I have a fascination with old, abandoned buildings and places. Just over a decade ago, the church I attended took the youth on a mission trip to Clearbrook, MN where my fascination began. It’s a small town in the very northern part of the state. We were headed up there specifically to help with the Gonvick location of the Clear Waters Life Center (CWLC).
Gonvick and Clearbrook are neighboring small towns who, for years, have a single school district between them. In the early 2000’s, I believe, the state of MN made them an offer to help their school district be able to spend more money on students and less on facilities. They offered a huge subsidy for them to close their existing, old, school buildings and build one, new, K-12 facility halfway between the two towns. It was an offer the school board couldn’t turn down. A new building was built and each town was left with an empty, old school building.
Old school buildings are hard to do something different with. Parts of the old buildings were beyond reasonable repair and were torn down. But parts of the old buildings still had some life left in them for something. Enter the local church community. The pastors and leadership of most of the local churches gathered and wondered how those old school buildings could be turned into community centers. They did some surveys, held some community listening meetings, and raised the funds to purchase the old junior/senior high building in Clearbrook. In that space went classrooms for art and music which the school was struggling to fund, a second hand shop, a weight room, meeting spaces for various groups, and an apartment which could host several men who had finished drug treatment but who still needed some additional support and job training as they worked to start over in life. Additionally, the gym and kitchen hosted a local youth group, open gym times, and various events such as wedding receptions and pancake breakfast fundraisers.
In the meantime, the elementary school in Gonvick continued to sit empty. The roof started to leak, vandals broke in, and the people in Gonvick were certain it would never be more than a deteriorating reminder of how their small town was slowing dying. But God wasn’t done with what he wanted CWLC to do in their community. The demand was quickly outgrowing the available space in the Clearbrook facility. People wanted to donate used furniture to the second hand shop but there simply wasn’t space. Elder care, especially for those who had memory issues and couldn’t be left home alone for any length of time, was becoming a significant need in the community. The transitional program for the men coming out of drug treatment had a waiting list because of the job training offered. So the board of CWLC turned their sights on the Gonvick building.
It took a couple of years but they were eventually able to purchase the Gonvick building from the school district. Having sat empty for much longer time, the building needed a lot of work before it was ready to welcome the community back. The leaky roof had created an ideal, dark, damp environment for mold and mildew to grow. Spray painted graffiti needed to be removed or painted over. Every single piece of glass throughout the entire interior of the building had been smashed. Locks and doors had been broken. What most of us would have seen as an open and shut case for bringing in a wrecking ball they saw as a building full of potential, just in need of a little TLC.
They rolled up their sleeves and once again went to work with the help of different volunteers from different church groups, including several teams from my church. Within a couple of years, the building was cleaned up and safe for people to be in once again. A pottery studio moved in as well as space for fixing up and refinishing donated furniture. A program for older adults to gather a few times a week was established. Greenhouses and a community garden were set up and quickly gained a reputation in the region as the best place to get plants in the spring. A commercial kitchen was put in place providing a place for the community to gather and eat on a regular basis. Artwork in the form of murals and mosaics is found throughout the building and with metal sculptures reflecting the values and history of the community decorating the grounds. Life has been restored in a special way to the building, and to the city of Gonvick.
I was privileged to bring not just one but two teams of youth to be part of this amazing ministry over the years I was part of that particular church. The first time we were there, the Gonvick site had just recently been officially open for public use. A few things were in place but there was still a lot of work to be done within the building. Several years later when I returned, the interior was significantly improved so we focused our work on building some outdoor gathering spaces to be used in the warmer months for community gatherings.
When I think of what it means to restore something, CWLC and the people of Clearbrook and Gonvick are what comes to mind. They restored life to old buildings. They restored hope to communities. They have restored the possibility of a meaningful future to the men in their recovery program. They have taken something which was a source of despair in each town, and restored it to be a source of hope and life, of creativity and connection.
For this series, we are jumping back a decade in time and looking at the theme from 2011: Restored. To be honest, I picked a year at random but the more I have prayed about the theme, the more I am feeling God’s guidance in picking 2011. This past year has been a hard one for many of us. Teachers have been thrown into a whole new way of teaching. Parents have suddenly found themselves guiding kids through lessons and finding unique solutions to childcare with schools being shut down. Plans have been changed. In 2020, we didn’t celebrate Easter at church but at home. In 2021, while many of us are back in church, it still looks so very different.
We are longing for a return to “normal.” We want to feel safe going out and about again, gathering with friends and family again, and traveling again. We want our old life restored. And in many ways, we are making progress towards that goal. Most kids have the option to be back in school in person. Sports are being broadcast on TV again. Restaurants are opening up. Signs of normal being restored are happening. But in some ways, we can’t help but wonder what will forever be changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While change isn’t necessarily bad, it is part of restoration. But that still doesn’t always make it easy or welcome most of the time.
Thankfully, the God we lean on and trust in has been in the restoration business for a very long time. In fact, He has been doing restoration since Adam and Eve ate fruit from the one tree they were supposed to leave alone in the Garden of Eden. The primary purpose of Jesus coming to earth was to restore humanity to a right relationship with God. Why? Because when God looks at each of us, he doesn’t see the broken windows, the mold and mildew, the graffiti, or any of the other faults and flaws, he sees what we were created to be. He sees his child, pure and perfect, holy and blameless. He sees us RESTORED to what humanity was created to be.
- What in your life do you believe to be un-restorable? Consider over the next five weeks allowing God to work in that part of your life.
- When you hear the word restore or restoration, what sort of images and experiences come to your mind? Are you excited at the idea of restoring something and bringing new life to it, or are you more likely to see the flaws and challenges?