Housing others first: For this Michigan church, ‘building’ is a verb
New Waves United Church of Christ doesn’t have a church building, but they have plans to build 14 affordable homes near Traverse City, Mich.
The church plant, which began in 2015, has held worship in several places — an art gallery, a counseling office and, currently, the local township hall. The housing project is part of their aim toward being a faith community for today’s world, said church moderator Betsy Dole.
“A lot of people ask us how we can be a church if we don’t have a church,” she said. “In the UCC, we know that the church is a group of people who are committed to living and behaving as Jesus would have us live and behave. It’s not what we believe or say within the stained-glass windows and pipe organ and chandeliers — it’s what we do with what we’ve been given.
“And in this case, it’s our commitment to welcoming everyone no matter where they are in life’s journey. It’s finding ways to meet their needs.”
Meeting community needs
The 20-acre plot purchased by the Michigan Conference in 2003 was initially intended for building a church, Dole said.
But as New Waves developed, the congregants recognized a need for affordable housing for working people in their Leelanau County community, where it has become increasingly expensive to live. The county is the wealthiest in the state.
The plot of land sits only two to three miles from the city center, offering easy access for people who work there, Dole noted. In collaboration with the Conference and township, the church that Dole described as “small but mighty” pursued plans to create this housing resource for vulnerable people and families in the community.
“My prayer is that New Waves UCC will become known as the church that built affordable housing for others before building a big edifice for itself,” said the Rev. Lillian Daniel, Michigan Conference Minister.
‘Something new and bold’
When leaders from the congregation, Conference and community organizations came together to create a vision for the land, Habitat for Humanity became an early and vital partner. The group created an agreement to give Habitat land to build six Habitat homes — to be sold as affordable housing — in exchange for Habitat providing the architectural plans and construction management of the other eight houses.
The group hired an engineer to create a community layout that will use 11 acres for the 14 small houses, leaving space around them for possible community gardens.
“This particular project required much more of the Michigan Conference than new church funding or the remarkable gift of the land, which could have been sold to yet another builder of vacation homes for the wealthy,” Daniel said. “The decision by the Conference to give the land instead to a new community of faith took courage and many years of planning by our Church Vitality Team and the group on the ground in Traverse City.
“The institutional church is facing the harshest religious landscape most of us can remember. As a Conference, we decided to do something new and bold, and our Michigan churches are all in for the experiment, praying and offering support.”
Continuing with hope
After years of preparing and planning, the project is scheduled to break ground on Oct. 10.
While New Waves has put in the infrastructure — roads, electrical lines and a well — they are still seeking funds to build their eight houses. They also have future dreams of adding a community center on the land along the road.
But New Waves is no stranger to maintaining faith through uncertainty.
Having experienced the impact of COVID-19 as a new church plant, New Waves shifted gatherings to focus on book studies and speakers from local community organizations when they could no longer afford a pastor.
“Being a church plant and then COVID made it hard,” Dole said. “I sometimes say we are a ‘restart’ church. It can be overwhelming and discouraging, but we continue with hope because we believe that we are doing the right thing with the land and with our vision for this church.”
The church is currently searching for a creative and entrepreneurial pastor, Daniel said.
“We see ourselves at New Waves — and other church starts — as building the basis for the UCC to go forward and be what the church needs to be in this modern world,” Dole said. “New Waves seeks to be a progressive and contemporary church that can speak to both the spiritual and physical needs of people.”
For now, the goal for New Waves to have all 14 houses built by December 2025 is beginning to come into focus.
“Every year since the township approved the plan in 2021, we’ve been saying, ‘Well, maybe next year we’ll start digging,’” Dole said. “And here we are at a groundbreaking — it’s very exciting.”
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