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Grove Presbyterian Church faced with challenge of funding renovation project

Grove Presbyterian Church has a history of taking on modern-day giants.

In the Eisenhower era, it took on prejudice, striving to mend racial rifts and giving scholarships to African-American kindergartners. The 147-year-old church has fought hunger by providing weekly free lunches and a food bank. To combat drug traffic, it throws block parties.

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Now Grove Presbyterian is shouldering another challenge, a $1.2 million debt to renovate its community center that it -- and the neighborhood -- depends on.

Fund raising has been no easy task for its 195 members, whose average age is 62 and who operate the church on a $170,000 annual budget. The doors to the new Monroe Community Building, named after the Rev. Perry Monroe, are set to open next month against a backdrop of dwindling philanthropic financial support in this stagnant economic climate.

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Yet with less than one-third of the cash raised, the members hold a steadfast belief that the money will come. The Depression failed to wipe out the church. Decades later, the church on Aberdeen's east side faced two crucial votes to move, due in part to diminishing coffers. Twice, members voted to stay.

"I guess you could say it's our calling," said congregant Betty Muse, 81, in reference to the church's decision to stay and do mission work. Muse was married to Monroe, who died in 1975. The granite church, built at the site of a grove where congregants gathered to worship along the thoroughfare from Washington to Philadelphia, has long served as a spiritual and social cornerstone for Aberdeen and its neighbors.

The Korean Full Gospel Church depends on the Monroe Building for worship space. The Girl Scouts, Red Cross, Head Start, Alcoholics Anonymous and more than two dozen other government, civic and charitable organizations use it. Aberdeen city officials often hold public meetings there.

It's close, convenient and cost efficient, city officials said.

Aberdeen could not support food and clothing banks without Grove Presbyterian's help, said Phyllis Grove, the city's director of planning.

Community asset

"It's really been an asset to the community," she said.

A scattering of magnificent maples still stand at the site of the grove once known as Hall's Cross Road, where Dr. Septimus Tustin was called from Washington in 1854 to preach. Within two years, a brick building went up and by 1912, the congregation had raised more than $15,000 to build the stone church one block away just off Post Road.

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By the 1950s, Aberdeen -- and Grove Presbyterian -- had reached its heyday. Aberdeen Proving Ground was in full swing, drawing young families to the area. The proving ground itself, especially during war, looked to the church for spiritual aid, church members said.

Monroe, a young pastor from New Jersey who grew to become something of a church legend, led the flourishing church through this time. He oversaw the expansion of the peculiar, triangle-shaped sanctuary, designed to avoid knocking down the expensive stone walls. It was under his direction, too, that the first community center, known simply as the education building, was built in 1954, mainly to house the Sunday school.

Like most cities, Aberdeen was -- and is -- afflicted by many of society's ills, including prejudice, poverty and drugs.

Monroe is credited with setting the blueprint for the church's social justice work during his 22 years there. He was also known for his knack for dealing with teens. Members said he would rush to the local high school during race riots to mediate, and that he could walk into the middle of knife fights -- which often happened on the church blacktop -- and defuse them.

Grove Presbyterian created one of the area's first kindergartens in the 1950s and gave scholarships to African-American children. Muse, who taught the afternoon class, recalled a time when it seemed clear that the church had made progress.

She watched one afternoon as a girl gazed in amazement at her tablemate's art project. The child next to her had traced his hand and colored it brown, the color of his skin. She had been blind to his color in a time when color meant everything, Muse explained.

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Later, the halls of the community center became the birthing ground for the local hospice and Habitat for Humanity chapter. The food pantry and the weekly free lunch program draw scores of people from two counties.

"They [the church] had a heart for the community," said the Rev. Guy Dunham, interim pastor.

Needed makeover

But the two-floor center had not been touched since 1976, after it was renamed the Monroe Building. More than two decades later, the mildewed, crumbling building could not hold its occupants or pass city inspections.

After five years of planning, the congregation approved a modest renovation. A 48-by-24-foot addition was added to the pale, rectangular building. Contractors removed asbestos-based tile from the floor, added six handicap-accessible bathrooms and installed air conditioning. It also built an industrial kitchen, where it plans to hold meal-planning and nutrition classes for those who seek the pantry's help.

Construction, which began last fall, is expected to be complete Sept. 1.

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According to Dave Yensan, a member of the church building committee, the congregation has pledged another $300,000 over three years. Roughly one-third of three dozen requests for foundation-based grants have been denied. Representatives from Grove Presbyterian Church will present a construction-plan update at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Aberdeen City Council meeting.


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