New pastor impressed by church plans

Published 10:04 pm Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A new Suffolk pastor arrived with her husband in April to join the congregation of Oakland Christian United Church of Christ, which is in the midst of fundraising for major construction and renovation plans.

The Rev. Mary Anne Biggs has been the church’s pastor since June 1, filling the void left by the beloved Rev. Greg Ryan, who passed away from acute leukemia on May 31, 2017, at age 54.

Biggs earned her Master of Divinity at Chicago Theological Seminary in 2007. The Texas native spent her first 12 years as an ordained minister in Wisconsin. Her first six years were at Nekoosa United Church of Christ, and the second six were at First Congregation United Church of Christ in Eagle River. She admitted that part of the incentive in being a Virginia minister was escaping the cold.

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“On Easter Sunday this year in Eagle River, we had 16 inches of snow. I said I was going to attach a snow shovel to the front of my car, and the first place that I stop and somebody says ‘what is that,’ that’s where I’m going to end up,” she said, laughing.

The community has been accommodating as she’s learned about Peanut Fest and everything else Suffolk has to offer, and she’s appreciated the beauty in her new church with immense support from members like church administrator Connie Edwards, Director of Christian Education and Youth Ed Lilley and Director of Music Paul Putnam.

“One of the things that is a real blessing about this church is the music,” she said. “We have an inspired music director, a wonderful choir and outstanding staff. It’s dream church.”

The church has more than 300 enrolled members and has been a place of worship on Godwin Boulevard since 1872. Various local organizations like the Nansemond Beekeepers Association utilize the church space for regular meetings and special events. The church has been remodeled roughly half a dozen times, according to Biggs, and its next overhaul has been in the works for the past few years.

“I believe it was two years ago that a group of dedicated members decided that they would come up with an idea on how to improve it,” Biggs said. “They met every other week for two years, and during that time they developed their plan for what they’re calling a Family Life Center.”

The center will be a separate structure from the church, roughly 3,500 square feet in size, and will accommodate worship services with a larger fellowship hall than the church’s existing one. According to the latest presentation plan made by Design Management Services Inc., the center will be able to seat more than 280 people. It will also have sizable kitchen space fit for the church’s needs and ADA accessibility.

The plans have been approved by the city, Biggs said, and the church has been accepting donations since January. She said bidding for construction contracts will ideally begin in the fall, but both that and the plans are subject to change.

The second phase will focus on remodeling the sanctuary space and fellowship hall in the existing church, along with a complete conversion of the kitchen.

“They will be able to hold services in this family life center while the sanctuary is being remodeled, but that’s down the road,” Biggs said. “Right now, we’re going to get this built.”

She was impressed by the tenacity of the congregation in fundraising for these improvements, especially after the tragic loss of Ryan. It’s one of the reasons she was initially drawn to Oakland Christian UCC.

“Grief in a church is systemic. You are not only grieving the loss of the person, but you’re also grieving the loss and sudden lack of leadership,” she said. “That they made the decision to go ahead with this plan in a time of such flux showed me what kind of church they were. They were able to pull themselves together and go through with this, and that spoke volumes to me.”