Bright future forecast for old church


For 132 years Knox Presbyterian Church stood proudly as the emblem of a strong Scottish presence in Kearny.

That legacy ended officially in late September 2013 when the remaining parishioners held a closing service in the adjacent MacMillan Chapel.

But now the aging church has been rescued by a sister religious group which hopes, within the next two years, to restore the long-idled main worship center.

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Knox’s new occupant is The Closer To God Evangelical Presbyterian Church which acquired the church, chapel and pastoral house at 36 Kearny Ave. in fall 2015.

And, last November, the church – which had operated the previous four years from a location in Newark’s North Ironbound section on Lafayette St. – convened its first worship service at its new home in Kearny.

Asked how this development came about, the Rev. Dr. Valdir Reis, the church’s Brazilian-born pastor, recounted how he and his wife Anna had driven past Knox Church and discovered it shut.

“When I saw this, I cried and I said to my wife, ‘I believe God is a little bit sad – we cannot close the doors.’ It is God’s will that the church continue.”

Soon after, the pastor said he approached the Rev. Dr. Kevin Yoho of the Newark Presbytery, owner of Knox, about the church’s status and learned that the Presbytery had placed the property on the market but no offers had been forthcoming in six months.

Then, after conferring with his board of trustees, headed by Eduardo Carneiro, also originally of Brazil, Reis submitted an offer and reached agreement with Yoho to purchase the nearly half-acre property for $800,000.

Since that time, Reis said, the group has made a down payment of $75,000 and hopes to negotiate terms for a mortgage with an area bank to pay off the balance. Meanwhile, it is paying $1,600 a month in rent.

Reis said his church is part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, founded 30 years ago to spread the gospel through its nearly 600 churches, 171,000 members and global missions.

Now it is embracing the former Knox church as its newest project – one of taking on “a great opportunity that God gave to us as a church to continue the ministry by serving, helping and taking care of people’s needs in this area” – as outlined in a June letter to prospective supporters from Reis and Church Elder Patricia Santos, a member of the board of trustees.

But that, in itself, has presented “a big challenge: Repairing the main sanctuary that has sustained some damage. We are already working hard to restore it ….”

Because the group purchased the property “as is,” Reis explained, Closer to God has taken on the responsibility of putting the property in shape and in compliance with municipal building codes.

When the new owners took title, Reis said, part of the main sanctuary’s brick face “was falling on Kearny Ave. and the old owner had put up scaffolding” as a temporary protective measure.

After getting cooperative guidance from the town’s building department, the new owners collected $53,000 to replace the sanctuary’s damaged roof, fix the brickwork and partially repaint the exterior, Reis said.

Additionally, Reis said, “our volunteers cleaned out the basement of the chapel building, put in new floor tiles and installed a new exhaust hood for the stove to conform to the municipal code.”

With the assurance of having safe kitchen fixtures, the church could then begin the task of preparing packaged meals for people in need on a monthly basis, the pastor said.

“Some come here to get the meals but for the old and infirm, we deliver,” he said.

On the average, the church has been supplying food to “12 to 15” families per month.

The chapel basement also houses meeting rooms for Bible study, church committees and Sunday School classes for about 25 children, according to Reis.

On the chapel’s main floor is where Sunday services are being conducted until the main sanctuary is ready to accommodate worshipers. Seating was secured by asking each church member to donate money to pay for one chair – and, if they could manage, to donate more for those who could not afford it, said Reis.

Typically, he said, between 120 and 130 individuals attend morning services which are offered in Portuguese and in English. “In the future,” the pastor added, “we hope to start a ministry in English and in Spanish.”

By Reis’s calculations, five nationalities are represented among the worshipers: Brazil, Portugal, U.S., Mexico and Holland. Seven families comprising 20 adults and children live in Kearny. The rest are spread among Harrison, East Newark, Linden, Fort Lee, Ridgewood, Morristown, Piscataway and even Bangor, Pa.

“Many are living alone here in the United States with no relatives,” Reis said. Some who travel great distances to Kearny were actually referred there by their home church in Brazil and in Kearny, they can experience the pleasure of communicating with others in their native tongue, he said.

At the main sanctuary next door, meanwhile, more physical plant challenges await. Reis said that thousands of dollars must be raised to replace the compromised wood ceiling, repair tattered seat cushions, paint the interior and complete painting the exterior and restore the basement area.

The arched space can seat up to 307 and is equipped with a still-functioning piano and organ.

If the church’s ongoing fundraising campaign is successful, Reis is “hopeful that we can re-open the main sanctuary by the end of 2017 or by the beginning of 2018. We’ll be working hard and trusting in the Lord.”

Tax-deductible donations are welcome. Checks should be payable to Closer To God Evangelical Presbyterian Church, c/o 36 Kearny Ave., Kearny, N.J. 07032. For more information, the pastor invites calls to 201-687-1273.

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