Jess McCray truly believes it was God's work.
In December, the pastor of the Sennett location of Vineyard Church went to First Love Ministries in Auburn with her husband, Rodney. They heard that the church was holding its final service and closing its food pantry and soup kitchen that month, and they personally wanted to commend its pastor, Bob Canino, and his wife, Lorraine, on their 38 years of service.
"We generally wanted to walk through the pain with them, of all the time they've invested in the community, and let them know we're there for them," McCray told The Citizen on Wednesday.
That visit, however, would lead to more than prayer and friendship: Vineyard is currently buying and moving into First Love's former home at 99 Wall St.
McCray said the seeds for the move were planted when Bob asked her how things were going at Vineyard. She shared with him that its congregation — about 380 total, and 250 at the average service — was outgrowing the church's space in Grant Avenue Plaza. She also shared that the church, which is one of five Vineyard locations in the Syracuse area, makes food distribution part of its mission. The church has held emergency giveaways weekly through the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as drive-in services to comply with social distancing.
AUBURN — After 38 years and countless free meals for the community, First Love Ministries will hold its final service Sunday, Dec. 1.
Bob then led McCray, assistant pastor Merritt Harris and senior pastor John Elmer on a tour of the building, which housed St. Aloysius Church before First Love opened there in the early '90s.
After more discussion, the Caninos agreed to sell the building to Vineyard. Bob felt that McCray and her congregation would continue the work he and Lorraine did there, he told The Citizen.
"I don't know how to explain it in layman's terms, but I felt something," he said. "Their heart wasn't far away from where my heart was — taking care of the poor, caring about the community. So their vision for their congregation was pretty close to the vision that I had, and was working with for all the years that we were there. I felt like God was showing me, 'Hey, it's time to step aside.'"
McCray said the sale will be finalized this month, but the Caninos have already let Vineyard begin moving into and renovating the building.
The work to be done includes replacing the roof and gutters, as well as restoring the sanctuary to its original hardwood floors and banisters. Vineyard also wants to improve the building's access to people with disabilities. The church is searching for grants that support that kind of work, McCray added, as well as historic preservation grants, since the church was built in 1902.
The area that used to serve as the soup kitchen will become a children's wing with toys, games, a gym and a youth hangout area, McCray continued. And the bathrooms will be renovated and made touchless in anticipation of the needs of a post-COVID-19 church. Though Vineyard doesn't have a date for the beginning of indoor services there — state reopening guidance currently restricts them to 33% capacity — the church plans on transitioning its drive-in services to First Love in September. The church's food distribution events moved there three weeks ago.
The property down Wall Street where First Love's food pantry was located will remain under the Caninos' ownership. After partially collapsing in February, the building has been demolished, Bob said.
Vineyard is welcoming anyone with skills and time to help the church renovate its century-old new home, McCray said. And the congregation can't move into the building fast enough. Some members live on that side of Auburn, she continued, and some fondly remember going to grammar school at the building when it was St. Aloysius.
Those sentiments make McCray even more convinced that the former First Love is a perfect fit for Vineyard Church — and a providential one.
"I'm still surreal about it," she said. "This wouldn't have happened if we didn't feel prompted by God to go that day and pray for them."
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.