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First Christian of South Bend Shares Sale Proceeds

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Originally printed on the website of the South Bend Tribune at

It felt like old times on TV when Ed McMahon would show up at a stranger’s door with a million bucks from the Publisher’s Clearinghouse.

John and Sharon Chenoweth played Ed on Tuesday, except they wore Santa Claus hats.

They stopped at one unsuspecting charity after another, cheerily giving a total of $128,000 from First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

The checks, in varying amounts, came from a sort of loss for this once-prominent congregation, now 160 years old. At one time, the flock would fill the nearly 400 seats of its sanctuary. Now about 35 show up on a given Sunday.

On Aug. 31, it sold the building it had erected in 1970 — a sprawling landmark at Eddy Street and Jefferson Boulevard — to Good Shepherd Montessori School. The donations came from the roughly $600,000 sale.

“We felt we shouldn’t just sit on the money,” says John Chenoweth, the congregation’s vice president.

Meanwhile, First Christian leaders say they have yet to decide the long-term future of the congregation, including whether they want to expand or seek another building.

So, as light snow dusted their heads, the Chenoweths began their rounds Tuesday morning at St. Margaret’s House in downtown South Bend, where women waited to come in for food, warmth and refuge from hard times.

Director Kathryn Schneider hugged the Chenoweths and — with a reporter and photographer watching — admitted, “You’re making me nervous.”

Schneider read the number on the check.

“This is a tremendous help,” she said.

Donors rallied to help so much when the recession hit last year, she said. But this year, the aid has been thin.

“We appreciate what you do,” Sharon Chenoweth replied.

“(First Christian) has been with us since the beginning,” Schneider said, recalling her first days here in the early 1990s. St. Margaret’s had just a bare concrete floor. The church was getting new carpet and offered its old carpet. She says her agency snatched it up because “we couldn’t afford anything.”

Sharon Chenoweth, head of the trustees who sold the church, said she and her husband John, along with congregation President Bob Ditsler, were giving checks to 15 local charities as a way to give back to the community that has supported the congregation.

“These are people we partnered with and tried to help for years,” she says.

It includes a check for the scholarship fund at Good Shepherd, which begins teaching children in the first grade and this year added seventh and eighth grades.

The Montessori school opened in 2002 and rented space in the church until this year. First Christian now rents its old worship space from the school, where it has coffee at 9:30 a.m. each Sunday and a service at 10:30 a.m.

“This is a nice relationship with them,” Sharon Chenoweth says fondly. The Chenoweths also paid a surprise visit to the Rev. Bill Wassner, who was First Christian’s pastor from 1996 to 2001. He heard them knock at the door and thought it was a needy client for the Advocacy Center, an outreach of the United Religious Community of St. Joseph County, where he’s director.

“It couldn’t come at a better time,” Wassner said of the check for the Advocacy Center. “The support we’re getting from churches is waning a bit because churches are struggling.”

First Christian’s dilemma isn’t isolated, he says. The numbers at lots of mainline Christian churches are slipping away. They hurt as they try to keep up with bills on large buildings, he says.

What congregation leaders did Tuesday, he says, is an example of what it means to be a church.

“As faith centers are challenged, the first impulse is to circle the wagons and take care of yourself,” he says. “We must step out in faith and continue to help or we stop being the church.”

First Christian is always taking up a collection of some sort.

“We’re small but mighty,” Sharon Chenoweth says.

One check will go to a Ugandan woman who moved to this area as a refugee about eight years ago, pregnant at the time, and now lives in Canada, the Chenoweths say. The church has supported her and her 11-year-old daughter in war-torn Uganda, who just recently came to be with her mom. Another check will go to a charitable foundation in Indianapolis set up by First Christian’s denomination.

Here are the other charities that will benefit, including churches that have outreach programs:

  • Central Christian Church in Elkhart,
  • the soup kitchen and food pantry at First United Methodist Church in South Bend,
  • First Christian Church in Mishawaka,
  • the Food Bank of Northern Indiana,
  • Hope Ministries,
  • Luvability Ministries,
  • Northeast Neighborhood Center,
  • Salvation Army,
  • Sister Maura Brannick Health Center, and
  • Southside Christian Church.

South Bend Tribune staff writer Joseph Dits:
(574) 235-6158


Written by ccindiananews

January 5, 2010 at 9:07 am

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