T he Rev. R.A. Vernon knew something had to be done when two mothers approached him to conduct funerals for their children and he couldn’t accommodate them because his church had no building.
“I was heartbroken that I couldn’t help them,” said Vernon, founder and senior pastor of The Word Church. “We live to help families in times of crisis. We don’t ask if you’re a member, we just do it. We can better serve the people who need us, if we have our own building.”
The Word Church, based in Warrensville Heights, expanded into the Akron area nearly three years ago. Since then, it has attracted an average of more than 1,000 people to its Sunday worship services and Wednesday Bible studies at Akron’s North High School.
On Saturday, the megachurch hosted a groundbreaking event to mark the official start of construction at the site of its new Akron/Canton campus at 1700 Brittain Road in Akron’s Chapel Hill area.
The church is leasing the 80,000 square-foot building that is the former home of Handy Andy and Office Depot and plans to spend more than $1 million in renovations to transform the building into a worship center that includes a 2,000 to 3,000 seat sanctuary.
During Saturday’s festival-like event, those in attendance were given an opportunity to write their names or favorite scriptures on the concrete floor (before the carpet is laid).
Once the congregation moves in, the Bible verses under their feet will serve as a reminder that they are “standing on the promises of God,” Vernon said.
The event also included the distribution of more than 500 pairs of athletic shoes and 1,250 backpacks filled with schools supplies. Guests also were offered health screenings at a Summa Health System mobile unit, food and haircuts. Children had a chance to play inside inflatable bounce houses.
Sheree Phairr, her husband, Lorenzo, and five of their six children, who range in age from eight months to 13 years, were among the more than 500 people lined up before the event started at 10 a.m. Phairr, of Akron, said she was overwhelmed by the love she felt on the church premises.
“A family member told us that they were giving out free school supplies. When we got here, we found out it was much more than that — it’s a grand opening and everything,” Phairr said.
“I can’t tell you how much this means to us, in these tough economic times. We were able to get shoes and bookbags for all of our children. And they’re feeding us on top of all that. We’re waiting now to get haircuts for the three boys. This is what our community needs — a church that shows God’s love and is genuinely here to help.”
The Word Church has appeared on Outreach Magazine’s annual Top 100 list of America’s largest and fastest growing churches. It is a contemporary, nondenominational church that is known for its giveaways of food, shoes, clothing, cars, houses and other items. It attracts a significant number of youth and unchurched young adults, like Keith Nelson of Cuyahoga Falls.
Nelson, 42, has been part of the Akron/Canton campus since it started three years ago. He is now involved with the church’s security ministry and attends regularly with his wife, Lisa, and daughter, Julianna, 10.
“Our motto is ‘Come as you are. You won’t stay as you are.’ And it’s true. I didn’t grow up in the church, but I can truly say that I have grown spiritually since being at The Word,” said Nelson, who was among the 250 church volunteers on site Saturday.
“It’s a place where everybody is welcome and where the pastor is capable of helping you relate the Bible to your life, no matter where you are.”
Leadership at The Word estimated that nearly 3,000 people showed up at the 4-hour groundbreaking event. Attendance at weekend worship services ranges between 9,000 and 10,000 people at five locations:
• Word South (main campus): 18909 S. Miles Road, Warrensville Heights.
• Word North: East Technical High School, 2439 E. 55th St., Cleveland.
• Word West: Lincoln-West High School, 3202 W. 30th St., Cleveland.
• Word East: Shaw High School, 15320 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.
• Word Akron/Canton: North High School, 985 Gorge Blvd., Akron.
Vernon said he expects the work, which includes raising the ceilings, to be completed at the Akron/Canton campus in the next nine months. The church is also renovating another building at East 59th Street and Kinsman Road for its North campus in Cleveland.
“My heart is in both the Cleveland and Akron/Canton areas. Once this building is open, we will be able to offer all of the things we offer at our main campus — counseling programs, a food pantry, youth events and programs and the grief recovery program that we adopted from [Akron’s] The House of the Lord,” said Vernon.
The pastor took time to write his own inscription on the concrete floor: I Corinthians 15:10. “But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”
Vernon said, “All of the things that The Word Church has is because of God’s grace. God is allowing us to be a blessing. We’re not trying to build a big church. We’re trying to build big people who are out of debt, committed to their marriages, committed to their families, committed to abstinence.
“We have a heart for people. We give away millions of dollars in food each year because we want to be a blessing. That’s what we raise offerings for — to change lives.”
Vernon preaches and teaches at 9 a.m. Sunday and 6 p.m. Wednesdays at the Akron-Canton campus. For more information about The Word Church, visit www.wordcity.org or call 216-332-9673.