“How We Got Here…”
The Story Behind the Westside Vineyard’s Property
By Pastor Brad Bailey
The following has been written for the purpose of remembering and passing on all that stands behind the Vineyard ministry center on the Westside. We prayed for God to“give us a story” to tell our children and He did. We want to remember God’s faithfulness… His word and work among us… and the faith of those involved.
I. The Lord Raises Our Faith and Releases a Building
The establishing of a ministry center at the intersection of Centinela and Venice Boulevards was a remarkable end of a long process… about a 13-year process. That’s when those who were seeking to carry the calling the Lord had given to the Vineyard, first realized the long term limitations of building a future in ‘Sunday only’ space.
Over the years we felt increasingly clear that we were to pursue a more permanent facility to glorify God on the Westside; that which would serve in reaching out to our community, releasing gifts of worship and the arts, and raising up the ‘next generation.’
We began the year 2000 with a sense that this was to be a year of critical change… changes that would be foundational to building our future… and in faith we set specific goals for prayer in our new year newsletter called The Vineyard Voice. The two most lofty and longstanding were to set apart the next generation with their own pastoral leadership and to finally secure property to serve as a ministry center on the Westside…. and for both to unfold THAT year. During our special season of prayer and fasting early in the year, (the 40 days prior to Easter), I restated the call to join in believing the Lord for these needs in prayer.
In that very season I connected with what became our first Associate Pastor for the Emerging Generations and the start of a next step for the next generation of our community.
And in that season we had a property come forward that caused us to do some soul searching regarding the location and dynamic we were called to. I came to the conclusion which I shared with our Council and broker that the best location in terms of cost and impact would be along or near Centinela Avenue around Venice or Washington Blvd. Shortly after, we had our all church retreat, and when I returned home that Sunday night there was a fax about a property at Centinela and Venice Boulevard. I went by and realized it was Bruno’s restaurant, a landmark property we all knew well.
Monday morning I spoke with a broker and discovered there was already a deal in the works with a developer and that another offer at this point wouldn’t be well received. We decided to get an offer in quickly and see what God had in store. Our offer was received openly. The initial outcome was that a counter offer given to the developer and ourselves. It was the type of counter offer one hopes not to get in. Each party is given a purchase agreement with the purchase price left blank and instructed to put in their “final and best offer.” This leaves each party in a position to offer a very high end if they hope to outbid the other party …whom they have no idea how high they might go. I received the news a couple hours before we had a scheduled Church Council meeting. I took a break and was pondering how to approach this whole deal.
As I pondered the opportunity to have so much property at such a great location with so little potential build out, in contrast to the costs we were being faced with on every other building we had considered, it was pointedly clear to me, “We can’t afford not to get this building.” Compared to what we’ll be facing again if we lose this opportunity, there no price we could step up to that wouldn’t be worth it for us. Though I still didn’t like the insecurity of the whole process, I was feeling a bit excited at this sense that because we were buying a building as opposed to the developer who would only be buying the land, it really was worth more to us. Our position really lent itself to being the high bidder.
Just as my soul was feeling the thrill, the Lord said, “Are you trying to buy your security?”
It wasn’t just a sense. I knew it was the Lord as clearly as I’d ever heard in my spirit. But I couldn’t believe what I heard. I said, “Lord, what are saying?” He simply expounded, “You’re putting your security in a high price. Don’t you believe I can do anything?” Immediately I knew that “anything” was to be taken in the most challenging way. It would mean offering the lowest price on the spectrum of options. Here’s where it became a deeply personal experience. I said, “Lord, you know this is a decade of my life at hand. My entire 30’s have been invested in this ongoing process (as I would be turning 40 that year) and I can finally make it all worthwhile …all the years of waiting… all the years of work … all the days and nights I put in on buildings that slipped away…I can finally make it end. We finally have the resources to stretch ourselves and potentially secure this. I’ve never been in this position before.”
The Lord said, “You’re right. Your faith has always been about offering the most you could for properties and then leaving the results to me. Now you have the power to potentially offer enough resources. The issue of faith is to believe I can do anything… I can secure you this property… by offering the least.”
I knew how to think through things on a practical level… how to step up and go for it in faith… but this was being asked to step back and totally trust God when in fact I had the power to do something. It was just a matter of putting the right number in a blank space in the final offer and the moment we’d all waited for could be at hand. Now I’m being asked not to. Again I heard the Lord, “I know you Brad. This is the moment of faith I had to bring you to… when you could do something… when you have the resources and will have to lay it all down in order to be obedient in believing me.”
Thinking I was faithful just letting my mind ponder the thought of offering the lowest amount… eventually my mind thought of the common wisdom to make such an offer just a few dollars above the flat figure. Quickly I heard the Lord’s rebuff, “Don’t you know as easily as I can give this to you at even the lowest price, I can take it away at any price? You’re still trying to buy your security.”
Well it was time to go back in the offices for our Council meeting and I didn’t know what to think of this exchange. Could I really explain all this yet? As I presented the counter offer situation I decided not to share what I felt the Lord had said. It felt like something sacred that I needed to process on a personal level and I wasn’t ready to skew everyone’s thinking until I really felt some confirming processing. Our discussion went just where my own best senses had been. All agreed, “We couldn’t afford not to get this property.” The sense was so strong that the figure I was given permission to offer was even higher than I expected. We were determined not to get outbid and to get this property.
Now what was I to make of all I heard from the Lord? After a late night meeting and short night’s sleep, I was at the building early in the morning to do a ‘walk through.’ The building’s beauty and layout was even better than what I had seen previously. This first chance to meet the owner was even more pleasantly surprising. In all the years of approaching properties, we’d never felt the kind of heart in a seller we naturally hoped for. There seemed to be sensitivity beneath this process. He made reference to God and was open about the personal transitions that accompanied the selling of this longstanding family business.
As a got back home and entered the frenzy of activity related to evaluating and preparing a counter offer, I knew I had to go back to the Lord. Was it really Him speaking to me? As I turned to Him in prayer, I was assured it was indeed His word to me. I argued a bit more with Him. But after all my feelings were out… I knew the decision at hand. In speaking with our broker, sure enough he suggested the possibility of offering just a little bit higher just in case the other party had offered the same. I explained I had reasons to feel God wanted us to trust Him in such a way that the number should stay exactly at the lower number.
In formalizing this decision, I knew it was a big moment of faith for me on a personal level. I had just put a decade of my life on the line. I had just put over a decade’s work of my fellow elders and the church’s future on the line. What if I was wrong? I knew one thing. I didn’t have a choice. I could never have done anything else at this point. This was the Lord as surely as any time I’d known. It was a sacred place to be in.
Late that afternoon our longstanding Children’s Pastor at the time, Valinda Harlan, called to talk about what was going on. As she describes in her journal…
“Tuesday night we had a Council meeting about the parameters of our counter offer. We voted on the range we would approve for Brad to make. We were all of course hoping and expecting him to take it to the top to have the best chance at securing this building. Even though he mentioned something about wanting to leave room for God to work. I said there was room for God to work a miracle story after we got the building through the finances that needed to be raised later. When I finally got home (12:00am) I couldn't sleep for hours. I kept crying tears of joy. I kept seeing our church celebrating. I finally fell asleep about 3:00 and had a dream.
In the dream I was getting ready for a party… a prom of sorts. I primped and posed and did my best to look attractive and I felt pretty good about myself. I had done the best with what I had. Then I went into the lobby of the hall and I saw this beautiful woman. Her dress was red, sophisticated and obviously very expensive and her hair was attractively in fashion (not done at home like mine). There was a third presence, more competition, but she wasn't fully in the picture, I knew she has a natural beauty that surpassed mine. Then a hand went out to me. I was the one chosen to be the dance partner. I knew I was chosen for who I was.
I did my best on the externals, I was pretty, but I was chosen for my character. Then next morning I was to meet Brad, the realtors and the owner for a tour. I told Paul my dream and my constant tears and visions of celebration. I said if God wants me to tell Brad about the dream, He would need to give me the chance to see Brad in the parking lot alone. That never happened, there were always people around. After the tour, I was able to talk alone with the owner; he was such a warm, open person. He shared something personal with me and I told him I would pray for him. I have never before said that to someone I had just met (outside of a ministry time.) It certainly wasn’t the most professional thing to do in the context of a potential buying tour, but my heart went out to him and I pray he felt God's love through that.
Later when Brad began to explain his LOW offer, the dream came together and I was at such peace. I told Brad the dream. I was then able to say to Brad "That's great, you did the right thing!" Instead of feeling, "You what! Why didn't you offer more, we told you could offer more!!!" Then I knew if we get the building we'll know we got it for who we are, because God wants us there, we belong there, we will have our story to tell.
It has been great to pray with my children that the owner would choose us, that if God wants us in there no other offers would keep us out.”
This spoke deeply to the decision I had made and the position it had put us in.
That evening as one of the brokers was at our home to sign the offer, I knew I was to pray for him in response to his having earlier mentioned difficulty sleeping the night before. He was a bit surprised but welcomed it. This experience of the Lord’s heart ministering in the midst of the business oriented relationships added to the strong sense of God’s hand being clearly at work. It was the kind of experience we had always hoped for and would fill this whole process.
That night, after teaching on prayer at our young adult group, I felt led to share the experience of the past 24 hours and the test of faith I had entered. I was heading out of town the next day and beginning to sense this was going to remain a more personally sacred experience with God that I probably wouldn’t be sharing with others before we had a response to the mutual counter offers. So I explained I probably needed to share it with them for accountability… to have a group who knew the process before the story was over.
We returned home from the East Coast late Sunday night. Monday morning after taking the kids to school, there was a message on our answering machine. Our offer had been accepted… even over a higher offer. The Lord had moved. Whatever “natural” process may have transpired, He had a plan to fulfill in us, through us, and for us. He had spoken. He had spoken a challenge so that we would forever be reminded that He alone is our security. He had given us a story behind the building we would be building our future in. It’s a story of His provision… a story still being written.
The significance of this property grew ever clearer in the days ahead. It was centrally located to all the communities that make up the Westside. It’s the only intersection ever looked at that everyone knows immediately…. where nearly 69,000 cars pass every day … an intersection of two predominant streets… Centinela, (Spanish for sentinel = ‘the one who watches, guards, and protects’)… and Venice (with one of it’s root meanings being ‘grace, the ability to be pardoned and forgiven.’) Along with this, the layout was great for a church’s use. The main dining hall would provide a remarkably beautiful sanctuary. As the newspapers began to write about the transition, they spoke of the “irony” of it all. “It always looked like a church. Now it’s going to become one.” This truly was meant to be.
II. How We Got Here…(The faithful road that preceded.)
The start of a new spirit in our hearts…
By the late 1980’s it became clear that there were long term limitations of building a future in ‘Sunday only’ space and that a more permanent facility should be pursued. The first large scale pursuit towards a particular property and subsequent fundraising was in 1990… and the deadline for the initial financial need was exactly ten years prior to the date we would close the purchase of our current property. Many people gave very sacrificially… giving up or putting off personal plans and pleasures in order to invest in this endeavor. The amount raised was just over $200,000 … far short of the need at the time… but it set a new spirit in our hearts… it was the beginning of the sacrifice and commitment involved with building such a future.
Over the years that followed there were few opportunities that grew strong enough to present publicly. A huge part of the challenge through these years was that few properties were available that were affordable for us, and that had reasonable parking available.
But even though mention of this pursuit grew fewer and far between… some still carried the giving along.
- In handling our finances, we stay committed to living within our means and letting our savings grow rather than using them up.
- There was a season when the entire staff took a pay cut for several months rather than spending savings.
- When presented with one particular building, all of the elders led in making significant gifts.
- There was the big Vineyard Yard Sale at the parking lot of Trinity Baptist Church which raised a few thousand dollars…and a lot of unity in the process.
- And the most amazing part of the story being written during these years was the emerging of a recycling team… led by Tim and Gail Fuller along with Frank and Joanne Stevens and Tom Mizrahi… a ministry that collected our recyclable materials every Sunday when we gathered and sorted them, packed them into their cars, and took them to the recycling center where they redeemed our trash for money to be invested into building this future… and they did it for 8 years…. and raised over $14,000.
It’s that kind of commitment that got us here… that kind of commitment that I believe the Lord found great pleasure in.
The opportunities that strangely slipped away
Over the years there were points at which we thought we had found great opportunities. Time was spent on financial assessments, preliminary building plans, and rallying the congregation together around a new hope. Each in turn would be struck with a strange vanishing moment.
There was the 4th Street building (formerly a Unity Church) in which our congregation gathered at on a Sunday evening and confirmed plans to open escrow the next day… only to discover that the selling broker was actually playing us against the equally pursuing Coptic Egyptian Church. This led to an interesting meeting the following Sunday with their robed and bearded priest…after which we were outbid as expected…but with blessings for our Egyptian brothers and sisters.
Then there was the infamous pursuit to purchase the ‘Pussycat’ adult movie theater out of bankruptcy. (I’ll never forget taking the elders with me after our services one Sunday to check out the theater.) We had building plans refined, an attorney working pro-bono, the favor of the city, articles written in the paper about this possible great transition, and constant prayer from every corner. Then shortly before the probate hearing date, they slipped out of bankruptcy and sold it to a developer on the side.
A few years later there was the First Christian Church on 6th and Arizona. The majority of their property had been damaged and cleared following the 1994 earthquake, and with a very small congregation left, they were going to sell the land. Following a couple positive meetings with their leadership we submitted our offer as discussed. After days of hearing nothing and calls to the pastor weren’t returned, I drove over to their office only to find our offer unopened and set aside. When I contacted the head of their Board I discovered the pastor had told them we weren’t interested and they had now entered an agreement to sell to a movie production studio.
These are just a few points along the way in this long journey.
Moments that released faith…
As we continued to search out properties… month after month… year after year…ultimately exploring a couple hundred buildings over ten years… some might think I got discouraged. But while the circumstances were frustrating in terms of the time involved, they only seemed to fan the faith the Lord put in me. There was a growing tenacity in me that probably felt a bit naïve to some. Over time I felt more and more like it was a gift of faith from God that was given to me to me as the spiritual leader… a gift I had to keep sacred. Like all such faith, there was plenty of room to wonder if it was just my own foolishness. But the Lord met me in that wandering… especially in a couple particularly inspiring moments.
In 1998 we faced our first year of potentially significant deficit. If our giving remained in the second half of the year as it had been in the first half… we would have faced as much as $100,000 deficit at the end of the year. Although we had savings, we had a conviction about limiting their use in order to remain serious about pursuing a facility. Born of that conviction to be long term in our vision, some difficult changes seemed inevitable. As the church Board met in that season, I felt the Lord telling me we were to wait until the next meeting in two months before making changes.
Two months later as I headed to the door to go to that next meeting I got a call from a friend. He simply said, “I know you have a meeting tonight in which you may be discussing concerns about a deficit. I wanted to let you know that I think we’ll be able to cover that deficit.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. After sharing how blown away I was in general by the generosity, I said, “The potential of this deficit is quite large… seventy to a hundred thousand dollars.” Then he simply said, “Circumstances in our life will be providing us with a large sum of money and we should be able to cover at least half if not all of that.” I was shocked. As I left the door for the meeting, I felt God’s release to get on with the ministry at hand. As the year went on, our giving grew and we ended the year with even greater savings towards a building.
Then there was the afternoon that took me to a new level of faith in this process. There was a building we were very serious about just prior to discovering the restaurant that is now our home. It was probably the best opportunity we had approached up until that point. I knew the financial resources came up short… even with plans to raise some in the process had we negotiated a purchase. I worked the numbers out on paper…the gap was big… it was in writing… a very specific amount that was beyond our ability to fundraise for. Some very generous friends who were very committed to this pursuit agreed to meet me for coffee … I shared my vision and heart for the endeavor… and finally told them of the insurmountable amount that stood between going forward. They smiled and proceeded to tell me how they had decided the night before to give that very amount…the exact figure. We all sensed the Lord was leading us forward in giving and going for it.
I drove home literally with tears in my eyes… silenced by the Lord’s love… for I felt a bit alone in carrying this vision and I couldn’t believe how much he wanted to tell me He was in it.
I got home and ended up on a phone conversation with my parents. Because of their continual interest and support in our ministry, I told them about this ‘faith-filled gift.’ They went on to say that they had just decided to give $100,000.
My faith forever changed that afternoon… my soul was struck with the Lord’s promise to provide for our needs.
The story doesn’t quite end there. The first friend who felt God had blessed them with an especially large amount they could give put the money in a savings account so that nothing could happen to it until it was needed. While that particular building didn’t pan out…the commitment to give remained. One day when reading Christ’s Parable of the Tenants, the Lord convicted him in the rebuke given to the tenant who “buried” the masters investment… not believing the Master could add to it. He then took the money out and placed it in an investment fund…just weeks prior to us discovering the opportunity to pursue Bruno’s Restaurant. When the Bruno’s opportunity began to unfold and I actually signed the agreement to purchase… I called him to let him know the big news and that if they were still able to contribute… the time of need was coming up.
The money doubled in just two months time… most of which came between the day I called and the day the money was wired… which was about one day before the stock market fell significantly. As a result, this special gift to the Lord and this endeavor was significantly increased.
My God kept getting bigger all the time through this endeavor.
III. How We Got In…
A community joins together in stepping up and stepping out
The opportunity of the Bruno’s Restaurant property meant a great challenge would be placed before the Vineyard community. The first part of the challenge was that of raising the financial resources necessary to complete the purchase, renovation, and equipping of the new ‘ministry center.’ We didn’t want a belabored fundraising process nor did we believe it would prove more fruitful. The agreement to purchase the property was announced July 9th and a presentation was given to the entire congregation following the Sunday Celebration on July 16th including a call for each person to pray about an amount they felt led to give or pledge by year end. The length of this initial fundraising season was just one month (through August 20th.) The emphasis was that God was clearly writing a story among us and had a story of His faithfulness to write in each of our lives through our giving. The goal that was set before us was $200,000. This not only appeared to be the minimal amount needed to fulfill the vision without incurring too burdensome a future debt, but also was twice the amount that any natural perceptions of the resources among us could imagine raising.
As I wrote my notes for the presentation, my then three year old son Travis came into my office at home and asked what all the words on the paper were about. I explained as best I could that these words were about telling everyone how they could play a part in giving towards the building from what God had blessed them with. (He knew about the building because each day as we had been driving by it we did a special “Yeah God” cheer.) The next morning he came into my office with a bag filled with change. He had emptied his entire piggy bank to help buy the building. I knew then and there just how beautiful the Spirit of God wanted to work among us.
The morning of this initial presentation, I was handed one of the special offering envelopes marked “Building A Future.” While I appreciated the expediency in responding, I honestly wondered how any appropriate thought could be behind such an immediate gift. What I later learned was behind that first formal gift was actually a remarkable story. The couple had been trying to have another child for a long time. As complications made this difficult they began to save money for a trip to Israel…a trip contingent on not being able to get pregnant. The morning of the presentation the couple looked at eachother and both knew they were to give the money they had saved… thousands of dollars. They conceived their next child the following day.
Another woman gave an amount by faith and then discovered an imbalance in her savings account. She finally discovered her father had decided to give her some money and had put it directly into her account without telling her… the exact amount she had given towards the building.
Then there was the children’s part. Each week they brought their change and dollar bills to place in a large clear container. From piggy banks, allowances, extra chores, and special sales they brought their money each week. Many participated in a yard sale initiated by six year old Scottie Harlan, the son of our Children’s Pastor and Worship Team Director. Through all these means, the children, most of whom are under ten years old, raised $1330.
The weekend which concluded our initial process was truly a celebration of all God was doing. On Friday (Aug. 25th) we successfully concluded the purchase of the property. On Saturday we held our second of two free car washes at the site as a way to demonstrate God’s love to the community. On Sunday (Aug. 27th ), the day of our special children’s church graduation and celebration, I had the privilege of announcing the big news and reading from the front page of that morning’s ‘Our Times’ Westside section of the L.A. Times, which featured a picture and article entitled ‘From Eatery to Eternity – Christian Church set to take over Bruno’s Ristorante Building.’ It stated,
“For more than 30 years, the busts of Roman emperors Aurelius and Caracalla--both used in the MGM epic "Ben-Hur, have reigned atop the marble colonnades, gazing imperially at the restaurant's patrons below. Their rule, however, will come to an end when the family-owned business closes its doors on Sept. 24. In an ironic twist, Bruno's vaulted ceilings and Baroque architecture, which feel more like a church than an Italian restaurant, will complete a long metamorphosis from a doughnut shop into a truly hallowed institution when the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Westside assumes ownership of the Mar Vista establishment later this year.”
As for the fundraising ? Together we had surpassed our goal and raised $259,328 in immediate contributions and pledges. God was clearly continuing to write a remarkable story in this process of establishing a ministry center in this central Westside location.
From early November to early June a wild process of renovation began. Brian Noteware, who had helped with plans on many buildings pursued over the years, served as the general architect with remarkable generosity and patience. Dio Yang and his family joined the Vineyard community during the early part of the project. His incredible gifts in design and problem solving came as God’s perfect provision to see the project through. Patti Braun provided the eye for interior design and the months of hard work on every detail to see the beauty of this building unfold.
As the expenses of the process arose with the level of renovation required, generosity came along in the final weeks to meet the need. In unprecedented fashion, nearly all the pledges were fulfilled and a total of over $425,000 was given in this season. In addition, the members of the Vineyard community began to pour their time and energy into the enormous task of preparing the new facility.
On June 10th, one year after receiving the initial fax describing the property, a dedication was held and the Vineyard Center became a center for God’s glory and ministry.
The Lord said… “Sing about a fruitful vineyard.
I, the Lord, will protect it and always keep it watered.
I will guard it day and night to keep it from harm.”