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Columbia church transforms sanctuary into community center

Samaira Hammond, center, 4, sits with Mira Ghersi, right, 9, in the multi-purpose room (which doubles as the church sanctuary) during Celebration Church's summer camp. Church leaders wanted to create a welcoming environment for Long Reach youths.
Samaira Hammond, center, 4, sits with Mira Ghersi, right, 9, in the multi-purpose room (which doubles as the church sanctuary) during Celebration Church's summer camp. Church leaders wanted to create a welcoming environment for Long Reach youths.(Staff photo by Jen Rynda, Patuxent Publishing)

Every Sunday, hundreds of people fill the sanctuary of Columbia's Celebration Church to pray, sing and listen to scripture.

But after the last service is over, members of the congregation break down the rows of chairs, transforming the place of worship into a space for summer camp activities and basketball tournaments. And on Monday, the room is filled with a different kind of joyful noise: the shouts of children playing and the crisp bounce of basketballs against the modular floor.

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Celebration Church, the largest black congregation in Columbia, removed its pews earlier this year to turn the sanctuary into a community center that can better accommodate its outreach programs.

"We've made a decision that we need to use the building seven days a week," said the Rev. Robbie Davis, senior pastor at Celebration Church.

On a recent Tuesday morning, about 80 children filled the multipurpose room at the church's summer camp. They sang and danced, and marched around on the new athletic flooring, emblazoned with the church's logo: Five Olympic-style rings flanked at the top and bottom by a motto, "City of Champions," and that city's location: "Columbia." The community center has been named the "Win Center," to align with the church's goal of helping members "Win in Life."

While having the sanctuary double as a recreation room at first seemed unusual to some members of the congregation, church leaders said the congregants were quick to come around.

"Now, we're able to use so much more of the building," said the Rev. Larry Walker, the church's deputy pastor.

Davis said the room's new configuration has created the space the church needs, both to make room for its expanding congregation, which currently numbers about 2,500, and to house programs like the summer camp and "The City," which offers artistic, academic and athletic enrichment to local kids during the school year.

During the week, when the community center is in use, thick black curtains protect the altar and stained glass windows from flying basketballs and exuberant children.

Long Reach outreach

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Davis said he hoped the new space would be a welcoming environment for neighborhood youth who need a place to hang out after school.

In the Long Reach community where Celebration Church is located, Davis said, he's seen an increase in loitering, crime and shuttered businesses. "We're committed to putting a dent in that," he said.

The church works with Better Together Long Reach, a community organization that unites residents, local police and small businesses to educate the community about crime prevention and emergency preparedness. Sharon T. Gray, the group's president, said the church plays an integral part in helping to connect with Long Reach.

"I see that children have a place to go, that they have mentors, that they feel a part of the community," she said. "They feel that people respect them and appreciate them for who they are… The children who have been fortunate enough to participate in their activities feel like they have another home."

Gray called the multipurpose center "a real gift to the community."

Celebration's nine-week camp, which runs through Aug. 12, is the church's effort to keep youngsters entertained and engaged throughout summer break. Children spend their day doing arts and crafts, swimming and, of course, playing in the new multipurpose room. The camp is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, to accommodate working parents,

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"We love it!" Robin Davis, camp director and Robbie's wife, said. "Especially since it's been so hot outside, it's really been a blessing to have that indoor space."

Camp counselor Malik Harris, who lives in Long Reach and uses the community center to practice with his basketball team, echoed her enthusiasm.

"The kids like it. They get to run around and scream all they want," he said.

Affordable fun

At $75 a week, Robbie Davis said the summer camp is the most affordable in the area for all that it offers. The weekly fee used to be $175, but he and the congregation decided to slash the cost. The church has also reduced its Christian Academy tuition from $165 to $100 a week.

"When we lowered the price of the camp and saw the response from the community, it blew us away," Robbie Davis said.

He said one woman told him that without the camp, her grandchildren would have spent their summer playing video games. But at $75, she could afford to keep them active and entertained.

The church hopes to continue to expand its presence in the community. Robbie Davis said there are plans to construct a new building next door to the current one, and the church will soon add an extra worship service in Spanish on Sundays at 2 p.m.

In the meantime, the congregation and community will celebrate the official opening of the center with "Summerbration," a series of events, including lectures, a comedy show and a cookout, being held July 20-24.

The grand opening ceremony for the community center is set for Saturday, July 23 at 7 p.m. and will feature a "celebrity" basketball tournament, pitting community firefighters, police officers and government officials against the church's basketball team.

"Of course the Celebration Church will have a team that will beat everybody, but we're welcoming all challengers," Robbie Davis joked.

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