Congregation in danger of losing church property

by W. Winston Skinner


Standing in front of Iglesia de Dios Puerta al Cielo, Pastor Jose' Santos and his wife, Jessica, are hopeful some way may be found for the church to hold on to its property. 

Iglesia de Dios Puerta al Cielo has made a name for itself in Coweta County.

The church - one of the largest serving the Spanishspeaking community - is one of two local churches serving as locations for One Harvest Food Ministries. The church has adopted Sprayberry Road - keeping the roadway clear of trash - as part of Keep Newnan Beautiful.

Members have been active in a variety of community programs including Come To The Table, Prevent Child Abuse Coweta and Community Welcome House. And now, they may lose their buildings and property. The church is caught in a situation not unknown to Coweta residents - dropping property values, a large mortgage, a failed bank acquired by another. The church owes $385,000 on the two parcels where it ministers on Sprayberry Road. A balloon note is due in September, and the note will not be refinanced by the bank.

The church has also been hurt as members have been out of work - or have moved away. There have been times when the church was behind on its payments, but members have made sacrifices to bring the note current, said Jose' Santos, the tall, genial pastor of Puerta al Cielo.

Santos and his wife, Jessica, are leading their congregation in looking for answers. 'We need money, but we need more than that. We need the favor of God,' Santos said.

They are praying 'for the Lord to turn hearts,' he said.

Puerta al Cielo was organized in 2001. Allan Mathura, pastor at South Metro Ministries, talked with Church of God denominational officials about his church sponsoring a new one. 'He requested a Hispanic pastor,' Santos said.

Jose' and Jessica Santos met working in a bank in Buffalo, N.Y. She is of Latino lineage but grew up in New York. He grew up in Puerto Rico. Santos joked that - though he now lives in the traditional Deep South he is 'from Deeper South.'

The church acquired one piece of property on Sprayberry Road in 2003 and an adjacent tract in 2008.

The congregation grew but has lost some members in the last few years as Latinos left Coweta for other states with better opportunities. Santos was frank that some other states are 'more friendly than Georgia' toward Spanish-speakers.

In 2008, Puerta al Cielo was running 150 in worship. Now they have about 60 people most Sundays.

The church's leaders have looked at options - including selling part of the property or refinancing the debt. There is 'too short of a time' to market and sell the property, Santos said.

Plus, selling the property leaves the church with nowhere to meet and do its work. The church members have talked about selling the larger tract and keeping the smaller one, where their sanctuary is located. Even selling the larger piece, however, would be unlikely to generate enough funds to cover the balloon note.

Having a building - a place where people can come when they are in need and a spot where worshippers can gather Sunday after Sunday - is important. 'It gives us an identity,' Santos said.

Annie Joe Berkowitz, who heads the local Cancer Support Group, has worked with Jose' and Jessica Santos. She agreed that the Puerta al Cielo buildings are an important component of what they do.

'The church and activities facility are beacons that draw young and old to their worship services and activities,' Berkowitz said. 'I do fear what the possible loss of their ministry will mean for the surrounding community of children and adults.'

The church prayed about their situation and came up with the $400 from 1,000 concept. They are praying that God might move 1,000 people to give $400 each to help them save their building, and they are welcoming smaller gifts, as well.

Tax-deductible donations can be sent to: Iglesia de Dios Puerta al Cielo, 73 Sprayberry Rd., Newnan, GA 30263.

Puerta al Cielo's original note was with First Coweta Bank, one of three local banks to fold during the financial crisis. The note is now held by United Bank, which acquired assets of First Coweta after the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation closed First Coweta.

United Bank officials would not comment on the loan. A financial expert, however, said that letting the foreclosure proceed may well be the best thing to do.

'We don't have debtors prison,' noted Dr. Charles W. Hodges, a professor in the accounting and finance department of the Richards College of Business at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.

Default is an option when paying the debt no longer makes sense. 'The rational thing for the borrower to do is exercise the option,' Hodges said. 'One of the rights under the contract is to walk away.'

The borrower then can 'walk away and you find something' comparable, Hodges said, or perhaps even find a way to buy the same property for a lower price.

People sometimes stick with a loan when they might otherwise default because of a moral determination to pay the agreed amount. In other instances, the owner may have become 'emotionally attached to' the property, Hodges said.

Berkowitz reflected on the Santos and their ministry. 'I hear other volunteers in our community refer to the Santos team as missionaries, and the title fits so well all that they do and represent,' she said.

'Tirelessly at work is the best description,' she said. 'Their work with youth of the community is beautiful to see - and to hear their songs of joy.'

She noted that Jessica Santos sells Tupperware and sets aside part of her sales to help the Cancer Support Group. They have also worked with the local Toys for Tots program 'to reach children who would not have Christmas,' Berkowitz said.

A few weeks ago, Jessica Santos and Berkowitz joined forces to help a grandmother who cares for several grandchildren.

While they look for ways to hold onto their spiritual home, the members of Puerta al Cielo continue to worship and to seek ways to serve God more - and better. A ministerial development center 'where we can lead others to be ministers' is in the planning stages, the pastor said.

'The only way we are looking now is up,' Jose's Santos said. 'I know this is a God thing.'

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