For thirty plus years Martin Vala rode his bicycle back and forth to the Chemistry Department at UF and usually varied his route so that he passed by the University Lutheran Church, our home church.
Martin and I had joined the church in self-defense in the nineteen seventies when our oldest son became intensely inspired by Martin Luther King’s legacy. One of his playmates invited Lars to vacation Bible school at another church, but since we both had grown up in the Lutheran Church we felt a need to reconnect with our familiar faith community. But that is another story.
On one of Martin’s paths to work he passed by a dilapidated old southern home that appeared in great need of a loving caretaker, and over a period of time in the late nineties Martin had successfully established contact with a student tenant who did his best to share what information he had about his landlord.
At that time our church had grown and parking had become a headache on Sundays. Various ideas had circled in our church community about how to expand not just membership but also facilities and then our current Pastor Saarela announced his retirement.
So not only were we looking to find a new pastor but also a means of increasing our footprint as a church community among many denominations surrounding the university. University Lutheran Church was blessed with a large active Student membership; Lutheran Gators was an important part of our Campus Ministry, and our dream was to enhance the opportunity for ULC to serve that important part of our mission.
So began Martin’s affair – as I called it. He was relentless in his gentle manner as he was eventually able to connect with the widowed owner of the House at 1902 NW 1st Avenue. It turned out that UF also had had its tentacles out, as had realtor companies since the house was located in the heart of the “student ghetto”. It was a prime location for an investor. But Martin’s vision for the property as a student center – a property which had not been listed as a potential sale anywhere – became a major incentive for the owner to sell. She loved the idea of her former home as a harbor of peace and comfort for students of faith. She had lived in the home with her family while her husband was a professor at UF. She had since moved away from town and had a difficult time keeping up the property. But she had resisted selling it to be torn down for a new large neutral structure, she reported.
Our church had never been affluent, so it required brave congregational courage and serious planning as well as a benevolent bank, Merchant & Southern Bank for us to arrive at a financial transaction. The whole event around the acquisition developed into a dance of grace and diplomacy.
I did not envision the love affair Martin would develop with the project as he gradually became increasingly involved with the restoration of the 1902 House as it became known.
Thus, the work began.
The brush was cleared to make room for the many tasks and many church members assisted in the beautification of the house. While Martin was not licensed in anything other that physical chemistry, one of ULC’s most faithful members, Roger Murgatroyd, was a licensed electrician. He and Martin became the major forces in the renovation project.
For an entire year Martin left work at 4pm and spent 2-3 hours on a daily basis and multiple other week-end hours tearing down, measuring, cutting, sawing, constructing, sanding and refinishing while Roger rewired and replaced fixtures with Martin’s help.
The plan was to make the place attractive for out-of-town Lutheran students to rent a room in the upstairs while the downstairs would serve as a student activity center. The labor of love was completed, and the house “rose out of the ashes “and was inhabitable again in 2003. Many students have called it home over the years – not just Lutherans but all with a professed Faith connection.
Individual rooms are rented out on an annual basis. The shared bathrooms and kitchen and living areas are currently used by the student tenants while Campus Ministry wide activities are taking place in the Kaiser Center.
Recently the City of Gainesville has completed a beautification project of the whole area surrounding our church and 1902 House which has left the front property in less that desirable condition but with the ever-loving attention from our church community we trust that the grounds will improve.