Emmaus Mennonite Church celebrates new building

WHITEWATER — In the old Emmaus Mennonite Church, the kids knew exactly where to find the Candy Man.

He'd be down in the basement, holding a bag of candy, grinning behind his bushy white beard and wearing a tie decorated with M&M's.

For a handshake, the kids knew, they could have a peppermint or a strawberry-filled bon bon.

But in the giant new Emmaus Mennonite Church in Whitewater, Candy Man Herman Miller, 74, was a little worried his tiny fans wouldn't find him.

"They'll really have to look for me in here," he said.

"It won't take them long to find you," assured fellow church member Myrial Wiebe.

Miller was among the hundreds of congregants attending the first official service in the new Emmaus church on Sunday.

The former church — where Miller was married and raised five children — burned down late one night in January 2008, leaving little but the charred frames of metal chairs and generations worth of memories.

The original church was built in 1927, and until the fire it served about 500 worshipers in the farming community about 20 miles northeast of Wichita.

Generations of Busenitzes and Wiebes and Entzes were raised in the church, where services were performed partly in German until the 1950s.

The cause of the fire was never determined — it burned too hot to leave many clues, members said.

But its congregants got to work rebuilding. They chose a new site and raised $4 million of the $6.5 million it would take to build the new church. (Insurance covered the rest.) At 41,000 square feet, the new church has 13,000 square feet more than the old one.

The members banded together for fundraising, architectural planning and manual labor. The builders gave the church a price break because members agreed to clean up and clear the construction site each night.

During the two years it took to build, members met on Sundays in the cramped quarters of the nearby Berean Academy, a less-than-ideal setup.

On Sunday, as church members began pouring into the bright new church — a sprawling one-story building that's still getting finishing touches — they spoke of missing the old church but being ready to move forward.

"This is a family," said Diane Busenitz, whose husband, Dwight, grew up in the church. "And now we have a home."

The pews in the church were full when pastor Steve Scott began the service.

"Do you think you can get used to the place?" he asked the congregation, receiving a round of applause.

He then awarded a prize — an Applebee's gift certificate — to the church member who just after the fire correctly guessed the day the new church would be up and running: May 30, 2010.

Shari Regier accepted her prize at the front of the church, laughing bashfully.

"I'm clueless because I forgot all about what I put down," she said.

"I never heard of a clueless prophet before," Scott said.

LeRoy Penner, a lifelong church member whose late father, Rudi, was known for his tenor voice in the church choir, said it would take members a while to get used to the fancy new building, which includes several meeting rooms for Sunday school classes, a nursery and high-tech touches such as motion lights and a sound board in the main sanctuary.

But the old church was in need of remodeling, he said, and the new building will serve generations to come.

"It's nice," he said. "It's too bad we had to go through a fire to get it."