Feature

Extreme Mercy: Home Edition

A congregation's labor of love

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Tom Martin didn’t know what to expect last October when he drove into Hume, a village in northwest Ohio. As a deacon at Shawnee Alliance Church (Lima, Ohio), he was visiting one of the congregation’s new families.

A ministry team had visited a few days before, but all Martin knew was that the church could help with some of the family’s needs. Upon arriving at the correct address, Martin was surprised to find charred remains of a house, gutted by fire.

He noticed that lights shone inside the garage and a car was parked in the driveway. He knocked on the door to the garage and was greeted by Rich and Kelly Coby, a young couple with four children. Martin discovered that the Cobys were living in the garage, which they had converted to a one-room living space with a kitchen, bath and laundry area. The necessities were there, but the room was uncomfortably crowded. Despite their meager living conditions, the Cobys seemed content.

Martin spent a couple of hours with the family discussing their needs, which ranged from the basics to medical. After he assured Rich and Kelly that the church would help, Martin finally asked what had happened to the house. With a little prodding, the Cobys told their story.

Living a Nightmare

On September 6, 2002, a late-morning fire started in the house, where Rich had lived since childhood. Kelly and the three younger children were asleep on the second floor. The oldest son, Tyler, was at school, and Rich was at work.

Four-year-old Kaeley tried to wake her mom, but Kelly was groggy from the smoke she’d inhaled while sleeping. Finally Kelly opened her eyes and saw the smoldering cloud crawling across the ceiling.

The smoke was so thick that Kelly could hardly see to gather her other two children and find a way out. Just then a ray of sunlight broke through the darkness, leading Kelly to a window. The family climbed barefoot through the window and walked across the burning roof to escape.

That day was terrible, but in the following year things didn’t get easier. The Cobys moved often, struggling to find affordable rent. The bank lost the insurance check for the house, so Rich and Kelly had to pay both rent and mortgage. Money donated by community members helped, but eventually the funds were depleted. And even though Rich continued to work, finances stretched thin.

During this difficult time the Cobys found little comfort at church. Kelly remembered, “People looked down on us because of our secondhand clothing. We were ready to give up on church, and our faith had dwindled to nothing.” Feeling shunned and unwanted, they were unable to find a church home.

After so many changes the Cobys decided they wanted to go home, and with the help of family and friends, they prepared the garage. Now that the family no longer had to struggle to pay rent, they felt that it mattered little that they lived in a garage. But it mattered to Martin.

Picking up the Pieces

While driving home from his visit with the Cobys that day, Martin prayed about the Cobys’ situation. He wondered, Could our church provide them with a new home? What would it cost? By the time he reached his driveway, Martin knew what the Lord wanted him to do. “There was only one answer to this need—we would rebuild the house.”

Martin, a retired carpenter, knew how much work reconstructing the residence would take, so he took his idea to the senior pastor, Rev. Daniel Messner, and the board of directors at Shawnee Alliance Church. Even though the leaders had never assumed a project of this magnitude, Martin got the go-ahead.

“I believed when Tom presented it to me that we would do it,” said Messner. “No one on the church board objected. It was a real demonstration of their faith.”

The way the project came together was nothing short of miraculous. Contractors and local businesspeople who heard about the project donated supplies and equipment. The Hume Fire Department volunteered space to store supplies. Township officials allowed the house to be built on the footprint of the original house, even though the zoning regulations prohibited it.

Martin met with the manager of the local Lowe’s home improvement store. With the manager’s help, Martin presented his project to the corporate office. The company allowed the church to purchase supplies for the house at corporate cost, which was even less than the local store had to pay for them.

Still, Martin estimated they needed an additional $32,000 in building materials. In March 2004, he presented the needs to the congregation. The church supported the project and on that same day, members contributed financially.

The church’s immediate response surprised Martin: “They showed no resistance to this project, and there was never a shortage of money.” Less than a month later, Martin and several volunteers began construction on the new home and continued working through the summer. They worked almost every day except Sundays.

“They didn’t have to [work so hard], but they did,” Rich said. “That’s what gets my heart. People we had never met were helping us.”

Spiritual Renewal

Every day, as they worked together on the house, the volunteers’ relationships with the Cobys grew and the Cobys experienced a spiritual healing like they’d never known. The family’s faith grew as they built relationships with volunteers, especially Martin and project leaders John Keller and Dick Shaw.

Rich and Kelly were able to express their fears about the project and their spiritual well being. Kelly, especially, had been having a hard time. To her, the neighbors’ barbecue smelled like her burning house. Snow blowing off a rooftop reminded her of the smoke. “Every day was a living hell,” Kelly said. She had nightmares and panic attacks daily.

During a time of prayer and ministry, Kelly’s healing began. As she related the ongoing horror she experienced, the group prayed for her. She no longer has nightmares or panic attacks, and she is able to sleep at night.

The Cobys moved into their new house. Kelly said the best blessing they received wasn’t the house but the people God brought into their lives. “The guys who helped us build this house are like family,” she said. “Out of all the churches we’ve been to, we’ve never had a family in Christ before.”

Many associated with the project also grew spiritually. Martin’s faith in Christ increased as he learned to rely on God’s wisdom and leading. He has greater confidence that with Christ’s help, he is able to complete any task the Lord gives him.

Messner observed his congregation’s incredible willingness to serve: “Most remarkable were the men who devoted themselves to finishing this project, regardless of how they felt physically.”

When people demonstrate service and selflessness, it becomes contagious. This congregation adopted such an attitude, which opened the door to the miracles of God’s grace and mercy. Messner said, “If you give a cup of cold water to someone, there’s reward for you in heaven. We built this house for Jesus.”

Cover artwork for January 2006 January 2006

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