WHEELING, W.Va. (BP)—Twenty-one years ago, Tom Rentfrow left a church in Heron, Va.—the fastest-growing church in its association—to begin a church in West Virginia.
He had heard God speak to him during a sermon on home missions and being willing to serve wherever God calls. Rentfrow was flabbergasted but was sure it was God leading, so he obeyed. He and his wife Helen and two other believers founded Abundant Life Baptist Church in the Wheeling-area community of Elm Grove.
The Rentfrows had been warned by family, friends and other pastors that most Elm Grove residents were Catholics and wouldn’t be responsive to a Baptist church.
“They told us it was a lost cause,” Helen Rentfrow said.
Indeed, the couple soon realized how difficult the situation was. In addition to the community’s overwhelmingly Catholic majority, other professing Christians already were involved in their own churches.
The Rentfrows had doors slammed in their faces. But they persevered, building bridges to active and nominal Catholics—and lasting friendships.
The most effective bridge has been Tom Rentfrow’s involvement in the pro-life movement. Shortly after arriving in Wheeling, Rentfrow, now president of West Virginia for Life’s local chapter, stood with the Catholic bishop in opposing abortion.
“He was genuinely a man of God who loved life and loved people. I was in his office praying with him. I heard his heart,” Rentfrow said.
At the urging of a nun, Rentfrow led Abundant Life Baptist Church to become a Gabriel Project church supporting women in crisis pregnancy situations and those who choose life.
God blessed Abundant Life. They moved to nearby Triadelphia and now have a membership of more than 200 and a thriving school. The church supports four missionaries and gives more than 10 percent of its receipts through the Cooperative Program.
God then began to lead the Rentfrows and Abundant Life to plant a new church in an old Catholic parish in Wheeling in the heart of an aging Polish community.
In 2002, the Rentfrows were prayerwalking in South Wheeling when they discovered the former St. Ladislaus Catholic Church on the corner of 45th and Eoff, founded in 1902. They stepped out on faith to make an offer of $35,000 and were amazed when the diocese accepted it.
They had no funds for mortgage payments but trusted God. Supervisors of a local Head Start program asked Helen if she had any ideas where they could rent a facility. She suggested the St. Ladislaus parish, which suited Head Start’s needs, and the rent provided the funds for the mortgage of the new plant, South Wheeling Chapel.
“It was like a miracle,” Helen said.
God showed His hand repeatedly in the new outreach. The owner of property across the street, formerly the site of a convent, donated the land to the church. He was so impressed with his dealings with the Rentfrows that he went on to help the church get natural gas rights there for additional revenue.
But while God was opening doors, the community wasn’t falling over itself to run through them.
St. Ladislaus, affectionately known as “St. Lad’s,” was the oldest Polish church in West Virginia, where immigrants and their descendants attended Polish mass and where generations were baptized, married and given last rites.
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