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Church building-turned-bar returns to being a place of hope in Altoona

ALTOONA, Pa. (BP)–Every time Paul Johnson steps inside the small brick building of Eighteenth Street Community Church in Altoona, Pa., it is a reminder of God’s saving grace.

Years ago, the neon-lit bar that formerly occupied the building was a favorite stopping place for Johnson at the end of the day, within walking distance between his home and work.

Most everyone in the small, western Pennsylvania factory town knew the building originally had been a church named for St. Barnabas, as evidenced by its cornerstone from the early 1900s.

Other than the cornerstone, the building seemingly had no reminders of its religious heritage. That is, until Johnson became a Christian and uncovered one of its longstanding secrets.

One day while standing outside the local community center, two blocks down from the bar, Johnson encountered a pastor who challenged him to get his life together.

“I cursed him,” Johnson recalled, “but his words stuck in my mind. I went to his church to see if he was on the level. And there he was, preaching the Word. I felt bad because of what I had done, but I felt good because his words were speaking to my heart.”

Johnson received Christ and cleaned up his life. He still stopped by the bar on his way home — not to drink, but to pray.

Standing outside, he placed his hands on the cornerstone of the building and prayed for the people he knew there to find new life in Christ like he had. He prayed that the building might one day be a church again where the down-and-out could come to find hope.

The radical change in Johnson’s life attracted the attention of many people in the bar who saw him praying outside, including the owner, who gave Johnson the building when the bar closed down. Johnson’s prayers were answered.

The neon Miller Lite sign in the front window came down, and one flashing the message “Jesus Loves You” went up.

Inside renovation eliminated the bar area and opened up space for seating. In the process, workers uncovered something that made them stare in amazement. Behind the layer of wall paneling where the bar counter had been was a set of stained glass windows, perfectly intact along the length of the wall.

“It was nothing short of a miracle — a sign from God,” Johnson said.

“I had been coming here for years, sitting at this bar and, unknowing, facing the stained glass windows of a church,” Johnson said in wonderment. “Once the Lord opened my eyes to see what the church had looked like before, it made me know all the more it could be a church again.”

The building’s stint as a bar has opened the door for the church to minister to the needy in the community. Johnson tells passersby still expecting to see a bar there that the location now offers the “new wine” of life in Christ.

After he became a Christian, Johnson started preaching to a group gathered in Altoona’s Penn Alto Hotel, which had deteriorated into a center of crime and disrepair. Johnson reached out to the homeless and jobless, those with drug addictions and prison records, letting them know they were never too far gone to receive God’s grace.

The hotel congregation, now organized as the Eighteenth Street Community Church, is a mission of First Southern Baptist Church, Altoona. The church has formed a Philippians Help Ministry to assist people through drug and alcohol abuse recovery. The congregation also owns two houses on its block, including one given to them that they plan to renovate as a halfway house for families.

“The Lord challenged us and we challenged the people that God would raise a church out of this ministry,” Johnson said. “People have told those we minister to that they can’t make anything out of themselves, but we say you can be what God wants you to be. I’m a prime example of that.”

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  • Kristi Hodge