As you walk into Redeemer City Church on Fitchburg’s north side, there are no crosses, pictures of Jesus or stained glass windows.
A communal kitchen is at the heart of the 11,000 square foot building, with office space and an auditorium-style room to the side for its services. The only indication that the 5356 King James Way facility houses a church is the portable banner that reads “Welcome.”
Redeemer City, formerly set up and torn down weekly at Chavez Elementary School, has been in the new location for seven months, and its lack of religious decor is intentional, pastors Casey Johnson and Nate Hobert told the Star.
The Jamestown neighborhood has been without a community center since the closure of the city’s Fire Station No. 2 in 2017, and Redeemer City is trying to fill that void. That means making people in the neighborhood feel comfortable being there, regardless of their religious beliefs, Johnson said.
The two pastors say they want neighbors to have a connection point to resources in the neighborhood.
The neighborhood, west of Verona Road, is isolated from other resources accessible to most Fitchburg residents, Hobert said. Valuable community centers such as the Boys and Girls Club, Allied Wellness Center and the Fitchburg Community Center are an inconvenient bus ride away, and the Badger Prairie Needs Network, which also serves the area, is headquartered in Verona.
“The reason why we want to be here is because there is nothing, there’s no space,” Hobert said. “It was a no-brainer for us.”
Now, the church hosts a stop-and-go pantry run by BPNN, four classrooms, a multi-purpose room, a kitchen, a room available for public meetings and private office spaces.
The mission goes beyond offering those basic services, the pastors say. They witness all parts of the community removed from their neighbors because Fitchburg has no school district of its own and has students bused to Madison, Verona and Oregon schools.
And since the closure of Fire Station No. 2, even voting is far away, at the Marketplace Drive fire station, a mile east of Verona Road and south of McKee Road. For some residents, this location isn’t even accessible by bus.
“This is a high-needs neighborhood,” said Hobert.
Hobert and Johnson recognize many organizations in Fitchburg are already providing resources and services. And as a new church, with a predominantly white, the pastors want to work with existing groups who know the area and residents best.
Johnson said they hope to build on the trust they’ve established in other parts of Fitchburg’s northwest side.
The pastors know the area, having built connections and trust while spending more than four years performing services at Chavez, a couple miles west, across the Madison border.
During that time, Redeemer City was a transient church, housing all the materials for its services in a trailer parked in Johnson’s driveway, with rolling carts, Bible materials, speakers and a sound booth.
Volunteers would build the children’s ministry and set up music Sunday mornings in the school, then dismantle it by noon.
Members of the church work closely with area elementary schools – Chavez, Huegel and Country View – and organizations such as Joining Forces for Families (JFF), and both pastors emphasize community service in their sermons.
During a sermon on Nov. 3, Johnson challenged the room full of 140 people to test their faith and reject the “culture of self” becoming prevalent in America.
We should challenge those temptations and live by the gospel, he said, we should serve the people around us and consider the social, emotional and physical needs of our neighbors.
“We want people to see value in the church again,” Johnson said. “Because when the church comes alongside, whatever work, whatever project, whatever nonprofit, it can be a better community.”
A place for students
A key component of the remodel of the former Stevens Design building, which took nearly a year, is housing after school programming.
The entrance is designed to drop off students by bus, who immediately enter a hallway with space for their backpacks, boots and jackets. The classrooms, filled with tables, crafts and bright colors, are large enough to host after school programs scheduled to start in 2020.
They will be modeled after the “Trail to Success” program created by partnership between Redeemer, Chavez and JFF. That program provides after school support for the 100 students who are bused to Chavez from The Pines Apartments, which are five miles from the school.
Just as students in the Trail to Success program are unable to participate in afterschool programs at Chavez because of lack of transportation, Hobert and Johnson are finding students in Jamestown are often unable to participate in after school programs at Country View, where many are bused to.
The pastors said their goal is to provide these same resources to Jamestown neighborhood students.
While some of the church’s activities are designed to draw attention, others are done more quietly.
Congregation member Emily Meshnick volunteers with the Huegel African American Parent Power Engagement Network (HAAPPEN), which focuses on black student success in the Madison school district.
Meshnick, a white woman, doesn’t interject in the group or speak during the session; rather, she provides childcare so parents have an opportunity to engage.
And one of the neutral, private offices inside the new building is used by a social worker from JFF, who links Jamestown and area residents with crucial resources.
During the Back to School picnic at Chavez in September, volunteers cooked 700 hotdogs and served food to support families interacting with teachers.
“It is a behind the scenes kind of service,” Johnson said.
A far more public event was when Redeemer opened its space for a backpack and school supply drive this fall which brought 400 people to the church. There was a line around the building and cars parked down the entire street, Johnson said.
Redeemer also hosted one of the city’s five meetings on its comprehensive plan update in October and held a volunteer run workshop to repair bikes for neighbors.
Supporting local organizations with a community space is critical, the pastors agreed.
“For too long, churches have existed just for the means of making disciples and preaching the word,” Johnson said. “But a lot of times they don’t make their cities better places.”