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A new way to worship in Woonsocket

10-year-old Oscar Anderson hands out the day's readings to parishioners as they make their way into Spirit of Faith church on Sunday for service in Woonsocket. (Matt Gade / Republic)1 / 8
Fr. Rhonda Wellsandt-Zell speaks during service at Spirit of Faith church on Sunday in Woonsocket. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 8
10-year-old Camden Rassel lights the candles during service at Spirit of Faith church on Sunday in Woonsocket. (Matt Gade / Republic)3 / 8
Due to a shrinking number of churchgoers, Spirit of Faith church in Woonsocket is a dual-faith denomination combining the prior United Methodist Church and Bethany Lutheran Church congregations into one. (Matt Gade / Republic)4 / 8
Parishioners sing along during service at Spirit of Faith church on Sunday in Woonsocket. (Matt Gade / Republic)5 / 8
Fr. Rhonda Wellsandt-Zell speaks during service at Spirit of Faith church on Sunday in Woonsocket. (Matt Gade / Republic)6 / 8
Parishioners make their way into Spirit of Faith church on Sunday for service in Woonsocket. (Matt Gade / Republic)7 / 8
10-year-old Camden Rassel lights the wick so he can light the candles during service at Spirit of Faith church on Sunday in Woonsocket. (Matt Gade / Republic)8 / 8

WOONSOCKET — Struck by tragedy and grief, Rachael Anderson wandered into the Spirit of Faith church four years ago.

Not knowing what to expect or what she'd find, Anderson sat in a pew one Sunday morning, seeking support from a God she believed in but had never actively reached out to before.

Her best friend had just died, and Anderson was at a loss — she wasn't angry with God, she was just confused.

What she found in those church pews changed Anderson's life.

"Nobody ever said anything negative. People knew I was grieving and were welcoming and warm and open-hearted," Anderson said. "I wanted to go and see if I could find comfort and understanding, and I really think that's an important thing a lot of people go through — they don't care about their faith until something really tragic happens."

The life-changing experience Anderson had at Spirit of Faith in Woonsocket isn't uncommon.

But the situation leading to the formation of the church is.

The congregation is made up of three denominations — Evangelical Lutheran, United Methodist and Bethany Lutheran — that merged approximately one year ago to form the church. Since then, the congregation has raised more than $300,000, and it plans to build a new church facility to house their unified entity. Church leaders plan to get the first sketches of the proposed building next week.

Spirit of Faith Pastor Rhonda Wellsandt-Zell acknowledged the uniqueness of banding three denominations together — a feat she hasn't seen elsewhere. But for Woonsocket, it has worked well, and she hopes the new church will be the "center point" of the community.

To be that place, though, means ensuring everyone has access.

Much of the decision to build a new sanctuary is attributed to handicap accessibility, or lack thereof, in the current building. People confined to wheelchairs or with other disabilities are now forced to sit just outside of the worship area, near the door, which is uncomfortable and unsafe, Wellsandt-Zell said. The conditions drove some worshippers away.

Regardless, Spirit of Faith has grown in numbers, seeing anywhere between 40 and 100 people for Sunday services, and there simply isn't enough space to accommodate the growth.

"When we started changing things to start meeting the needs of the people, that's when we realized we had potential for so much more," she said. "We are, as Spirit of Faith, an umbrella, including everybody. We realized we had potential to do more with our lives if we were working collectively together."

A decision to live

For approximately 40 years, the three Sanborn County churches shared a pastor and services rotated weekly among the churches. Finally, in October 2016, the decision was made to make a permanent home in Woonsocket, in a building along Highway 34.

The change has worked out for the best, Wellsandt-Zell said, making scheduling simpler and consistent. But knowing the former churches will be demolished to make way for the new, Wellsandt-Zell admits there has been plenty of change for many patrons, especially for those who had attended one of the churches for their entire lives.

Thankfully, though, the support has been outstanding, she said.

"For people it has become this thing where it's more important to worship as the body of Christ than in a specific place or as a specific religion," Wellsandt-Zell said.

Maybe the most dramatic change, at least for Wellsandt-Zell, came nine years ago when she moved to South Dakota.

Previously, Wellsandt-Zell lived in Chicago and Kansas City and requested to do inner-city ministry, but she was assigned to South Dakota. She started in De Smet and eventually moved on to the Woonsocket area. For a woman accustomed to large cities, small town South Dakota was a shock, but Wellsandt-Zell believes she's right where she's supposed to be.

"When I first got there, they were really wondering if they could keep their doors open," she said. "I worked with them for three years and finally got to the point where I said, 'If we're going to die, we're going to die healthy. And if we're going to live, we're going to live healthy and boldly.' Once they made that decision to live, it took off."

Church officials hope to break ground on the new church in May and, hopefully, be completed by Spirit of Faith's anniversary Oct. 29.

Much of the construction and other work will be completed by members of the church, just adding to the "community pride" already infused in the congregation, Wellsandt-Zell said.

And when it's complete, the building will be open to the community for other events such as food drives and fundraisers. Spirit of Faith also plans to grow its outreach programs to entice young people to the church, a method already proven successful.

The congregation is made up of a large chunk of young people who have been essential in spreading the church's message, and they give Wellsandt-Zell hope for the future, knowing there will be a generation following hers interested in keeping the church alive.

"When we see the trend across the nation for churches to close frequently, we feel fortunate to be in a different place," she said. "They're continuing our work and that's exciting to see, but we know it's not just a destination you arrive at, this is something you have to keep working toward all the time."

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