Loan deal sustains a targeted church

| April 20, 2010

In the early-morning hours after Barack Obama was elected president, a blaze ripped through the unfinished new home of a predominantly black Springfield church.

The fire destroyed a new roof, the building’s frame, and the floors. But the destruction was far-reaching. It shocked the nation, and for a time many feared blacks across the country would be targets of a hate-crime backlash because of the skin color of the man soon to enter the Oval Office.

In the 17 months since the blaze, Macedonia Church of God in Christ is rising again. Its concrete foundation has been set, new flooring installed, and now doubts about financing have been worked out.

On Sunday, the church’s head pastor, Bishop Bryant Robinson Jr., appeared at the construction site to announce a new building loan. With Governor Deval Patrick and other dignitaries at his side, Robinson declared that TD Bank is lending the church about $1.8 million to rebuild.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development will guarantee a portion of the loan through its church arson relief loan program. And the church, which plans to sell the building it has long occupied, is raising cash for such things as new pews, furnishings, and an audio system.

“There is jubilation and excitement,’’ said Robinson in a phone interview yesterday. “Even through the difficult times, when it looked like our financial partners were not going to support us, it was sobering. But it did not destroy our faith.’’

The new church was 75 percent completed when arsonists poured gasoline inside and outside of the building and set it afire. Authorities said they then boasted about destroying the place. Three white men from Springfield — Benjamin Haskell, 22, Michael F. Jacques Jr., 24, and Thomas Gleason Jr., 21 — have pleaded not guilty to federal civil rights charges that they set the blaze. Their trial is scheduled for June 21.

Immediately after the fire, on Nov. 5, 2008, donations and support from people of all races and creeds poured in. Macedonia Church leaders had been working with TD Bank then and had thought the bank would continue to support the rebuilding after the fire.

But in February, bank officials told the church that the loan was in trouble. “For some reason, they felt our portfolio would not support what we were trying to do,’’ Robinson said.

Hours after that news, Robinson conveyed the troubles to Patrick. That evening, Patrick delivered an appeal to a crowd at the Urban League of Springfield’s annual dinner in Agawam.

“The most compelling thing that he said was that we must not allow hate to win over hope,’’ said league president Henry M. Thomas III, who was at the dinner. “He was basically challenging the financial community as well as the community at large to get it done.’’

Days later, with nudging from community and church leaders, bank officials met with the church and worked out a deal. Last week the bank agreed to work with the church.

Mayor Domenic J. Sarno of Springfield said he is pleased the loan was retooled. “This is more than just a church looking to rebuild,’’ he said in a phone interview. “It is more about an entire community rallying together over this hideous crime.’’

Located on King Street in the Six Corners neighborhood, the heart of Springfield’s black and Hispanic community, Macedonia Church had spent years searching for a bigger home. Church officials raised cash, and located a nearby site on Tinkham Road in the diverse Sixteen Acres section of the city.

Church leaders have big plans for a new Macedonia Church. It would be 18,000 square feet, almost double the size of the current church. Its sanctuary would seat 600 people, 250 more than the other site. A large fellowship hall would have enough space for weddings, recreation, and community meetings. Work is to be completed next year.

“The completion of the new church will be great cause for celebration,’’ said David W. Glidden, chief lending officer for TD Bank. “We look forward to that.’’

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Category: Church Security

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