Nine years after Kmart closed in Shrewsbury Township, a church is moving in.

"A lot of the people from the community have come in and said, 'Oh, I remember shopping here,'" said the Rev. Jeff Smith, pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Shrewsbury.

Grace Fellowship is a campus of the nondenominational Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium, Md.

It has met at a nearby elementary school since opening in October 2007 and draws an average 400 people at worship on Sundays, including about 150 children and teens, said member Tree Curran.

"We were pushing out at the seams from the beginning," he said. "We just didn't have room for all the kids."

The congregation hopes to begin worshipping in the renovated Kmart space soon.

Barry Mitchell of North County Design Center lays carpet in the new auditorium of Grace Fellowship Church, which has converted retail space in a shopping
Barry Mitchell of North County Design Center lays carpet in the new auditorium of Grace Fellowship Church, which has converted retail space in a shopping center formerly occupied by Kmart in Shrewsbury Township. (YDR -- JASON PLOTKIN)
A dedication is planned Oct. 11 after the 10:30 a.m. service, Smith said.

The renovation project covered 36,000 square feet (about half of the former Kmart store) and cost $2.2 million, which came out of an $11 million capital campaign spearheaded by the Timonium church. Grace-Shrewsbury's landlord, Hill Management in Timonium, invested $450,000 in the project, Smith said.

Grace signed a 10-year lease and has the option to expand into the 30,000 square feet next door, Curran said.

"It's way too big for us to purchase it," Curran said.

The new interior looks nothing like Kmart, except for the 19-foot-high ceilings. During the last five months, workers overhauled roughly half of the big-box retail space, gutting the store and rebuilding.

The main entryway opens into a café with big-screen TVs. A comfy hangout for Merge, the teen ministry at Grace, is in the old garden center. The colorful space will include three Wii gaming systems and a basketball/skateboarding gymnasium.

At the welcome desk for the children's ministry center, a parent will sign in a child and get printouts of name tags for each, making it easier to reunite them later.

The central worship space will seat about 550 on cushioned chairs.

Matthew Howell, left, and Kyle Martin of Audio Ethics prepare to hang speakers in the café area of Grace Fellowship Church in Shrewsbury Township.
Matthew Howell, left, and Kyle Martin of Audio Ethics prepare to hang speakers in the café area of Grace Fellowship Church in Shrewsbury Township. (YDR -- JASON PLOTKIN)
Church leaders wanted the option to remove the seats to host community events such as Shrewsbury's Ugliest Dog Contest, Wii bowling tournaments, movie nights or whatever, Smith said.

"I would hate if this became a museum used only for three hours on Sundays," he said.

In addition to Kmart, the shopping center off East Forrest Avenue in Shrewsbury Township once housed a Giant grocery store, which moved down the street in 2003 to the Shrewsbury Square Shopping Center in the borough. The only remaining tenant is a CVS pharmacy.

Smith hopes to eventually erect an LCD sign at the roadside to let passers-by know the church is uphill at the top of shopping center's winding driveway.

"We'll be the church on the hill," he said.

In other religion news around the region:

New lead singer: Temple Beth Israel has hired a third-year student from Hebrew Union Theological Seminary in New York to serve as a cantorial intern, leading congregational singing.

Tracy Fishbein began joining Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan on the bima last month.

"It's the first time we're utilizing interns this way," Astrachan said. "This is someone being educated in the clergy world."

Previously, a cantor traveled from Baltimore to York Township on Fridays to sing at Shabbat services.
 

Plane commissioning: The Straw family, who moved from York County to the west African nation of Gabon as missionaries, recently found a Cessna 207 plane for their air ministry.

Supporters and others can see Steve Straw, the plane and witness its commissioning 1 to 3 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Capital City Airport in New Cumberland.

Straw, formerly of York Alliance Church in Spring Garden Township, is working to get his ministry serving a rural hospital off the ground.

His hope is to shuttle medical supplies, visitors, government health officials and work crews over the distance between the capital city of Libreville and Bongolo Evangelical Hospital.
 

Three decades and counting: The congregation of Starview United Church of Christ in East Manchester Township plans to thank their pastor, the Rev. Richard Barley, for founding the Northeast Food Pantry 30 years ago.

Barley will be honored at a meal and presentation 5:30 p.m. Oct. 16 at the church, 4832 N. Sherman St. Extended. The pantry operates on donations of money and food from 30 area churches and local food drives.

It's open by appointment seven days a week to some residents of Northeast and Central school districts. For details, call 266-6785.

mburke@ydr.com; 771-2024


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Grace Fellowship Shrewsbury campus, home.gfc.org/index.php?zone=home&ID=2156