“This grew from being just a project to becoming a home.” That’s how Eddystone United Methodist Church describes its journey—an inspiring labor of love—that converted its once dilapidated, abandoned parsonage into a comfortable new home for refugees who journeyed there from war-torn Ukraine.
The parsonage (left) might just represent a crossroads of journeys for the church and the two unrelated families who now reside there as friends and neighbors: Oleksii and Maryna Zentsev and Igor and Olha Gluschenko with their 11-year-old daughter Masha.
That crossroads was celebrated in a joyous housewarming party on Sunday, October 15, as Eddystone UMC’s friends and neighbors—including some from other churches—got to tour the renovated home, greet the two families and sample several of their Ukrainian dishes.
The historic church, built in 1891 by the town’s first mayor and nestled in a small community surrounded by industrial complexes, was almost closed three years ago. The tiny, aged congregation’s longtime pastor had retired, they had no vision for their future, and they were no longer gathering for worship, in the midst of the Covid pandemic.
But South District Superintendent Evelyn Kent Clark asked the Rev. John Lafferty, a part-time local pastor, to go there and help the church stay open just a bit longer if he could.
When he attended his first church board of trustees meeting, the members had decided to sell the parsonage, built in 1907, to gain needed revenue. No one had lived there in nearly 18 years, but it was in disrepair, with inadequate plumbing and electricity, and full of donated clothes collected to be given away. Still, the new pastor suggested they explore how to clean out, repair and convert the old, abandoned house for use in mission.
After discarding several unworkable ideas, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 and the resulting evacuation of Ukrainian refugees gave them a new idea to provide a new home for refugee families. Thus, their journey began.
From a liability to an asset for mission
“We took something that was a liability, that was becoming dangerous because it was falling apart,” said Lafferty’s wife Jennifer Lafferty, a Certified Lay Minister. “But we turned it into an asset; and we didn’t take a dollar from the church or from the conference. We went out and raised the money.”
Needing thousands of dollars, they formed a special Parsonage Project Board. They applied for grants but were denied. So, relying on the adage that charity begins at home, they sought aid from local neighbors, businesses and associates. Fortunately, both their timing and their cause were ideal because strong sentiments favoring Ukraine and its refugees elicited the support they needed.
The neighboring St. James Catholic High School Alumni Association in Eddystone, Linvilla Orchards in Media, the Monroe Energy Company, the Carpenters Union of Philadelphia and many other local businesses and individual benefactors eagerly and generously responded.
We received $500 here, $200 or $300 there—I mean, they were barbershops, hairdressers, bakeries, pizza shops, candy stores all giving to this effort,” said John Lafferty.
“Essentially, we did a lot of begging but for a good cause,” recalled Brendan Magee, trustee chair. “We pounded the pavement going from place to place—all the churches in our area, the West Chester Business Exchange, the Broomall Rotary Club, local unions. We raised about $70,000. A group of plumbers came in and did major work for just the cost of materials. And every piece of furniture in there was donated from various estates.”
Magee, a young attorney who joined the church three years ago, now serves as an unpaid assistant pastor who recently completed seminary. He and longtime member Bill Balentine joined the Laffertys in doing much of the fundraising and friend-raising, as well as negotiations to secure the ideal refugee families to occupy the home.
“I didn’t believe we could do all this at first,” said Magee. “But now I believe this is all from God.” Magee, a young attorney who joined the church three years ago, now serves as an unpaid assistant pastor who recently completed seminary. He and longtime member Bill Balentine joined the Laffertys in doing much of the fundraising and friend-raising, as well as negotiations to secure the ideal refugee families to occupy the home.
‘I believe this is all from God, and I feel God is on our side’
“I didn’t believe we could do all this at first,” said Magee. “But now I believe this is all from God, and I feel God is on our side.”
As part of its friend-raising, the church invited local 12-step addiction recovery groups to meet there. Now it hosts groups totaling about a hundred people five nights a week. Some of those groups’ influential members, plus others from MVP Recovery, a residential recovery facility in Media, have donated funds, materials and services, sometimes doing repairs as community service.
Significant aid also came from churches in the South District and Eastern PA Conference—especially from Lima UMC, where Lafferty, a bivocational pastor and part-time high school teacher, is also that church’s finance manager. He applied for and received a generous grant from their endowment committee to replace and upgrade all the antiquated electrical wiring in the house.
But Lima church donated more than just money. Volunteers from its United Methodist Men and United Women of Faith groups did major work on upgrading the kitchen floor, repairing the sidewalk, decorating the entire house and donating furniture and furnishings.
Now all that remains to be done in the house, Lafferty told visitors at the housewarming party, is the replacement of about a dozen aged, decrepit windows. A recent fundraising effort that netted $7,000 will pay for the new windows, and two contractors he recently met will install them to fulfill community service.
While the bountiful blessings they’ve needed seemed to come from everywhere, finding refugee residents for the three-story, six-bedroom home required some effort and much patience. They ran into delays and obstacles with several refugee families, sponsors and resettlement agencies, until they finally received the help they needed from Ukrainian Catholic Services (UCS) in Philadelphia. One problem was that most Ukrainian refugees prefer to live further north among other Ukrainians near Philadelphia and Abingdon, said Lafferty.
The Gluschenko Family from Odessa moved there in April. The Zentsev Family from Kyiv moved there in July.
‘We fell in love with them’
“We fell in love with them,” said Lafferty. “They regularly attend worship, and their daughter participates by lighting the altar candles for us.” They use Google Translate on their cellphones to communicate bilingually; and Jennifer prepares worship bulletins in Russian for both families. Now John, who acquired Russian Bibles from the Gideons, is searching for United Methodist hymnals in Russian
Oleksii is a physical therapist in Philadelphia. And thanks to John, Olha was hired as a cook at the nearby elementary school that their daughter attends. Igor is a Truck Driver and Maryna is a computer programmer.
How long the two families will stay there and where their refugee journeys may take them next is uncertain. But Olha and Igor have said they want to be there for at least three years, said Lafferty.
Eddystone UMC’s new home away from home for these refugees is a major milestone in its own ministry journey that may lead it to adopt a new vision of growth and vitality through mission and community engagement.
“In the beginning all of this was hard to believe—that we could do all this,” said Jennifer. “But miracles started to happen—generous gifts we received here and there. Soon, the whole church started to trust us to make good decisions. And it really bonded our small congregation together through this whole process. We always say we’re small but mighty because we’ve done so much with God’s help.”
“More than anything, it’s been fun,” said John. “It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been a lot of fun. Every time we greet one another with hugs, we know that we are getting as much joy and gratitude from this as they are.”
“This project has been and continues to be in my prayers; and I praise God for the transformational work being done there,” said District Superintendent Clark. “We are called to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world; and Eddystone UMC’s pastor, members and community took this mission statement to heart.”