BRATTLEBORO—The few bars of a hymn sung by the Rev. Suzanne Andrews ring in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church long after she walks with practiced steps across the sloping floor of the 19th century building’s middle balcony.
“It makes you feel like you’re walking in a drunken stupor,” Andrews jokes about the vertigo-inducing floor. “But it’s part of why the acoustics in here are so beautiful.”
Andrews, affectionately dubbed “Pastor Sue” by her congregation, enthusiastically points to different aspects of the building, such as its century-old Estey organ, a donation by church member Jacob Estey and his wife in what congregants call their spiritual home.
“She’s special, she’s beautiful. She’s got wrinkles, but she’s beautiful,” Andrews says of the building she felt called to serve in.
After eight years as pastor here, she looks with reverence even at the made-plain stained glass window that once held a signed Tiffany depiction of Saint John the Divine.
She was sad to see the window go, but it’s only a window, she remarks.
The congregation sold the Tiffany window in 2010 for $85,000 to cover expenses. Slate roof repairs alone chewed up approximately $50,000 of the proceeds.
Andrews clearly loves her work and the mission of the First Baptist Church and is proud of her congregation’s commitment to helping members of the community who are vulnerable.
Of the First Baptist congregation, she says, “We are alive and we are well.”
She feels particular admiration for church members now, as they consider a purchase offer from a local businessperson and philanthropist.
At this early stage, the offer includes just the building. Most of the other details of the offer are under negotiation. The congregation expects to have the right to continue worshiping in the building for 15 years.
“We’ve had an initial offer. That’s all we really can say,” says Christine Connelly, vice-chair of the church’s board of trustees. “We’re really trying to work with this person.”
As for which of the church’s programs will continue, that’s unknown. “The investor, I believe, is looking out for the best interest of the church,” Andrews says.
Members are likely to vote whether to approve the sale at or around the annual meeting in January 2015.
Andrews and the church board of trustees informed the congregation of the purchase offer at an informational meeting on Nov. 23.
Did all the members jump for joy? Not really, she says.
Did some members say they wanted to consider other possible options? A few, yes.
Do many feel that the possibility of selling the church is, according to Andrews, “heart-wrenching”? Yes.
But in general — and this is where Andrews says her heart swells in admiration — the members of the First Baptist Church have responded to the possible sale with faith.
A building is a building, Andrews says members have told her: A congregation is its mission.
For members of the First Baptist Church, that mission is helping the community’s vulnerable people and those in recovery.
The neo-gothic First Baptist Church on Main Street provides space for multiple programs helping those who are homeless, needy, or in recovery.
Programs include the Drop In Center’s overnight shelter, a pastoral counseling program, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and Grace’s Kitchen, which provides weekly dinners and a Sunday breakfast aimed at feeding the homeless and hungry families.
Many of the meals are coordinated by the Brattleboro Interfaith Clergy Association.
Beyond the ledger
Trustee Chair Karen Davis pulls out a one-page ledger of church expenses.
“We’re learning what faith means,” she says, “and it’s hard.”
Davis says she was born into the church.
Returning to the area after 35 years in Washington, D.C., Davis says, finding people at the church who knew her as a child and knew her parents “gives me such a sense of coming home.”
Some church members have belonged to the First Baptist Church for 70 or more years, Andrews says.
Davis, studying the list of expenses, outlines the church’s tough financial situation: The congregation has about $10,000 left in endowments, she explains. It costs approximately $11,000 a month to operate the building.
Heating the uninsulated building with its aging furnace costs $2,100 a month.
“We are a poor church,” Andrews says, adding that the 92-member congregation is growing.
Andrews holds services three days a week, and these are also broadcast on Brattleboro Community Television.
“I wouldn’t seek any awards for that,” Davis notes with a gentle smile.
Expenses such as fuel, electricity, and water run high for the church. Utility costs show a marked rise when the shelter is open. The shelter used to run four months. Starting last year, the shelter started running for six months.
Andrews explains that the Drop In Center donates $3,500 toward utilities. Other churches in the area also donate.
People from across the country also started to send small donations after the news of the church selling its Tiffany window received national press coverage, Andrews explains.
“It’s an affirmation of knowing people believe in what we’re doing,” she adds.
Davis adds that the trustees also hold fundraisers, such as the Dec. 6 church bazaar.
According to Andrews, as a religious organization the church doesn’t qualify for grants as do other nonprofits.
Davis says the church building is on the town’s tax roll for $890,000 and is insured for $4 million.
Connelly stresses that the congregation does not proselytize to those seeking help at the church. There’s no requirement to listen to sermons or attend church services to access programs.
“We maintain the separation of church and state,” Davis adds.
Even if the congregation votes to sell the building, she said, First Baptist will continue relying on donations to support programs such as the winter shelter.
The congregation recently approved a $118,000 “faith budget” for the upcoming year, Andrews says.
Davis says that the church’s financial concerns have equated to “a lot of lost sleep” for her and other members.
Connelly adds, “It’s like selling your childhood home.”
Davis and Connelly note that selling the church could open the building to more people if, say, the new buyer wants to hold concerts in the building.
Davis says the congregation is optimistic about sharing the building.
Studies conducted by local engineering and architect firm Stevens & Associates, with help from the Preservation Trust of Vermont, point to the building being structurally sound.
Whatever becomes of the building that houses the First Baptist Church, Andrews says that the congregation will continue supporting its mission of helping the community’s vulnerable.
“It’s a gift to have someone to work with who loves the community and wants to give back to the community,” Davis says.
“It could be an answer to a prayer,” Andrews adds.