Few Topeka churches can match the history of Central Congregational United Church of Christ, 1248 S.W. Buchanan, where some 120 years ago, the Rev. Charles Monroe Sheldon coined the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?”
For more than 100 years, the limestone church has stood tall — both literally and figuratively — from its location on the southeast corner of S.W. Huntoon and Buchanan.
But time has taken a toll. Numbers of attendees have been down for quite some time, and with that decrease came a shortfall in monetary donations needed to keep the church afloat.
Compounding matters was the largeness of the church, which is composed of two connected buildings and stretches across a wide swath of the 1200 block of S.W. Buchanan.
A little more than a year ago, it became clear to members that they could no longer continue paying the bills in such a large edifice. Despite the emotional ties to the building, the time had come to let it go.
So a for-sale sign went up in April 2016. The original asking price was $425,000 — a fraction of what it would cost to build such a magnificent structure in today’s money, were that even a possibility.
According to the Shawnee County Appraiser’s Office, the church’s value in 2017 was $1,348,450.
Earlier this year, the for-sale sign was amended — the church was taking offers on the structure. Finally, a few weeks ago, and about a year after it went on the market, the property was sold for $290,000 to El Shaddai Templo de Alabanza, a Spanish-language congregation.
Nearly everyone associated with the transaction seemed to be pleased — first, that the building would continue to be used as a church, and second, that members of Central Congregational would finally be able to turn the page on what for them has been a long and emotional ordeal.
Though it isn’t looking to move into its own building at this time, Central Congregational isn’t folding as a church, but will begin meeting soon at Temple Beth Sholom, Topeka’s Jewish congregation at 4200 S.W. Munson. The initial plan is for Central Congregational to rent space at Temple Beth Sholom for a year as members consider their future options.
Before making that move, Central Congregational will commemorate its history and legacy during a special program open to the community at 7 p.m. Sunday, June 18, at its Buchanan street location.
Central Congregational’s pastor, the Rev. Cynthia Meyer, came on board this past November fully aware that the church was in the midst of a major transition. Meyer was able to guide the church through the sale of its property and help it line up a new meeting space.
She said that while members shared “a sense of loss and grief” in leaving their church building, they also have “felt God’s presence and guidance throughout the process” that has brought them to this point.
Meyer said members “know that God is calling us in a new direction and look forward to reshaping our ministry of love and justice.”
Much work has to be done before Central Congregational vacates its building. Imagine, for a moment, the amount of materials that accumulated over the past century, many belonging to Sheldon, whose book “In His Steps” sold tens of millions of copies. It was that book in which the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” originated.
“The number of details to address is kind of mind-boggling,” Meyer said recently. “The kind of stuff —the physical objects — we have as we prepare to leave the building is pretty amazing, even a little beyond what you might expect in a church, because we have all the Charles Sheldon memorabilia and the museum.”
Speaking of those materials and the small museum dedicated to Sheldon’s memory, where will it all go?
Well, the answer to that question isn’t cut-and-dried, as one might expect. Yet steps are being taken to preserve the materials so that Sheldon’s legacy isn’t lost.
“Some of the items are actually going to Ward-Meade Park,” where Sheldon’s study had been relocated several years ago, Meyer said. “They have just received a grant to assist with refurbishing the Sheldon Study, so by fall, we hope there will be a nice display of Sheldon in the study. We’re all excited that it worked out.”
As for Central Congregational’s new home at Temple Beth Sholom, Meyer said, church leaders contacted the synagogue to see if something might be worked out.
Though it is unusual for a Christian church to meet in a Jewish synagogue, it isn’t without precedent — even in Topeka, where about a decade ago, Temple Beth Sholom opened its doors for more than a year to St. David’s Episcopal Church after an intentionally set fire in November 2006 caused major damage to the church’s building at 3916 S.W. 17th.
“We did approach them and they were very receptive, and even indicated to us that they had started having conversations to start sharing their space with another organization,” Meyer said. “So we were thinking along the same lines when we began the conversation.”
Rabbi Debbie Stiel, of Temple Beth Sholom, addressed the arrangement with Central Congregational in her June column in the Temple bulletin.
In it, Stiel noted that Central Congregational “is a progressive congregation with very similar values to ours. They, too, are involved in social justice and equality work.”
Stiel concluded her comments by quoting from the Book of Isaiah: “My House shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.”
Stiel said, “As we have been a wandering people and looked for open doors, how good it is that now we are the ones who are settled and can open our doors to another who needs a place to stay.”
Contact reporter Phil Anderson at (785) 295-1195 or follow live reports @Philreports on Twitter. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/philreports.tcj/