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Bloomington's Hope Church is seeking a new home after fire inspection deems it unsafe

Exterior of Hope Church building in Bloomington
Google Maps
Hope Church has occupied its current space in Bloomington since 2018.

For the nearly five years Hope Church has split space with Regions Bank at 1304 E. Empire Street in Bloomington, there has been a running play-on-words to describe the commercial building where congregants worshiped: A "banktuary," if you will.

In a setting that wasn't designed for religious gatherings, the members of Hope Church have gathered Sunday after Sunday, online and in-person, and made the space uniquely their own. Some of the floor-to-ceiling windows bore the first word of the church, Hope, a message to passersby and attendees of what they would find inside.

All of that is set to come to an end by June 30, as a recent fire inspection by the City of Bloomington determined the former McLean County Bank Building is not suitable for church occupancy unless its owner installs a costly fire sprinkler system.

It is a development that has surprised both the building's landlord, Mike Talkington, and Hope Church's pastor, Jennie Edwards Bertrand.

"When he told us, he cried. He sat with my administrative assistant and they both cried about the situation because this has been such a beautiful space," Bertrand said in an interview. "We repurposed something in Bloomington that had sat empty and vacant — and with our signs of 'Hope,' even people who will never go to church indicated that it's a reminder to keep hope alive. It feels really sad."

Hope Church has occupied its current space since 2018; Bertrand said there have been regular city code enforcement inspections ever since.

"From 2018 to 2022, we were great," she said.

This year, an inspection determined that, if the so-called "banktuary" Hope Church uses on Sundays were to remain a gathering space, a sprinkler system would need to be installed to keep the building in compliance with city code.

The seemingly sudden change has left Bertrand and the church's members wondering why, just now, this has become an issue.

Drag queen Kaelin performs
Lyndsay Jones
WGLT file
Drag queen Kaelin performs at an outdoor brunch drag show at Hope Church in June 2022.

LGBTQ+ affirming church

Hope Church has been emphatically supportive and affirming of its LGBTQ+ members and has, on multiple occasions, hosted worship services led by drag artists.

Praised by some, including members who said they have finally found a church home, these decisions have also prompted outcry from members of the Bloomington-Normal community and beyond.

That's led Bertrand to wonder if someone made a complaint or allegation against the church to the city — although there's not definitive proof.

"Given the daily mail — emails and sometimes through the mail — the hate mail that I receive, we have to wonder that each time," Bertrand said.

City Manager Tim Gleason denied that any complaints had triggered the city's inspection.

"It's a regular (fire) inspection that the city was conducting," he said. "COVID impacted some of the inspections that we were doing. So that's why you have this kind of window that you're seeing between an inspection and ... 'Now why is there a problem?'"

In an email, Gleason explained that, in 2020, the City adopted both the International Building Code and the International Fire Code of 2018, hence the new need for a sprinkler system. The cost for that system is estimated to be around $2 million.

"We have offered the building owner options that may be less costly but still protect attendees but ultimately respect that the decision as to how or if to address these life safety issues are up to the private property owner," Gleason said in an email Monday. "Inquiries related to the building at 1304 E Empire St., or tenants of the building, should be made to the property owner."

Mike Talkington did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

McLean County property records show the building Hope Church occupies is zoned as "improved commercial"; Bertrand suggested any concerns over how many people gather at the church each Sunday do not reflect the reality.

"Our in-person worship attendance is separated by two services. We put up as many chairs as we do because after the pandemic, people wanted to sit further apart from each other," Bertrand said. "So our total, average weekly attendance, is under 100, at this point, divided by two services. So we've been 49, or under in each service."

Bertrand said during the COVID era of church services, they had at least one online service drawn more than 200 attendees — but that wasn't people in the building, she said, but a combination of the few there and the rest, the majority, being online church-goers.

"Safety of my people is really important. So it's not that I don't appreciate inspections — I do," Bertrand said. "And I understand they found code or a zoning ordinance and that's been imposed at this point — that's not my question. My question is: 'What is unsafe about what is currently happening in this space?'"

Gleason has declined to meet with Bertrand or other church officials, calling such a move "inappropriate" when the City's relationship is with the landlord.

"I'm sympathetic, but I feel it would be inappropriate for me to share details of the conversations with the tenant," he said in an interview.

Gleason also noted Hope Church could stay in its current location if the city's requested changes were made to the property. Again, he said, those changes are in the hands of the property owner.

"The inspection produced 'You shall do X, Y, and Z if it's going to be occupied in this manner,' And the decision is a financial one, I am told, and I understand that, and it's unfortunate for Hope Church," he said.

Looking for a new home

Bertrand said she was initially heartened by the prospect of a new location at Eastland Mall — the church, after all, "isn't a building," but "that's easy to say when you have a building" — because it seemed like the situation would quickly sort itself out, despite the initial pain.

Then, she said, she got a call from CBL Properties, the mall's owner, who said they had found a provision in a lease agreement with another mall tenant that prohibited CBL from leasing space at Eastland Mall to religious organizations.

"We were looking forward to welcoming HOPE Church to Eastland Mall," spokesperson Stacey Keating confirmed in an email. "However, as we were moving through our deal approval process, it came to our attention that certain lease agreements in place at the property contain use restrictions that we are required to adhere to. Unfortunately, as a result, we were unable to move forward."

That's left Hope Church once again considering its options in a tight real estate market with a deadline looming ever-closer.

For a church whose mission was to give home to people who have literally been forced out of other churches, their own homes or their own families for who they are, the situation is especially painful, no matter how black-and-white city code may make it.

"To not have a choice to be removed from our the home of our faith community is a reminder, at the very least, of those times when people were kicked out of previous homes," Bertrand said. "It has kicked up emotions and I've invested time in pastoral care and showing love — but it's it's been really painful, to be honest with you, and we will grieve leaving this place."

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.