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Hundreds of volunteers travel from across country to build sanctuary for Groton church

Groton — Maria McCall of Schenectady, N.Y., and Libbie Prakash of Chantilly, Va., live hundreds of miles apart, but the two sisters met up in Groton last week to spend their vacations building a new sanctuary for a church far away from both of their homes.

The two marveled at the new building beginning to take shape at the Groton Bible Chapel site, as volunteers installed trusses for the roof of the sanctuary.

"Two weeks ago, there was literally just a concrete slab here, and in two weeks, look what God has done, with willing participants," Prakash said on May 29.

McCall and Prakash are among about 900 volunteers who are coming from 17 states and more than 60 churches to help build a new, expanded sanctuary for Groton Bible Chapel, a non-denominational church at 66 Toll Gate Road.

Groton Bible Chapel has partnered with Builders for Christ, an organization with hundreds of volunteers from dozens of churches across the country who travel to church sites to build new structures, whether it's needed due to an expansion or to rebuild after a natural disaster damaged or destroyed a structure, said Groton Bible Chapel Associate Pastor Zak Stevens.

Groups of volunteers, who typically stay for a week, will be coming to Groton from mid-May through the end of August. The volunteers, who include construction, cooking and cleanup crews, paid their own way, with many taking vacation time.

Prakash, an emergency dispatcher and mother to three young children, has volunteered on four trips over the past decade to build churches in other communities through Builders for Christ. She told McCall, who has a degree in mechanical engineering and is a mother to two young children, how amazing the experience is. And so the two sisters arranged the weeklong trip to Groton, where they drove lifts and installed clips to support plywood alongside other volunteers, some who Prakash worked with on another site in 2012.

"We just started right back up chatting like we did seven years ago," Prakash said. "It's pretty amazing."

Groton Bible Chapel expansion

The volunteers are helping to build the new 600-seat sanctuary at Groton Bible Chapel, which will double the current capacity, as the church has outgrown its current sanctuary, Stevens said. The roughly 16,800-square-ft. facility will also feature a welcome center by the entrance, commons area where people can have coffee and connect before and after service, and rooms for babies, infants and toddlers.

Groton Bible Chapel currently has three services on Sunday, and on a given Sunday morning, the church sees a total attendance of about 900 people, he said. Stevens pointed to Easter services as an example of the need for more space, as overflow rooms were completely packed.

Part of the mission of Groton Bible Chapel, which offers ministries including for mothers and young adults, is to create a space where people can grow in community, Stevens said.

"We have a lot of military families and people from EB who move to the area, and one of the first things they long for is just a community," Stevens said. "They need to meet people, they need the support of a community, and so we want to be a place where people can come and they can experience that."

He said the bigger space will allow more people to come together to worship together and empower the church to take its mission further and reach more people. The church has partnerships, including with an orphanage and church in Haiti, with groups to help the homeless and with the school system to provide lunches for kids who can't afford it.

"The more people that we can invite into this community, in our minds, the more lives that we offer the transformational love of Jesus and then that just ends up being poured out into the community around us," he said.

The $5 million cost will be lowered to about $4.1 million, through the help from Builders for Christ, according to Kim Conderino, volunteer and logistics lead for public relations for the church.

Stevens said it's surreal and inspiring to see so many volunteers from across the country working to build the sanctuary.

"I've gotten to sit down and chat with a bunch of these people, and it's amazing hearing their hearts," he said. "They use their vacation, they pay their own way and so this costs them a lot to come and to do this. I'm so grateful."

On site

The day begins with volunteers meeting around 7:30 a.m. under a tent on the site for a devotional, songs and prayers, and the volunteers then get to work, breaking for lunch and dinner. The people are staying at hotels in the area and visiting sites from Mystic Aquarium to The Breakers in Newport.

Among the groups on site on May 29 were 13 people from Jacob's Well Church in Eau Claire, Wis., who traveled 1200 miles to Groton to help Groton Bible Chapel, after 35 people from Groton Bible Chapel helped build an expansion at their church last summer.

A group from Groton Bible Chapel traveled for the past decade to sites across the country through Builders for Christ, said Curtis Boyd, liaison between Groton Bible Chapel and Builders for Christ.

"You’re just paying it forward and you’re just doing it because you want to serve," said Mark Reams, executive administrative pastor at Jacob’s Well Church. A second group from Jacob's Well is slated to come to Groton in July.

"I think it’s just a great opportunity for us to come and just be a blessing to not only the members of the church, but just to the Groton community and we just pray for this to be a place of growth and for people to find hope," he added.

He noted that it's fitting that people coming from out of town are contributing to building the new sanctuary, since the project is intended to make room for new people.

Scott Parker, missions pastor for The Bridge Fellowship in Lebanon, Tenn., was on his third trip and said he's reunited with friends he only sees once a year. He said it's a special bond to come together with relative strangers to work towards a common goal, but the bond they share in faith lends to a deeper connection. 

Conderino noted that, as one person said at breakfast, people pick up right where they left off after seeing each other again.

"It's nice to be able to thank the people that have come to our church and help us build it as we've done others," she said. "Every year is a reunion to me because you get to see folks that you haven't seen for the whole year, but you get to spend that one week with them."

For some builders, like Brian Duval, a Gales Ferry resident who works at Electric Boat, he was now working on building the church he goes to, after helping at sites in other parts of the country. About 250 to 300 local volunteers are also working on the site.

After saving up enough vacation time, Duval went five years ago on his first trip with Builders for Christ to Pratt, Kansas and fell in love with it and the fellowship and camaraderie it provides.

At the end of his first day on the site in Kansas, after working seemingly endlessly on the site and being absolutely exhausted, a group of about 30 volunteers walked to the hotel across the street laughing and joking.  

"People were excited and exhausted, and they were all, the next morning, just as happy to do it again," he said, "and I've done it every year since."

Dan Flight of Griswold took off a week from work for his first Builders for Christ project to help out on the site alongside his two sons, who are in their 20's, his wife, and volunteers from as far as Alabama and Wisconsin. He noted that while the goal is construction of the building, the most important part is the relationships.

"The building’s a building, and it’s a tool that we can use to reach others through Christ, but the real important part is the relationships that you build," Flight said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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