Church without a Church: California Congregation Thrives During Crisis
By Joy Sherman
In a time of social separation, it’s not unusual to “be the church without a church;” that is, if you mean that God’s people can’t gather in their familiar house of worship. But Pastor Mike Gratzke and Community First Church of God in Homeland, California, have been doing that for years. COVID-19, which upended many congregations, hasn’t slowed them down at all.
Gratzke’s congregation cannot gather in their familiar house of worship because they have actually been without a church building since 2016, when a local arsonist set the first of fourteen area fires to the church and it burnt to the ground. Insurers counted the building a total loss. Not long after, the arsonist returned and also destroyed the parsonage.
Working to rebuild has taken the better part of four years. When insurance extended a settlement, it wasn’t even enough to construct a new facility. Instead of taking the offer, the church purchased a cathedral style tent and began to have “tent meetings” outdoors when weather permitted. While they were able to meet in their small fellowship facility when it was too cold or too hot, worshipping outside wasn’t a difficult transition. The congregation was resilient. As Gratzke says, “The building burned but the church did not!”
Recently, through the help of mediation, the church came to an agreement with their insurance provider and they plan to break new ground—but not in the old way. Gratzke says the vision for the new structure is “to be community center/worship center for Homeland.” Their current “temporary worship space” in the old fellowship hall will become a senior center. “The new building will have the feel of a church but be created as a multi-use facility,” continued Gratzke, “easily converted into a banquet hall, wedding chapel, or sanctuary, depending on the need.”
This lean toward building a better home in Homeland isn’t new. About two years into the arson aftermath, the church’s name rose to the top of a list to receive pallets of food every Thursday from a company called Western Eagle. The church converted an old U-Haul truck and began to load and deliver these pallets across the community: two to senior communities, one to a group of single mothers, and one to Community’s food pantry, which opens each Saturday. Through this ministry they serve about 600 people each week. Just two months ago, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, God opened another door in partnership with Feeding America. Now Gratzke’s congregation serves an additional 500-plus households each month from the 18-wheeler that parks in their lot.
When asked about the widespread success and interest in Community as a clearinghouse, Gratzke quickly responds, “Whatever God sees fit to deliver to us, He at the same times sees fit to provide people who have a need.” As an example, they recently received a call about a large overage of gallons of milk. Gratzke said they would take it. As he began to reach out across the area, they paired up with a men’s rehabilitative ranch who just received three pallets of cereal, but nothing to eat it with. “God knows where it all needs to go,” he believes.
While all that work requires a lot of manpower, it doesn’t all come from the church. The congregation is just people strong. However, “when we started serving people in our area, and gained a reputation for being a place that meets needs, other people started volunteering, too,” Gratzke says.
Community Church is committed to bring hope to Homeland. “Our folks are faithful to show up and help,” Gratzke notes. “We’ve trained our volunteers to administer a five-question survey, and if recipients are open, we use a phone app to walk people through the plan of salvation. In the last two years, we’ve prayed with sixty-five people to receive the Lord.”
This tiny church “without a church” is being the hands and feet of Jesus among their neighbors in this too-small, not-even-a-town part of southern California. Gratzke says their crisis before this crisis deepened their faith and strengthened their reliance on the Holy Spirit. One can only imagine what God will do there next!
Help churches like these respond to urgent needs in their communities as a result of COVID-19:
Joy Sherman is lead pastor at Community Church of God in Mt. Carmel, Illinois. Along with husband Steve and son Elijah, Joy loves to share the Word, serve God’s church, and spend time with people.
Learn more about the response of Church of God Ministries to the coronavirus (COVID-19), including resources for you and your church, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway.