WESTERLY — As a minister Mark Benson knows there are times when what is called for is perseverance toward a goal, even when it seems unattainable or the path strewn with obstacles. He says the story of the Joy Fellowship Church in Bradford, where he serves as pastor, is an example.
About 14 years ago, shortly after Benson became a minister, he said he became convinced that his congregation belonged on Bowling Lane. The only trouble was the only church building on the street was the still active but fading Niantic Baptist Church, an American Baptist church. The Joy Fellowship is affiliated with the Assembly of God.
"We planted this 14 years ago, but this building wasn't available, but we always knew this is where we would be," Benson said in a recent interview while sitting in the sanctuary of what is now the Joy Fellowship at 17 Bowling Lane.
From those days of uncertainty, the Joy Fellowship has grown to a congregation of about 125 and has more than doubled the physical size of its building. The building is open seven nights per week for music, prayer, and substance-abuse recovery activities, and the congregation recently moved its bustling food pantry to a new location a few doors down from the church.
"We're growing like crazy. Everything has changed radically," Benson said.
In need of a home, Joy Fellowship first started meeting at the former Bradford Elementary School and then moved to a less-than-ideal location in the downtown area on Railroad Avenue next to Danny's Bar.
"It got hard, especially on Friday nights for our youth group," Benson said.
The congregation, Benson said, slowly started to dwindle, giving him moments of doubt.
"I had been praying personally — where we were on Railroad Avenue — we were really getting small again and I was even questioning whether we would remain a church. It kind of dwindled down for no reason. I prayed and felt that what the Lord had for us was still alive," Benson said.
Then Benson, despite barely being able to afford it, attended an Assembly of God conference. While there, a fellow minister read a Bible passage during a breakout session that Benson said provided further reassurance that he and his congregation should be on Bowling Lane.
Eventually Benson learned that Niantic Baptist Church planned to close its doors for good, and soon after he entered into talks to buy the building. The talks started even though Benson's church had no money for the transaction and no plans for a fundraising campaign.
"Literally, for us at the time, we were a church of 20 people and we had no finances whatsoever," Benson said.
When Benson met with officials from the Niantic Baptist Church and American Baptist Church, he essentially asked them to make the same leap of faith that he was making.
"I would tell them, 'We have no money but I believe I have word from God.' They were gracious," Benson said.
According to Benson, his congregation came up with funds along the way and then unsolicited, perfectly timed donations arrived just as promised payments to American Baptist Church came due. Eventually, the Joy Fellowship completed the transaction and bought the building.
Since acquiring its new home about nine years ago, Joy Fellowship has renovated and expanded the building from its original footprint of less than 3,000 square feet to its current 10,000 square feet. The property also needed a septic system because it had previously been connected to the Bradford Dye Association system.
An engineer for the renovation and expansion donated most of his time and the architect donated his time. Members of the congregation did most of the work, and former Dunn's Corners Fire Chief Michael Frink represented the church in its talks with state fire officials before the building was deemed compliant with contemporary building code requirements.
In late 2020, the church opened a food pantry in its basement. The response and need has been so steady that the pantry was recently moved to the community center building at 70 Bowling Lane which the church was given by Origen Property Investment, a company that acquired several duplexes on the street in 2013. Westerly Hospital and the Westerly-based Kimball Foundation have been particularly strong supporters of the food pantry, Benson said.
Benson said the property investment company gave the building to the church when one of its officials witnessed efforts the church was making on the street, especially participation in a neighborhood clean-up that saw the church help coordinate several trips to the transfer station.
"He was perplexed with me and said, 'Why are you guys here?' I said because our vision was always to be part of the community. We don't want to be an organization where people come in every week on Sunday. My vision is that this building will be open every night of the week, and it is now," Benson said.