A church in North Thetford is getting new life as a community center for people of color
The church in North Thetford is bigger than you’d expect. There’s a large hall with a stage. Two kitchens. Two grand pianos. A pipe organ. A bell tower. And, of course, the sanctuary. It has curved wooden pews and tall, stained glass windows.
Kenya Lazuli is now in charge of all this space. "I still come in here, and I'm like, ‘What, we get to use this, whenever we want?’" she said, as she walked through the sanctuary.
Lazuli is from Corinth and works for the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, which took ownership of the building at the beginning of the year.
She’s converting a sunny meeting room into a library, a basement room into a tool lending library. She plans to renovate the 1950s-era kitchen into a commercial-grade space. She found a popcorn machine on Craigslist for an upcoming movie night.
Despite these changes, Lazuli said the church already has most everything they could need.
"It has all the chairs and tables even," she said. "All the bathrooms you need, it’s accessible for mobility devices. It’s set up already to be a community center."
The community center she's building is still in its infancy. It doesn’t yet have a name, and they had their first public events this month — an open house and a tool drive. The vision for this space is clear, though.
"There are lots of places to gather that white-led organizations either own or run that don't feel safe or welcoming to communities of color," Lazuli said.
"The whole point of this place is to be welcoming to communities of color, and anyone else who needs a space to gather or wants to have an event or anything."
For much of its history, the church has been a place for community gatherings. Throughout the 20th century, it hosted music and folk dancing classes, buffet suppers, Halloween parties, and hymn festivals that drew crowds of over four hundred people. Part of the appeal was where it’s located.
"There was a store in town, sawmill in town, all that kind of stuff. So people drove by it, and saw it, and went to it," said Brigid Farrell, a retired principal from Norwich and the part-time pastor of the church.
Farrell says over the years, the community changed. The mills closed. I-91 went in. A bridge that connected the town to New Hampshire came out. And younger generations stopped going to church as much.
“It was like, ‘Well, what is God calling us to do?' Once we got to that point, it really wasn't a hard decision to get rid of the building.”Pastor Brigid Farrell
When Farrell came to the United Church of Thetford five years ago, it was no longer a bustling place. About 30 people regularly attended services, and they wanted to make a change.
The church had enough money to maintain the building, but after lots of deliberation, they decided that wasn’t what they really cared about.
“It was like, ‘Well, what is God calling us to do?’” said Farrell. “Once we got to that point, it really wasn't a hard decision to get rid of the building.”
What they wanted was to have the building serve the community. It couldn't be converted to housing units, and they didn't want to sell it — it's worth about $150,000. So they started looking for a new owner. They reached out to arts organizations and posted messages on a town listserv. That’s how, eventually, they connected with Lazuli, who pitched using the building as a community center.
“Because this space is here and not being used, it's like finding a secret treasure,” she said. “We just need to open it up.”
For her, the church is the start of a much bigger project she dreamed up years ago: For every town in Vermont to designate a piece of healthy land for stewardship by people of color.
Lazuli does not expect to reach this goal in her lifetime, but she says the effort feels essential.
“This project is based in reparations, and beginning — just beginning, scratching the surface — of a way to repair for past harm that has been perpetrated against people of color, specifically Black and Indigenous people in this country, but also in the state,” she said. “This state is my context. So that’s why this project is happening here. But there’s a lot here.”
The church in North Thetford is their first land donation. Lazuli did not originally expect the project to include a church, but she says it makes sense that their first piece of land is for everyone.
As for the congregation, they’ll keep meeting in the sanctuary once a week. They’re looking forward to see the building used for more than a couple hours on Sundays.
Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.