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‘We’ve come a long way’: Rebuilt Lazarus UCC hosts first Christmas service since fire

The lights inside the church seemed to beckon Lazarus United Church of Christ members, calling them inside for a Sunday, Dec. 16, candlelight Christmas service. It was the first Christmas service to be held in the new church since the Dec. 3, 2013 fire that displaced the congregation for four long years.

Rita Becker of Lineboro remembered that day well.

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“I live on the street and was up around 4 or 4:30 a.m. that morning. I saw the flames coming out the windows of the church,” she said. “It was devastating. We’d been here the night before, discussing how the handbell choir would proceed into the church and talking about Sunday school.”

Becker grew up in the church. Her mom has been a church organist for over 50 years, and Becker started the church’s handbell choir 25 years prior.

“This was home to us,” she recalled. Then her attention turned to the people pouring in the double doors.

“But this is wonderful,” she said. “It feels wonderful to be having this service. We were at the fire hall for four years and our enrollment declined. We were down to 40 or 50 active members, but since we came back [in April], we have steadily grown. We have over 130 members now.”

Like so many, Becker points to Pastor Rodney Gross when asked why the membership has exponentially. But Pastor Rodney directs the glory to God.

“I attribute it to the Holy spirit. It’s the people who are inviting others to experience the love that is exhibited here,” he said. “It is a trickling effect. It’s the body of Christ inviting people to come, and they are excited to come to church. They look forward to it.”

The Christmas service meant a lot to him, Pastor Rodney said.

“It is to touch the lives of so many people who really may not know the meaning of Christmas,” he said. “And it’s an opportunity to share Christ in so many different ways, loving the people and sharing the message love. And the biggest message is the message of hope.”

Hope is what his membership says Pastor Rodney delivers on a regular basis. Just that morning he had baptized an entire family of eight in the church.

Lynn Brown of Hampstead started coming to Lazarus UCC six months ago. She said she was proud to celebrate Christmas there, and to have her family take part as well.

“My eight year old granddaughter (Ava Pajak) plays in the children’s bell choir and she loves it, and she loves the Sunday school program, too,” Brown said.

As members filed past the tall Christmas tree and a large nativity in the lobby, into the sanctuary, music from the children’s hand bell choir greeted them. Christmas was in the air.

Manchester resident, Kathy Rhodes said she joined the church six months ago.

“I came for that man right there, she said of Rodney Gross. Everyone was talking about what a good sermon he gives. It’s how he preaches,” she said. “He has the holy spirit running through him. It is all about God here and we are really feeling the Christmas spirit.”

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Member Barbara Trump agreed.

“We’ve come a long way,” she said. “Pastor Rodney always says we are on the move, and we are. We are very, very happy.”

Kathy O’Bannon couldn’t stop smiling. She was one of six children who grew up in the church. “My parents were baptized and married here. We were christened and confirmed and went to Sunday school here and four of us were married here.

“It’s good to be back in the church for Christmas service,” O’Bannon said.

The service was an emotional one for member, Bob Davidson. He was on the building committee.

“It’s a good feeling to be in the new building for our first Christmas,” he said, but it is emotional. “There was a lot of effort in seeing this building completed. It took a lot of work and a lot of prayer. We had a lot of real good breaks, though, things that went our way along the way. God was looking out for us. I am feeling that today.”

During the service, Pastor Rodney spoke of the meaning of the season in what he called “short meditations.” Voice rose in song... “Angels we have heard on high…” There were handbells, flute music by Betty Shepherd, and scripture readings, but most of all there was gratitude. It filled the church to overflowing.

“Jesus Christ came to bring hope and salvation to the world,” Pastor Rodney said. “There would be no Christmas without him. Jesus is the reason for the season.”

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