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out-of-towners rescue boro church

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The small congregation of an historic church in Queens Village is giving its basement gymnasium a full-scale makeover, but the man scraping paint off the crumbling walls is from Texas. And the guy next to him grew up in Iowa. And the couple directing all the work is from West Virginia.

The Queens Reformed Church, a 145-year-old building at the corner of Springfield Boulevard and Jamaica Avenue, has seen its congregation shrink steadily since its heyday in the 1920s. Now, with only about 50 members in the regular congregation, Pastor Anna Jackson said the renovation of the gymnasium would not be possible without the volunteers from out of state.

Bruce and Laurie Hawley, a pair of West Virginia retirees who now devote themselves full time to missionary work, are directing the monthlong project. Their activities include organizing the volunteer groups who come in to do work, finding them places to stay and coordinating meals. But their task is also cultural.

"We facilitate a bridge between the local partner and the work group," Bruce Hawley said. "To many of these people who are coming from Iowa, this is a very different culture. They will come with an assortment of preconceived notions. We want them to meet the people for who they are, not who they thought they were."

Case in point: Ron Van Wyk, an Iowa native who had never been to Manhattan until arriving for the project Friday.

"It's different from any other place I've ever been," said Van Wyk as he took a break from chipping away the ancient coats of paint on the gymnasium wall. Queens, however, was a bit more manageable, he added.

"Queens looks like Chicago a bit," he said.

Jackson and the Hawleys are coordinating the arrivals of four separate volunteer groups, each affiliated with the Reformed Church in America. Aside from the group from Texas already at work, volunteers from Michigan, Iowa and New Jersey are expected.

All that free labor does not mean there are no costs to the project. Jackson said the renovation would require about $5,000 in supplies and equipment. Two local vendors, Best Paint on Jamaica Avenue and Marks Lumber on Hempstead Avenue, had offered materials at discounted prices and delivered the goods for free, but Jackson was still hoping for additional gestures of good will from the community.

The church is also getting help from its own small congregation, but Jackson said that was difficult because most of the work went on during the day, when many had to be at work.

The congregation, at one time as large as 300, has sustained significant losses as older members have died without being replaced by younger generations.

There is certainly a great deal of competition among churches in Queens Village - Jamaica Avenue alone is studded with houses of worship of almost every stripe - but Jackson said she was not trying to attract people who already belonged to a church.

"There are a lot of churches, but there are more people who don't go to church," she said. "We're looking for people who aren't affiliated with any other church and are looking for a spiritual home."

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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