A sermon preached by The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, Vicar, in March 2008, telling the story and articulating the blessings and the challenges, of the Homestead Site.

The vestry has been making some big decisions in recent months, and has been working hard to keep everyone informed. But unless you come to church every Sunday (ahem….), or read the email regularly ?, or have a memory for details galore, it’s easy to have missed something significant along the way.

It seems prudent, for the sake of the community, to take some time in this Lenten Season, to make sure everyone is up-to-date and understands where we are with the land process — how we came to be in a contract to buy a particular site — and where we are in the fund-raising and the visioning process too. And what all this all might mean for us as a Church.

First, how we found this site.

For over a year now, we have had a site seeking committee. It’s had a couple of different names, but basically, the vestry determined a year or so ago, that we needed to keep our eyes and ears open for a site for the Advocate, and to keep learning all we could about land in this region. That committee — Tom Fisher, the Senior and Junior Wardens, the vicar, Emily Cameron, Robert Poitras, and Owen Gwyn have explored and responded to possibilities with varying amounts of intensity since.

And late last fall, Owen Gwyn, a professional realtor himself, learned of a site that a business acquaintance of his was buying for the purpose of developing it for a small tract of homes. The 15 acre site on Homestead Road at Merin Road. Owen told this fellow who was buying the land in order to develop it, that there was a new church in town that might be interested in buying it. And the seller was interested.

Meanwhile, Owen started learning more about the site, and determining whether it could indeed be used for a church. He did a lot of what would be called, leg work.

And everything he tracked, and everything he learned, confirmed the prospect. So he brought it to the attention of the committee.

Now, the first thing to note about the Homestead Road site is that it is land that can be used in a variety of ways.

I realize that, as a congregation, we haven’t necessarily declared in one voice that we want land. Well… that’s not totally true. From the moment of our launch in September 2003, the question of when and where and how we were going to acquire land has never been far from our thoughts and minds — or from the thoughts and minds of our sponsoring congregations. In different voices and different seasons, some of us have raised the question of whether we need to have land or own our own buildings. And that question is still valid and warrants our attention. A church without land is a lean machine, ready for mission. When you think about the resources used to buy land and to build and maintain a building, those resources could go a long way in community programs and financial assistance for those in need.

Further, there are emerging models of emerging church that are de-centralized — Several small worship gatherings are different times each week, rather than a big community thing.

For the most part, though, after four years of paying rent, and of setting up and taking down and packing away Sunday by Sunday, after four years of thinking of what we could do to bring people closer to God if we had our own space, the dream of a space and place of our own has grown.

But just in case we discern otherwise in the months or years ahead, or just in case we can’t raise the money to build buildings, or can’t raise what whatever we’d want ideally, it is important to note that the site on Homestead Road is very usable for other things besides a church. If we wanted to sell it, it could easily become a development of 24 homes, or of two apartment buildings.

Or it could probably be divided, so that we use part and we sell part for another purpose. And it even has a small 1960s style brick ranch house on it — which could be used for our office and small gathering space after we buy the land and until we can build something of our own.

The Homestead site is land that could be used in a variety of ways.

The second thing to say about the Homestead site is that it meets, almost miraculously, all the local government requirements for a church site.

No other land we have looked at comes close. Take parking for example….

Some have dreamed of our having a church in downtown Carrboro. But the truth of the matter is, in order to have a church with 200 people inside, we need to have parking for at least 50 cars. Churches that are already downtown, like Chapel of the Cross or the University Baptist church, they are grandfathered in. But a new church — at least 50 parking spaces. And those cars can’t be dropped in by helicopter, they have to be able to drive in a turn around. That’s probably at least 2 acres just for driveway and parking.

That means that in order to have buildings, driveway and parking, and maybe a little space for burying ashes of our dead, we need at least 5 acres — that’s about what Holy Family has.

Second, local requirements say that a church has to be located on a public road, and has to have a certain number of feet of property on that road, and has to have a driveway that is a certain width to allow public safety vehicles to have access. Further, if there is ANY water on the land, even a little tiny creek, nothing can be built or developed within 100 feet of that water.

Then there is the University Lake Water shed — and its restrictions — which basically say that for the vast expanse of western Orange County, anyone who wants to build or have a parking lot needs to have 19 acres of land with nothing on it, for every acre of land that has a building or driveway or parking lot. So for our, say, three acres that we need for building and parking…. we’re looking for 57 acres to leave vacant….

The Homestead site is not in the University Lake watershed region.

This brings me to the third significant beauty of the Homestead site:

It’s location.

Now the fact that we need at least five acres of land means that, in order to have land for our church in this region, we will need to spend a good bit of money, and/or probably look pretty far out of town. There are not very many 5-acre lots available in Carrboro/Chapel Hill. And the farther we look outside of town, the more likely are to cut off realistic driving accessibility for people for the Advocate who are already here — from Durham and Fearrington, and Liberty and Fuquay Varina. Not to mention limiting our accessibility for POTA of the future.

Well, the Homestead site is 15 acres. And it is right near Interstate 40 access,

Right near the MLK Blvd. Right near the Chapel Hill senior center and the Southern Orange county Human Services Center. It’s just north of the soon to be North Campus of the University. Right in the middle between the two Chapel Hill High Schools, just south of a major Habitat neighborhood.

It’s on the railroad tracks that deliver coal to the University campus once a week, and that railroad track will no doubt become either a bike path or a light rail track within our lifetime, I’d wager. The Homestead site is an amazing location.

So, what’s the deal?

The deal is a little funky, I admit. And it is designed to meet the needs of both the Advocate and the fellow who is selling the land to us. The price to the Advocate for the land is $945,000. That is more than we could possibly raise in less and a year. And more than we could ever borrow or mortgage, being a new church that isn’t even yet financially self supporting. It is also more than our seller is buying it for. So…. the deal is that we give him $500,000 in April 2008. And he uses that money to pay for the land.

He needs the money in April 2008, which is why we are in such a hurry to raise it. He will then live in the house that is on the land for two years, claiming it as his residence. That way, when he closes the deal with us in April 2010, he will be exempt from paying property gains taxes on the land. (We all get one significant property gains tax exemption in our lifetime).

In the meanwhile, we have two years to raise the remaining $445,000 on the land — plus another $300,000 that we estimate we will need to make the land initially usable for ourselves — with running water, toilets, a picnic shelter and some parking.

If need be, the seller will give us three years, until April 2011, to raise the money.

To that end, we do not officially close on the deal until we pay the remainder of the money — which will be sometime between April 2010 and April 2011.

Until that time, the seller is okay with us going ahead with our formal application for a Special Use Permit, which will take 18 months to two years to process, and is necessary before we can use the site for a church. The seller is also okay with us putting up a sign up that says, “Future home of the Church of the Advocate”, and even using the land for an occasional walk-around.

But we won’t have access to the little house or be able to begin building at all, until we close on the deal — which is to say until April 2010, or until we pay the entire $945,000 selling price.

Where’s the money coming from?

As of last night, we have $477,400 given or pledged to be paid towards the $500,000 by Easter goal.

There are many Friends of the Advocate who want to see us get land. And many of them are elders from the Chapel of the Cross who have been waiting for their parish to start a new church for nearly 40 years and feel strongly that they should help provide the land for it. This is another reason why we are moving ahead at this time. Of the $186,000 we had in our land fund at the start of 2008, and the $145,000 that has been raised since the year began, about half came from this group of elders.

Then there is the $150,000 anonymous challenge grant that was given through the Triangle Community Foundation. Not that we know who gave it, but everything seems to indicate that it was from a Friend of the Advocate, rather than one of our own members.

This is hugely exciting.

It means that people believe in what we are doing and want to support us.

But the $150,000 or so that has been given or pledged by the People of the Advocate also means that we believe in what the Advocate is about too.

And we are ready to give sacrificially to make the dream even more real.

This brings me to the last thing I want to say about the land process, and that is that I believe we are in many ways living in a miracle.

God has blessed this community with the people who have the gifts and skills and resources we need, when we need them, over and over and over again.

Owen Gwyn with his real estates knowledge and contacts, Emily Cameron, who works for the town and can readily help us work through the maze of ordinances, restrictions, policies and rules, Phil Post from Church of the Holy Family who has already worked to provide drawings for our process with the town, Elizabeth Lippincott and Sissy Holloman who know how to read and edit and comprehend contracts and legal documents, Tom Fisher and Barbara Rowan, Terry Milner who left last fall, and Anita Howell and Robert Poitras and Wadleigh Harrison who have more recently joined the effort, all of whom are ready and willing to give time and insight, to do tasks and strategize and communicate to the larger community.

And then there are the donors — People of the Advocate and Friends of the Advocate — POTA and FOTA — oh my goodness, do you realize how incredible it is that we have raised the kind of funds we have raised?

And not all from one big donor but rather from dozens. Dozens of donors.

We are living a miracle.

And it is exciting and humbling. Because it means we are being called to do and be something good, something faithful, something new.

One last observation.

And that is that in this sermon time, we have lived into the tension that will ever be with us as we move from being a nomadic church to a landed church — The tension between being focusing on things spiritual on the one hand, and focusing on the details of land and building on the other — what could be seen as the tension between things heavenly and things earthly.

And we all know that the temptation — for churches and for people — in the Season of Lent and in every other season of the year — is to get so caught up in things earthly that we lose site of things heavenly. To, in this case, use the entire sermon time to talk about land and buildings, and never to get back to the scripture, or the prayers.

But in this sermon time, and indeed, throughout our years together, my prayer is that we recognize that tension, we recognize that temptation, and that we strive together to make and to see all that we are and all we do as a church is to be something heavenly, something born of the Spirit, something inspired by God, something used to bring us all closer to God and to one another in Christ.

May we be made more faithful by this time together, and the times to come.