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Cortland pastor aims to build new congregation in cherished church building

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An older woman with a sling on her arm tries to figure out what kind of fruit lies before her.

“Are they Japanese pears?’ she asked.

“I think they are because they kind of feel like the texture,” she said.

She’s among a handful of people selecting fresh produce and other grocery items at the food distribution held at the Cortland Community Church.

Among them is a 20-something year-old woman.

She said the pantry is a great help for her family since her finances are tight. She hasn’t been working in order to take care of her two-year old son and avoid the expense of daycare.

“So, it's like just try to get by with what we can for now and we'll be good,” she said.

The food pantry is just one of the ways that Pastor Janthina Besinaiz envisions a church serving the area.

“Church is a place that we come together as a community,” Besinaiz said. “Obviously, we worship God, and we praise Him, but it's also a place to find resources.”

The former Methodist church is the oldest building in town and has been empty for nearly two years.

Built in 1862, the church is an old-style wood frame building with a large stained-glass window of a towering blonde-haired Jesus.

And while the structure is in place, she’s working on planting a church in - well, the church.

She said it all started with a request for a Bible study.

“They called me up and they said, ‘I need to learn more about the Book of Revelations’ which was a tall order,” she said.

That led to forming a women’s Bible study.

“And then from there they were like, ‘Hey, there's this church building in town,’” she recalled. “And the whole town is in an uproar, because they want to commercialize the building.”

She said older residents brought her books and pictures of the congregation during the 70’s when the church was the center of the town’s activities.

“They want that piece of history to remain here in this community,” she said.

The owner and developer of the building, Brian Blazyk, has built several homes in the area. He said seeing the community’s response to the plans for rezoning the former church was eye opening.

“It was at the 11th hour that we decided to forego any further zoning request because we felt we found its purpose,” Blazyk said.

The next step was for Pastor Janthina to solicit the commitment from the townspeople as she embarked on building the church up again from scratch.

“And I just basically told the community, ‘Listen, you guys wanted to church, we're gonna give you a church, but you guys have to come out and support the church, because the church is a body of members,” she said. “It is not a building.”

In addition to the food pantry, she plans on opening the church space to host English classes and beginner computer classes.

“These residents keep coming to me, and they're like, ‘Hey, we need this, we need that,’” she said. “And I'm like, ‘Okay, let's make it happen.’”

One of the church’s major supporters is Joelle Morken, a local realtor who sits on the town’s zoning committee.

She has a ‘make it happen’ attitude and is among the volunteers breaking down boxes at the food pantry. She connected the pastor and developer.

She said the pastor like the church doesn’t fit the norm.

“She's younger, she's female,” Morken said. “That's not traditional for church.”
Besinaiz stands near the entrance and greets folks in English and Spanish with a “God bless you” as they enter the church.

As she works on growing the congregation, Pastor Janthina ministers at Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana de Elgin.

“If you're called by God to lead, you're called by God,” she said. “I don't think your race, or your age or your sex, or any of that, matters.”

Besinaiz said the support of the developer allows her the time to grow the congregation.

Morken agreed.

“Brian's been more than generous,” Morken said, “by letting us be in here and, but you know we definitely need to contribute.”

The developer is covering the rent and utility bills until the church gets a steady flow of people giving tithes or contributions to the church.

In the meantime, the church hosts occasional vendor fairs to raise funds towards expenses.

The developer said offering this space to build a congregation is a win-win.

“The community wanted to keep the peaceful residential area the way it was,” he said, “and we were lucky to be the ones to help them with that.”

Besinaiz said she also has the support of her pastor and the American Baptist Churches of The Great River Region.

This month she starts weekly Bible studies – Tuesdays in Spanish and Thursdays in English at 7 pm. The aim is to build enough interest to eventually hold services on Sundays and make the building a church once again.

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A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.