Megastore becomes megachurch

Living Hope raises $5.2 million to purchase former Kmart

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

It looks like the nickname “Kmart Church” is here to stay.

The former central Vancouver megastore will become the permanent home of megachurch Living Hope Church, according to the Rev. John Bishop. Bishop said he’s got $5.2 million in donations and investments in the bank, and will close on the property next week.

“We told people this was the promised land and they looked at us like, what?” Bishop told a meeting of his 60-strong staff on Friday morning. “We were told, ‘There’s no chance of you raising $5 million.’”

But Bishop and his congregation raised $5.2 million over the course of a nine-month fundraising frenzy that was so stressful, Bishop said, it caused him serious stomach pains and had him contemplating quitting.

“It was an issue of integrity,” he said. Bishop didn’t want to spend months hitting up his flock for funds only to miss the mark and shrug it off with an “oops,” he said.

But that’s not going to happen, Bishop concluded during an elated and relieved pep talk that brought the 48-year-old pastor to the brink of tears. “This is our building,” he told his staff, to a round of applause.

Living Hope has been camping out since early this year in the former Kmart store, with a temporary city permit and the patience of property owner Kuni Enterprises, which once intended to open a car dealership there. Kuni abandoned its plan and started leasing to Living Hope. The church already owns several properties in Clark County, including a flagship church on Northeast 117th Avenue in Brush Prairie, but Bishop decided to put those on the market and consolidate his church where it was most needed: in urban Vancouver.

None of those properties has sold, but Bishop managed to raise the money anyway. He tapped his own congregation, he said, and was rewarded with an embarrassment of riches, including people’s precious personal property — wedding rings, gold coins, vacation savings and vehicles. One gentleman donated a beloved motorcycle, but nobody purchased it and Bishop ultimately decided that God wanted the motorcycle returned to its owner.

As purchase deadlines came and went and Kuni agreed to extensions, Bishop turned to Christian media and the Internet to spread the word of Living Hope’s capital campaign. He was thrilled to receive donations from congregations in places like Texas and Seattle — his notion was that if 1,000 churches gave $1,000 each, the gap would be closed — but eventually resorted to trying local churches too.

That was a humbling experience, he said. Some local churches responded with donations. One fellow pastor told Bishop he was seeding “the most fertile soil in town,” but most told him he was dreaming.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the money — approximately $3.5 million — was raised via 129 of Living Hope’s wealthier congregants who decided to invest in Living Hope Promised Land, a homegrown real estate company. Working with a Seattle company called Affinity Financing, Living Hope Promised Land will hold the mortgage on the property and the church will make quarterly mortgage payments. Investors will realize a 5 percent return, Bishop said.

Bishop acknowledged that months of begging for money have alienated some of his flock. Some former Living Hope parishioners have told The Columbian the same thing: The overwhelming focus on money and property didn’t feel right.

“God wants us to take big risks for Him, and sometimes that looks foolish. Sometimes people laugh at us. Some quit the church over it,” said Bishop.

More fundraising is in store, he said — the building needs remodeling before it can get a permanent occupancy permit. And Bishop wants the children’s ministry area to be “state of the art,” he said.

The weekend of Nov. 5 and 6 will see the official ribbon-cutting on the building, he said, with dignitaries expected; it also happens to be the 15th anniversary of the founding of Living Hope Church.

Tough blow

Neal Curtiss, who assists Bishop at Living Hope, says he’s amazed to see what his protégé has achieved.

Curtiss said Bishop and his wife, Michelle, started attending Curtiss’ own Vancouver Community Church decades ago; the young Bishop was a bit of a troublemaker, he said, who was quick with his fists. Bishop was a karate student when he took a tough blow during a competition, lost his temper and wound up taking an even worse blow that put him in the hospital with a life-threatening injury.

Curtiss was called to Bishop’s bedside, where he asked if Bishop believed he would have gone to heaven if he’d died; Bishop said no. And that was the beginning of Bishop’s devotion to religious life, Curtiss said. Bishop and Michelle founded their own ministry almost immediately after that.

“When they finally gave their lives to Christ, they really hit the ground running,” Curtiss said.

Bishop said that a major motivation behind the move from suburban Brush Prairie to urban Vancouver is getting closer to the needier people in town. Bishop wants Living Hope to be a resource for the homeless and hungry. The church is already feeding 200 hungry children every Sunday, he said.

“I want to put on the biggest homeless ministry event Vancouver has ever seen,” said Bishop. That will be on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, he said, when he sends 20 buses to homeless shelters and other facilities all over the area and brings needy folks back for a meal and giveaway of free stuff, from sleeping bags to clean clothes.

“We’re calling it the last Kmart Blue Light Special,” he said.