When Blackhawk Church opened its 42,000 square foot facility in December, providing space as a community resource was a part of its plans.

But its leaders found unexpected ways to bring those plans to fruition after the spread of coronavirus forced churches and congregations to close.

The building, which can seat over 750 people during gatherings at 5935 Astor Drive, is closed for church services until Dane County reaches at least Phase 3 in its Forward Dane plan, but it’s been open to a Red Cross blood drive and YMCA child care services, and lead pastor Daniel Owen said he’s also petitioning to have it be a polling site for the November elections.

“We wanted to find ways to use the facility, not just let it sit empty,” Owen said. “We hate having an empty building.”

Exactly three months after the church held a Dec. 15 soft opening in the building, it closed – on March 15 – and has no immediate plans to reopen. Pastor Owen told the Star in January he had been looking forward to the massive space being used for more than just Blackhawk Church services.

Since then, Owen said he and other church leadership decided that while churches were allowed to reopen with certain amount of capacity restraints under the first two phases of the Forward Dane plan – 25% and 50% respectively – Blackhawk’s reopening was going to be toward the tail end of that.

He said when large concerts and sporting events are allowed to return is when Blackhawk will consider hosting mass gatherings again. That could be several months or more.

“We want to be really considerate of different people and possible health conditions. We’re erring on the side of caution and protecting and caring for people. We want to give them the best and safest experience,” Owen said.

Building partnerships

Before COVID-19, Blackhawk had planned to provide space to local schools.

Aldo Leopold Elementary School was set to perform the Disney musical “Aladdin Kids” at the church in March instead of in its typical location – the school’s cafeteria. Savanna Oaks Middle School also had plans to use a gathering space in the building.

But the pandemic changed all that.

Such a large facility going mostly unused except by its four full-time staff members didn’t sit well with leadership, who wanted to continue to use the space even if members couldn’t meet on Sundays.

That’s why they were “really excited” YMCA of Dane County approached the church for a partnership, Owen said.

YMCA was interested in providing a daycare service for the children of essential workers.

Owen said Blackhawk Church was approached because there were a lot of area schools not allowing people in, so some of the YMCA’s longstanding relationships were no longer working out because of COVID-19.

Owen said the leadership went through church policies and felt the partnership was a good fit.

“We set up the building so kids can do programming in the rooms and parking lot and eat lunch. Parents drop them off and then come get them after their work shift,” Owen said.

The building was also used for a blood drive to aid in the ongoing fight against coronavirus.

Owen said that Blackhawk Church and Savanna Oaks had a long history of partnership.

Up until the week before the Astor Drive facility opened in December, Fitchburg church members met at the middle school for six and a half years, setting up and tearing down for Sunday services every week. Owen said that the set up and tear down was hard, with a crew arriving at 6 a.m. on Sundays and not leaving until 1 p.m.

Staying in touch

While the move to online services and group studies has gone well, Owen said it’s not the same as meeting in-person.

“The rhythm of singing songs together and seeing each other – that was a rhythm that added to members’ lives. While it’s been very good, online service is not creating the same rhythm,” he said.

Some of the online groups are actually seeing steadier attendance during the pandemic, Owen said. He attributes that to people having few alternative places to be and also not having hurdles to attendance such as driving.

Some of the online study groups, which would have taken a summer break in May if meeting in person, are now still meeting online over summer.

To keep in touch with members, Owen said, the church has gone “old school,” calling people on the phone, rather than relying on the internet.

“We were really focused on our people not feeling forgotten,” he said. “Keeping relationships, maintaining community even if we can’t be in the same building – that was really important to us.”

Owen said he wanted to make sure members struggling with job loss and isolation knew they were not going through it alone.

“People were feeling isolated, like, ‘Hey does anyone remember who I am?’ Part of the reason we did phone calls to check in on their families was to let them know we know who they are,” Owen said. “Part of a community is to go through things together.”

Neal Patten can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.