Churches serve as community centers

2013-08-14T13:21:00Z 2013-08-16T20:03:38Z Churches serve as community centersBy Johanna Willett Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

A calm mind, closed eyes, and some inner soul-searching all come with the territory in a church.

But this isn’t Sunday prayer. It’s a yoga class.

Every week, Joyful Hearts Yoga brings yoga classes to locations across Tucson, including three churches such as Sunrise Chapel.

Often built in the middle of neighborhoods, churches are ideal spots for community meetings, classes and get-togethers. The community benefits, but so does the church, which gets people through the doors, and income from — usually modest — rental fees.

“If it wasn’t for these churches, I couldn’t bring those communities yoga,” said Tim Howell, 54, the owner and instructor of Joyful Hearts Yoga. “They’re affordable ... I’ve brought a lot of people into yoga who are still doing yoga and benefiting.”

Howell’s class at Sunrise Chapel happens in a room across the patio from the main worship center. Tables are stacked around the edges of the room, and colorful yoga mats stripe the floor. Only a lone plate hanging on the wall, decorated with the Ten Commandments, identifies this room as part of a church.

As the Sunrise Chapel has grown, it has done so with the community in mind, said Pastor Nathan Gladish.

The church, 8421 E. Wrightstown Road, is within walking distance for many of the yoga class regulars.

“The location is very convenient for me,” Linda Taylor, 58. “I’m from Chicago so I don’t know my way around.”

Open doors in churches mean affordable and local access to classrooms, playgrounds, kitchens and even the occasional gymnasium. Many churches keep rent low, attracting groups such as the Tucson Society of the Blind.

Janna Peyton, the president, started the group in 2003 as a social and educational outlet for people who are visually impaired and legally blind. The group grew from its original 13 members — they called themselves the “colonists” — and Peyton knew it needed a permanent home.

They found Christ Presbyterian Church after a long day of venue-shopping. It was the last appointment, and they had nearly settled on another location.

“I’m blind and in a wheelchair, and I had been in and out of the car for the umpteenth time, but we just wanted to check,” Peyton said. ‘How much can you afford,’ they asked us. Someone piped up, ‘Twenty dollars a week.’”

The church agreed. Other places the group had checked charged $50 to $75 each week, Peyton said.

Now, almost every week, the Tucson Society of the Blind meets at the church, 6565 E. Broadway . Sometimes  it makes crafts. Sometimes the the group hosts pancake breakfasts — a challenge, Peyton joked, for a group with limited vision.

“This church has open arms, and they’re reaching out to the community,” Peyton said. “We help them by providing additional income. It’s a win-win for both of us.”

When the pulpit is empty and the Bibles are closed, Christ Presbyterian sees it all. During the week, homeowners’ associations and basketball practices swing by. The Barony of Tir Ysgithr, a chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism, recently held a multiday, medieval culture event there.

The congregation of Christ Presbyterian began meeting in the 1950s and has expanded its campus to meet community needs. In 1996, the church added a gym that has hosted National Youth Sports basketball tournaments and weekly sports practices.

“We try to be open to all members of the community, regardless of their faith or beliefs,” said Steven Brownson, the church’s pastoral assistant. “People will come for an unrelated event and then will come back to worship with us.”

After Sept. 11, 2001, the church initiated a series of dialogues with Tucson’s other faith communities. Since then, a handful of conversations have brought together Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders to “get to know each other and realize we’re not bad, even though we have different ways of serving God,” Brownson said.

Serving is what matters to these churches — especially Serenity Baptist Church in the Three Points/Robles Junction community, about 30 minutes southwest of Tucson.

For years, the area had no community center, and it still lacks meeting spaces such as a local library. Serenity Baptist Church fills in the gaps — and even serves coffee while doing it, said Cher Williams, 56, a volunteer board member of the Robles Junction Community Council.

Calling itself “the Rest Stop,” the church, 15501 W. Ajo Highway, lives up to its name. It has offered space over the years for AKKA karate classes, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, community festival planning meetings and a community garden, among other things. Serenity Baptist does not charge rent to any of these groups .

“In this area, we can’t go door to door,” said Dane Miller, the pastor of the church. “It’s a scattered community with lots of fences and lots of dogs and people who don’t want to be bothered.”

Sharing the facilities with community groups increases familiarity with the church — even if only a handful come back on Sunday mornings.

Williams has no connection to the church but lives in the area and calls the church and its leadership team an “icon” in the community.

“Even if you are not religious or are of a different religion, you know who Dane is, and you know about Serenity,” Williams said.

At a Walgreens on Valencia Road, a woman from Three Points/Robles Junction recognized Miller as they both waited in line. She had not come to Serenity Baptist for a religious service, but rather knew him through the church’s community involvement.

“We have so many people who will come to other events and say, ‘I’m going to my church,’ but they only come for special events,” Miller said. “Much of the community does see us as the community church.”

Community Tribute

Saguaro Canyon Evangelical Free Church, on the far southeast side at 10111 E. Old Spanish Trail, Sbuilt the Erik Hite Family Park after Tucson police officer Erik Hite was shot and killed during a pursuit in 2008.

Hite and his wife attended the church, and after his death, his wife approached church leadership, said pastor Neil Watson.

The couple had always wanted a grassy park for their daughter to play. The church made it happen.

The west side of the church, once a dirt field with a swing set surrounded by gravel, now has a playground with grass and shade.

Moms meet there with their kids for playdates on weekday mornings. Barbeques and quinceñeras keep the atmosphere lively.

Watson strolls the park and chats with visitors when he gets the chance.

“We want people to know they’re welcome to be here,” Watson said. “I just enjoy having people on our campus.”

Beyond maintaining this park for the public, Saguaro Canyon hosts the monthly Market on the Move farmers market, jazzercise classes, Weight Watchers meetings and other activities.

Contact reporter Johanna Willett at

jwillett@azstarnet.com or 573-4357.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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