Seeking a Place for Prayer: Evangelical Riverbank Church Has a Plan to Put Down Roots
Ray Martell of Lebanon holds his grandson Joshua Bokina, 2, of Lebanon, during Riverbank Church’s Sunday service at Hartford High School yesterday. The church has plans before the city of Lebanon to renovate a former tire warehouse near the airport in West Lebanon. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
An artist's rendering shows proposed renovations to a West Lebanon warehouse, which would become the new location for the Riverbank Church. (Courtesy photograph) Purchase photo reprints »
Canaan resident Andrew Noble worships during Riverbank Church’s service at Hartford High School yesterday. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Dartmouth student Carina Conti of Orlando, Fla., center, worships during Riverbank Evangelical Church's Sunday service at Hartford High School. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
White River Junction — Tall black banners yesterday directed motorists on Taft Avenue to a church that wasn’t there the day before — one which would be gone by nightfall, only to relocate to a new venue in a week’s time.
Riverbank Church has been holding services in the Upper Valley for nearly three years without a permanent home — a logistical challenge that has prompted the Evangelical outfit to worship in eight different places, including yesterday’s meeting place of Hartford High School.
But all of that could change tomorrow evening with the church and its attorney are slated to go before the Lebanon Zoning Board of Adjustment and request a variance that would allow them to set up shop in a former tire warehouse next to the Lebanon Airport.
“We can meet anywhere, can’t we?” Lead Pastor Chris Goeppner asked the congregation as he listed the church’s previous locations, including Lebanon’s City Hall, the “primary location” for Riverbank’s Sunday services. Still, a permanent home, he said, would allow the church to “invite more people and be more stable.”
On two flat-screen TVs, Goeppner showed off conceptual drawings of what the warehouse-to-church conversion could ultimately look like, a transformation that would be limited by the rectangular warehouse’s proximity to one of the airport’s runways. For instance, no construction for aesthetic purposes would be allowed above the roof of the building, which would rule out the construction of a steeple.
“I’m excited about it,” Goeppner said as images were displayed of the warehouse with a new light-colored facade and landscaping next to the building. “It’s going to be sweet. It’s not going to be extravagant, but it’s going to be excellent.”
Along with his family and other members of the church’s core team, Goeppner moved to the Valley from Florida in late 2009 after what he described as a calling from God to bring the conservative Christian faith popular in the South up to New England, which is considered by many to be the most secular region in the country.
The church has offices in Lebanon’s Rivermill Commercial Center, but its congregation has grown to around 300 since its inaugural services on Easter in 2010, said Goeppner, who estimated that about 70 percent of congregants are Lebanon residents.
When the services at Hartford High School crescendoed to a finale yesterday, with electric guitars wailing, the followers of Riverbank embarked on a weekly diaspora back to their respective homes to wait for word of where next week’s services might be held.
Riverbank Church is attempting to solidify a permanent home on a 5.7-acre lot owned by Carl Moulton, who owns several properties in Lebanon. But to do so, it must first acquire a zoning variance from the city that would allow the building to be used as a church. To achieve that end, Riverbank has argued that the warehouse is an “eyesore,” and that the lot is unattractive to potential suitors that would use it as industrial lot, thanks to “open space” requirements that would restrict building and an uneven topographical surface. According to city records, the warehouse was built in 1973, and the land and building are valued at $838,400.
Additionally, the church has argued that it would make the neighborhood more appealing to others seeking to purchase and develop property there. It has also stated that the traffic impact would be minimal, given that many nearby businesses are closed on Sunday mornings.
As for its use of public venues, the church has run into issues in the past. Just days after Riverbank began holding services at Lebanon’s City Hall, city councilors raised concerns about the banners advertising Sunday services.
City Councilor Nicole Cormen said at the time that the banner created the “appearance of government-sponsored religion.”
At yesterday’s service, Tanya Budler — a Dartmouth College student who volunteers for the church — celebrated the opportunity to use public space as a place of worship.
“It’s such an honor to be able to have church in a public high school, it’s very exciting,” said Budler, who was interrupted by applause before adding, “Yeah, that’s something to celebrate.”
Goeppner said after services concluded that there hasn’t been too much negative feedback about Riverbank’s use of public venues.
“You always have one or two people that will push back, but that’s just life, you know,” he said. “But we’ve never had significant push-back.”
As for the limitations of the warehouse’s physical features, Goeppner said after yesterday’s services that it would actually be a good fit for Riverbank, because it’s a “modern church.” The roominess of the nearly 8,000-square-foot building, for instance, would be a boon to the church’s audio-visual demands, which are similar to those of a music venue.
The shift to a more modern era seems to resonate throughout everything Riverbank does — from its graphic-design branding that resembles the marketing of a national banking chain to its apparent embrace of some aspects of pop culture, evidenced in its pre-services music selection and appropriation of TV culture.
During yesterday’s sermon, for instance, portraits of Jesus and the apostles were flashed on screen to the tune of You’ve Got a Friend in Me by Randy Newman — a take-off on The Wonder Years TV sitcom from the late 1980s.
For Alexander Annunziata, a White River Junction native, it’s the content of the message, and not its delivery, that resonates with him.
Annunziata described himself as a former “troublemaker.”
“Trouble, trouble, trouble, troublemaker,” he said. “I don’t even know if I’m allowed in this building right now.”
After hearing about the church from his sister following his release from prison in late 2009, Annunziata said he avoided showing up for a few weeks before he finally came to Riverbank.
“It turned my whole thought on the Lord around and everything,” he said. “This is the most amazing church I’ve ever been to.”
Annunziata said he has been struggling to stay off drugs since his release from prison, but he relates to Goeppner’s sermons and his style of preaching. He said he routinely “cries my eyes out” at the Riverbank services.
No matter what the outcome of the potential move, Annunziata said, “As long as I get to go to church and see the pastor and repent for my sins, that is all that matters to me.”
That was a sentiment echoed by Kim McGrath of Springfield, Vt., who attended yesterday’s services with her friend, Claremont resident Tonya Rich. McGrath said she has been attending Riverbank services for six weeks, and Rich said she has been going with McGrath for the last five of those six weeks.
McGrath, who has lived in the Valley for three years after moving here from New Jersey, used to belong to a non-denominational church in the Garden State. She said she has “gone church shopping and I just felt like when I came here that this was my home.”
As for the zoning variance, McGrath said that was “all in God’s timing.”
She said she wasn’t concerned about potentially holding services next to an airport runway, in an old tire warehouse.
“I think the Lord can do miraculous things, and I think if there’s a will, there’s a way,” she said.
Goepnner described Lebanon’s zoning ordinance, which dates to the 1970s, as “set up for churches from prior generations.” The ordinance allows churches only in residential areas and enforces restrictions on the amount of parking spaces allowed.
While New Englanders in the past may have walked to their neighborhood churches, Goepnner said, “This is the 21st century, people don’t walk anywhere anymore.”
As for the decision-making process, Zoning Director Carmela Hennessy said she always tells those applying for a zoning variance to “come up with as much as you can, because only certain things have to stick.”
But Hennessy said that in this case, the applicant would have to focus more on convincing the Zoning Board of Adjustment that the property wasn’t suited for its current zoning.
“It’s not so much the hardship of the applicant, because they don’t even own (the land) yet,” she said. “It’s more of the hardship that makes that particular piece of land unsuitable (for its current zoning).”
If Riverbank is granted the variance, Goeppner said that it wouldn’t be a problem converting the boxy warehouse into a holy place.
“Buildings are buildings,” he said. “They’re going to rot, they’re going to fall apart, but people are forever. So we’re not going to have a steeple. It’ll just look like a nice warehouse with our name on it.”
Goeppner said that whatever the outcome, the church will continue to move forward in engaging the community.
“If it works out, great, it moves forward,” he said. “If not, we’ll find something else.”
Ben Conarck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.