guiding me.”
“How I came to acquire St. John’s is that one day I was preaching and in the middle of the service I looked out the window and the Lord told me to take my congregation and go down the street and walk around the building. We came and walked around the church and I could feel how this place should be our home, only it was up for sale for $500,000, which is money I did not have.”
Faith, Hope, Charity and a Belief in the Future
The acquisition of the former St. John’s property is itself a testimonial to the merger of a dream to make a new church purchased against all odds with the vision of becoming a hub of service where all are loved and welcomed on Saginaw’s East Side.
Atkins would have paid $250,000, $135,000, and $100,000 to purchase and move into the new building, however each path was rejected, denied, or fell apart for various reasons. “Basically, the Board Officers at St. John’s asked what can you afford to pay us,” he explains. “My initial goal was to raise as much money as possible, but all I ended up raising was $10,000. I was prepared to enter into a land contract, but basically they just gave the church to me. They wanted out of it because there was no more life in it and asked that I pay whatever I could afford.”
“Because I’d been involved with the purchase of vacant properties in Saginaw and created green spaces and parks for the community, and saw that The Gideon Church had been involved with bike giveaways, gifts, and providing food for the community, they told me I was facilitating and bringing more life to the neighborhood and community than the church had seen in years, so embraced me with nothing but love.”
“Since moving into this hallowed house of God I feel blessed because God is doing tremendous things here,” notes Atkins. “We’ve been getting decent crowds here on Sundays and recently had 700 people walk through these doors at a funeral. Recently we gave a car to a single mother on Mother’s Day.”
At 38,000 square feet, with two structures on the property, St. John’s is a cornerstone resource and the individual who was axiomatic in facilitating this transition between the St. John’s Board of Trustees and Pastor Atkins was Pastor Rob Schmidt, of Zion EECLA Freeland and Our Saviour ELCA Saginaw.
Schmidt was involved as a consultant to St. John in the closing process and involved with mediating conversation between Atkins and the officers of St. John’s.
“Pastor Rob was phenomenal,” emphasizes Atkins. “He basically told the Trustees this can’t be about money, it’s about ministry, which I’d never heard it quite stated like that during our discussions. Once he said that it changed the dynamic of the whole conversation. Through my actions and Pastor Rob’s words they realized my contributions and love for the East Side of Saginaw aligned with their own mission and I believe at that point I became viewed more as an instrument they felt they could use to facilitate their own goals to reach where they were no longer able to reach.”
As one of the four church officers involved with this sale, Kurt Aven confirms these sentiments.
“With the numbers of our congregation dwindling to the point of running a budget deficit, we had to move forward with the sale of the property and did have other offers from people outside of the Saginaw area that wanted the building, but eventually their financing always fell through,” he explains. “Many of them had ideas, but we weren’t comfortable with their style of ministry and the fact is we didn’t feel these other parties were as community oriented as Pastor Chet.”
“St. John’s has always been deeply concerned and involved with the community,” continues Aven. “We developed our Community Center on 6th Street and Cherry and also did our Summer Day Camp for 20-plus years, which was a great outreach program and very community oriented, and Pastor Atkins actions also align with these very same goals.”
“He was willing to buy the church on a land contract but couldn’t come up with a substantial down payment, so we basically told the bank we would gift $25,000 as a down payment, only the bank turned it down for whatever reason, so we decided he was the right person to put this space to its proper use that aligned with our goals.”
“The missions of our church is to provide a haven of hope for the community and people populating it, and Pastor Chet is allowing us to continue with our weekend breakfasts that offer free hot meals to the community. All four of us as Trustees are on the same page with this and after we had spoken with Pastor Atkins we decided if anything is going to happen again at St. John’s, given the area it is located in, he would be the man to make that happen. Over 174 years our congregation helped a lot of mission churches all over the State of Michigan, so it wasn’t about the money so much as what kind of community impact can we make.”
“When we dissolved the congregation back in 2020, all the assets have been rolled from a trust fund into a foundation and again that foundation will invest in the community and churches in the greater Saginaw area,” he continues. “We are waiting for our Federal ID number and are kind of rolled in the Saginaw Community Foundation, so others can benefit with worthwhile community projects as well.”
“The Summer Day Camp we were running, for example, cost $55,000 a year to staff and wasn’t a burden on the congregation because no church money was directly being used, but it got to the point where we didn’t have enough congregational involvement and had to hire people outside of the church. But through the foundation, our church will still be active and community entities are encouraged to petition us for assistance on any worthwhile community endeavor.”
“We are still running our Food Pantry and Food for the Hungry program on the fourth Saturday of every month and were doing community dinners, only when the Pandemic hit that finished us off, as not a lot of people were coming to them. We’d get 30 or 40 people, whereas for the Breakfasts we get 150 - 230 people coming for that, which is pretty substantial.”
Pastor Atkins says his key goals for the future center around reaching out to the community and establishing a safe haven where kids can come and be kids. “Last year through the pandemic I gave out a hundred bikes to kids,” relates Atkins, “and on Thanksgiving we gave out 365 turkeys. Right now my wife is starting a Women’s Abuse class because a lot of women have been met with violence here in the city of Saginaw and without a voice need a place to go.”
“In my past before I found God’s calling I gang-banged for about 20 years, Atkins states. “But today those same guys that I gang-banged with are now attending our church services every Sunday. My goal is to become a beacon of light on the East Side to people that don’t have much hope. Many people in our congregation knew me and knew the life I lived. They knew my background and saw how something changed inside me for the better.”
When asked what he views as his biggest challenge, Pastor Atkins says he doesn’t believe in them. “Having been what I’ve been through in my life and having seen what I’ve seen, I believe challenges are what make me. Even when I didn’t have the money to move from my storefront to the first church on Genesee, God provided and this is what I place my faith in God to lead me.”
As for the immediate future, The Gideon Church conducts weekly Sunday services at 12:00 noon and Bible Enrichment classes on Tuesdays at 6:00 PM. Presently he is going through the buildings and fixing and updating things that need to tended and seeking donations to help with a new roof. He also hopes to place different renters and businesses inside the space of the second structure to fill the space and help with expenses.
What strikes me most about this entire story, however, is how ultimately it serves as a modern morality tale that epitomizes what a church is supposed to be about: serving the congregation and community while approaching the alter of God with purity and purpose of heart, as opposed to personal gain, which is the ultimate gift a congregation can give back to a community.
9th February, 2024