In a former life, the storefront at 212 N. Main Street in Coopersburg, Pa., served Italian food and alcoholic drinks to patrons. Now it is dispensing the bread of life and living water to all who come.
The site, formerly known as Ecco Domani Restaurant and Bar (the name is a brand of Italian wine), is now the home of Family Life Fellowship, a young but growing Grace Brethren congregation that has just relocated from meeting in a baseball stadium at Limeport, Pa., about 10 minutes away.
Dick and Rose Keller lead the Family Life Fellowship group, and he is quick to talk enthusiastically about his church planting experience, which he calls a “roller coaster ride.”
The Family Life group, which meets in the Allentown/Bethlehem area of eastern Pennsylvania, is rooted in the Souderton, Pa., Grace Brethren congregation pastored by Bob Greenwood. Admittedly, it got off to a rocky start. Keller had been one of three elders helping begin the church and in 2006 he became the lead pastor. As he describes it, “The church went through difficult times, but God smoothed it out.”
After a few years of meeting in a sufficient but unlikely location (a baseball stadium) in the tiny hamlet of Limeport, the group relocated this past December to Coopersburg, which gives them a much more heavily-trafficked area and visible location.
Keller explains that the group had negotiated with the restaurant’s owner a year earlier about leasing the facility, but the price was just too high for the fledgling group. Then, while Kellers were eating out one day, Julio and Al, the owners of the building, approached them and asked, “Did you ever find a place to meet?”
A previous lessee had fallen through and so the Limeport group was able to lease the 1,800 square foot facility, along with 1.5 acres of land, at a very favorable rate. The building’s basement is being converted into a youth room and the large commercial kitchen is being subdivided into several usable rooms. The bar area has now become a comfortable and inviting cafe where the congregation and visitors enjoy coffee and pastries between church and Sunday School.
Church planter Keller is quick to give credit to nearby Grace Brethren pastors who have been supportive and have helped the Family Life group get going. A native of Telford, Pa., Keller himself was encouraged into the ministry through Telford’s Penn Valley Church, a Grace Brethren congregation pastored by Tim Boal.
The Kellers became close friends with Peter and Julie Smith at Penn Valley. When the Smiths planted what is now Hope Valley Community Church, a Grace Brethren congregation in Red Hill, Pa., the Kellers moved to Pennsburg to be part of that ministry. Smith and Pastor Kenn Cosgrove were instrumental in preparing Keller for licensure, and the Kellers were part of the Hope Valley congregation for about eight years.
Now Keller, his wife Rose, and their two sons, Timothy (17) and Jonathan (11), are leading the Coopersburg group in what Keller calls “an exciting new adventure.”
The nearby Lehigh Valley Grace Brethren Church of Bethlehem, Pa., led by Pastor Larry Humberd, has been an encouraging “sister congregation” to the Coopersburg group. Since they are only about 20 minutes apart, the churches join for Fourth of July picnics and other ministry ventures.
“Dick is really doing a great job,” Pastor Humberd says. “He has remained faithful, and he has led with love.” About Keller’s wife, Rose, Humberd adds, “Rose is a real dynamite support for Dick–they make a great team.” The Kellers have been married since 1989 and Rose works in administration for the local school district.
Grace Brethren International Missions‘ Jay Bell and his wife, Jan, have also been friends and supporters of the Kellers. Bell remarked, “Dick Keller is soldiering a second time around. As a young man he spent a tour of duty in Vietnam where he was disabled with a debilitating eye disease. Now he is a soldier of Christ. Dick and Rose love God and love people. What a joy is was for Jan and me to help them get their ESL ministry off the ground.”
Part of the reason Keller is excited about growth prospects is the new facility. “Now we are visible,” he exclaims. “In the stadium, people just couldn’t find us.” He says that churches, like any real estate investment, should be concerned with “location, location, location.”
Coopersburg, with a population of about 2,500 (1,000 households at last census), is an historic community which was settled in 1730 and is named for a former local judge. Located in the southern Lehigh Valley, it is easily accessible from Philadelphia to the south and Allentown and Bethlehem to the northeast. Current Sunday morning attendance averages about 45.
When asked how other churches and Grace Brethren people can pray for the Coopersburg group, Keller said, “Pray that we will take advantage of open doors. The church is excited and wants to reach out to the community.” A recent outreach planning meeting will result in the church’s involvement in the Relay for Life cancer fundraisers and in the Coopersburg Community Day celebration in September, which draws about 10,000 people.
“We want people to know that we’re part of Coopersburg now,” Keller says enthusiastically.
He also asks prayer for the financial structure of the church. Since he is legally blind Keller himself receives some disability income, but he asks prayer that offerings will be generous and that families in the church will experience full and good employment.