March 6, 2010 9:01:00 PM
When Darren Leach was 9 years old his grandmother told him he was going to be a preacher. It took more than three decades -- not until 2007 -- for Macy Jones'' prophecy to come true. That year, after having spent 11 years with Proctor and Gamble and a stint as an assistant pastor in Jackson, Tenn., Leach returned to his hometown where he rented a small building off Highway 69 and declared it a church.
"When we started, we had 5-1/2 members," he said. The membership consisted of Leach, his wife and their three children; the one-half was the child in his pregnant wife''s belly.
Word spread; the church grew; and in January of this year Leach and his congregation were the sole bidders for Hughes School, a long-dormant elementary school. Genesis Church paid the Columbus City Schools $50,000 for the building.
Since Jan. 11, when he closed on the deal, Leach, church members and volunteers have swept, scraped, painted and hauled debris, restoring the 50-year-old building in a remarkably short time to a usable state.
Friday afternoon, at the behest of Liz Robinson, Genesis'' No. 1 cheerleader, I visited the church. On hand for the tour were Robinson, Leach, church member and volunteer coordinator for the city schools, Kenneth McFarland, the church''s minister of music Jerry Brown and Tiffany Harrison, who once worked for IBM in Atlanta. Harrison runs the office and seems to be the conductor of this makeshift orchestra.
Darren Leach is a short, stocky man with a soft voice and an disarmingly unassuming manner. He seems devoid of ego, the pomp, the slickness one often finds in a preacher with big ambitions. Leach is a man moved -- maybe because of the seed his grandmother planted years ago -- to walk down a path not knowing where it will lead or how he will get to the end. He simply has faith and he''s seen enough already to know that things will work out as they should.
"Here''s where we''re going to have a coffeehouse," Robinson enthuses.
We''re standing in what was the school''s library. The walls are freshly painted, the floors clean. Add furniture and an espresso machine, and they''ll be ready to start serving lattes.
"We''re going to call it Higher Grounds," Robinson continues. "We''ll have live entertainment, a place where people can gather."
Robinson wants to decorate the walls of the coffee house with memorabilia supplied by former students of the school.
The school''s cafeteria, a cavernous room with light-blue cement block walls, has been scrubbed clean and will be the sanctuary.
Down the hall, classrooms are being converted into three two-bedroom apartments for displaced families.
"These will be for families who are burned out," says Leach. "We''re already partnered with the Red Cross now."
As we walk the halls Leach points to empty rooms: "We''re going to have a heath clinic there; we have two nurses in our congregation; we''re going to have video classes here ... round-the-clock day care here."
Leach opens a door to reveal a closet of donated clothes. Another is filled with textbooks.
Near the end of our tour we stand in a clean, sun-drenched classroom where the venetian blinds have been removed for cleaning.
Across the street are Morningside apartments, a subsidized housing project whose tenants are certain to benefit from their new neighbors.
"The neighborhood is excited," says Leach. The pastor expects his non-denominational church will serve the Golden Triangle region.
"We won''t be a white church or a black church," he says. "It will be a church."
"This is an example of what the church is supposed to be," Robinson adds.
The enthusiasm is infectious.
Twenty-five volunteers showed up to work Saturday a week ago.
"People just show up," says Harrison. "You know if we can help one person out of five challenges, we''ve done something. That one person who gives you that spark makes it worthwhile.
"We''re giving tours every day," she adds.
Not surprisingly, the church with its tiny congregation (60-80 members) needs money and volunteers. The city schools, MUW and the Red Cross are already involved. Leach hopes EMCC, other local churches and area non-profits will join the cause. If what they''ve been able to do in the short time since acquiring the building is any indication, Genesis Church will realize its dreams and then some.
Thursday the church will host an open house beginning at 6:30 p.m. To get there, turn onto Martin Luther King Drive off 14th Avenue North or from Military Road at the Country Club. Turn west off MLK onto 23rd Avenue; the building is at 1820. For more info, call Tiffany Harrison at 549-2595.
Oh, I almost forgot. The name of the new facility: Genesis Dream Center.
Write or phone Birney Imes at The Commercial Dispatch, 516 Main St., Columbus, MS 39701, 328-2424, or e-mail him at email@example.com.
Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.
SD commented at 3/8/2010 1:00:00 PM:
What a great idea and a great thing for the community! I have many wonderful memories from my years at Hughes Elementary, and I am glad that building will be put to such good use.
2. Leonard Pitts: Holding memories for Aunt Millie NATIONAL COLUMNS
3. America's liberal tradition NATIONAL COLUMNS
4. Voice of the people: Marjorie (Margie) Canon LETTERS TO THE EDITOR (VOICE@CDISPATCH.COM)
5. Our View: And the winner is ... Poindexter Hall DISPATCH EDITORIALS