Bishop William Dockery clearly remembers when sermons and worship services in Memorial Temple Christian Ministries were drowned out by gunshots from drive-by shootings. Parishioners viewed it as one of many signs that the area was deteriorating.
So to loosen the grip that drugs and crime had on the East Side community, the nondenominational congregation agreed in 1997 to sponsor a community center, and in the process, they gave the community their most valuable possession: a sanctuary.
The James A. Dockery Community Center, 800 Sycamore St., which will have a grand opening Friday, was built around the church's sanctuary. The center will serve residents in the Ellicott and Fillmore districts.
Dockery said the two-story center will offer an array of programs and services that will go a long way toward stabilizing and revitalizing the community.
But while that happens, the members of the church will worship out of a makeshift sanctuary.
Each Friday at 4 p.m., they work to convert one of the center's day-care rooms into their sanctuary. The room was formerly the church's sanctuary.
Four parishioners usually haul the child-size furniture and toys to the left side of the room and arrange chairs for the church's weekend services. The process, which takes about an hour, is reverted Sunday evening.
"When this is assembled, you can hardly tell it was a day care," Dockery said. "It looks like a real sanctuary."
The church began in 1962 at 485 Clinton St., in the three-bedroom apartment of its founding pastor, the Rev. James A. Dockery. A year later, the 30-member congregation purchased the former Alcoholics Anonymous building on Sycamore Street. That building became their sanctuary. By 1983, the church had 70 parishioners and was able to build a sanctuary next door at 800 Sycamore St.
But while the church flourished, the community surrounding it succumbed to drugs and crime.
"We were growing, as a church, spiritually and physically. We had outgrown our initial building. We saw 100 percent growth," he said. "At the same time that was happening, the opposite was going on in the community. Businesses began to fail and quality people moved away. With the drug trade, crime went up a great deal."
"It became increasingly noticeable that we needed to focus our attention on the community," Dockery said. "The community was deteriorating, and we had to do something to turn it around. People had given up on the community, but we needed to take a stand rather than relinquish it to crime."
Dockery, 56, a former Buffalo teacher, became pastor of the church in 1992. The center was named after his father, James, who was pastor until his death that same year.
A year after the younger Dockery inherited the congregation, he developed a vision for a community center that incorporated what he believed was necessary to bring about change in the decaying community: educational, job training, child care, computer training, drug abuse prevention, a housing initiative and other programs.
Ground was broken in March 1999 for the construction of the 2,300-square-foot building. Phase one of the construction was completed earlier this year.
"It's like a mall concept, one-stop shopping," he said. "People can get a lot of service in this one building."
The center started providing Head Start child care in May.
"The 24-hour day care is needed because it gives people on welfare the ability to be flexible in choosing jobs, and with the thrust to do away with welfare, it will serve the community advantageously," Dockery said.
Resident Tonya Manley, 38, agreed.
"There are a lot of single parents out here," she said. "The day care is needed because some parents work 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shifts. As a single parent, I know it can be difficult."
Manley's 5-year-old son, Walter Pouncey, was the first child enrolled in the program.
With the grand opening a week away, Dockery said bringing his vision of the center to reality was no easy task.
"It was such a financial struggle," he said. "Banks had given up on this area. No one felt it was worth investing in the inner city, especially through a small ministry. I went through a year with a lot of people saying, 'No.' "
The cost of the modern-Medieval designed building is in the ballpark of $1.6 million. Funding was done primarily by a loan from Key Bank. Colored green, maroon and tan, the building is attractive.
"It has began to bring life back in the community in terms of aesthetics," Dockery said. "For those who have stayed, it will give them hope that things can be turned around."
Lifelong resident of the area, Edward Holmes, 35, harbors a lot faith in the area and believes the community center could be the catalyst needed to revive the community.
"The center will have an impact, especially since it's church-affiliated," Holmes said. "It's already starting to change for the better. We've gotten rid of a lot of the drug dealers on the corners, and neighbors are starting to stick together."