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As Bloomington memorializes City of Refuge's humble beginnings, the church is on the move again

 A beige building with maroon double doors stands next to a sign that reads "Christ Fellowship. Pastor Marlon Webb." Train tracks cut diagonally through a gravel parking lot. A freight train passes by.
Lauren Warnecke
The City of Refuge Church, founded by Andrew and Colleen Bennett, was located at 1313 W. Taylor St. in west Bloomington for three decades. A resolution approved by the City of Bloomington has designated the 1300 block of West Taylor as Bennett Family Boulevard, honoring the family's contributions to the community.

The 1300 block of West Taylor Street is now Bennett Family Boulevard, thanks to a resolution adopted by the city of Bloomington at a June 26 council meeting. Congregants from the City of Refuge Ministries petitioned for the honorary designation to celebrate the church Andrew and Colleen Bennett started in 1976 on Bloomington's west side.

City of Refuge calls itself a “church on the move.” Indeed, the church has changed locations several times through the years. But for decades, the church called a non-descript, 4,800-square-foot building at 1313 W. Taylor home. The Bennetts used to joke about its location next to the railroad tracks — which today is Christ Fellowship Church — saying God was passing by when a rumbling freight train interrupted a sermon.

Senior pastor William Bennett sees the street marker as a reminder of City of Refuge’s humble beginnings.

“It’s a very memorable place for us,” he said. “It’s where I spent my childhood growing up in church and learning about the Gospel, learning about loving our neighbors and the outreach that we do. It’s where I’ve seen my father and my mother teach me what I do now: how to serve.”

Colleen and Andrew Bennett built their church on second chances, having experienced hardship, drug addiction and resorting to crime to get by.

“When my father knew God wanted him to start a ministry in this city... he felt God was telling him to call it City of Refuge,” said William Bennett. “That’s who we are. At the heart of our ministry, we want to be a refuge for the broken, for the hurting. Our congregation is made up of a lot of people who felt like they were outcasts.”

Colleen Bennett was the first woman and first African American to serve as McLean County Inmate Chaplain and has worked in prison ministry for four decades.

“My mother is an awesome woman,” Bennett said. “I admire her greatly and all the work that she’s put in for this community.”

Colleen Bennett led the church for four years, following her husband's death in 2003; their sons William and Andrew, Jr. took the reins in 2007 as membership ballooned to more than 200 congregants.

'On the move' again

Bursting at the seams, City of Refuge quintupled its space by moving to a 19th century church at 401 E. Jefferson St. in downtown Bloomington. That was 2012, and the church is preparing to move again.

 A man stands in front of a purple-carpeted altar, smiling at the camera. There is a pulpit that reads City of Refuge Ministries, founded 1976, and a Pearl drum kit and amplifiers behind him.
Lauren Warnecke
Senior pastor William Bennett (pictured) assumed leadership of City of Refuge Ministries in 2007. The congregation is preparing to move from their current location in an 19th century church to a modern, accessible building.

“This building has been great for us, but it’s also an older building,” William Bennett said. “We would find ourselves year after year pouring money into renovations and remodeling.”

Upkeep of the 1888 building pulled resources away from the community outreach programs key to their mission. And while a ramped side-entrance leads to the purple-carpeted sanctuary, the church’s fellowship spaces are only accessible by stairs. Bennett predicted it would take a multi-million dollar investment to retrofit the building to their needs and install an elevator.

Negotiations on the sale of the new building are ongoing, so Bennett cannot yet reveal the address, but he said they expect to be moved into the modern 30,000-square-foot facility — with an elevator — by September. The church at 401 E. Jefferson St. will be demolished to make way for additional housing downtown.

While some parishioners are sad the church will be torn down, they are excited about the future, said Bennett.

“We are a growing church. We are an excited congregation. While we’re moving, our goal stays the same: We’re here to serve the community,” he said.

The congregation has been central to the decision-making process. Bennett frequently consulted parishioners, asking what programs and initiatives they hope to see in the new space.

“While I’m the pastor of the church, I’m not the head of the church,” Bennett said. “Christ is the head of the church. It’s not important for me to like where we’re going; it’s important for those who are a part of this ministry to like where we’re going. At the heart of it, we believe people will come. The reason we believe that is because we’re not going to wait for them to come to us. We’re going to go to them.”

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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