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Renovatus church opens in Eastland Mall

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Eastland Mall is a shell of its former self.

Once a shopping destination for the entire state, with an indoor ice skating rink and large retail establishments like Belk, Sears and Dillard's, the mall is now filled with empty storefronts and "For Lease" signs -- leaving shoppers few options.

But now, you can find God in the mall.

Renovatus (which is Latin for "renovation"), a church that says it's for people under renovation, has made Eastland Mall its home.

The pastor of the non-denominational church, Jonathan Martin, said he and the other leaders of the church knew of Eastland's reputation as a dying mall on a "dangerous" side of town. But that's part of what spurred them to move there, taking up residence in the mall's now-defunct movie theater.

Martin and his parishioners held their first service in Eastland on Oct. 25, just days after an open house that introduced the new ministry to the community.

With its choice of location, Renovatus is proving to be a different kind of church. But for the pastor and his flock, this is what they are supposed to do.

"Eastland kept coming back to us," said Martin. "We want to see a move of God in this city that comes from the margins. We want to see God do something miraculous at Eastland that could only be possible by the Holy Spirit. We want to see God alter the landscape, the upside-down Kingdom coming in such a way -- and such a place -- as to shock, bewilder and amaze Charlotte."

According to Martin, over the last three years, Renovatus was mobile. The congregation would meet at Elizabeth Traditional School on Sundays, putting up and taking down their worship area every week.

"What we came to love about the Plaza-Midwood area became true about this part of the city," Martin said, and added that his 350-member church wanted to reach a diverse group of people. And you don't get much more diverse than east Charlotte.

Still, you've got to wonder, "Why Eastland?" -- which is situated in an area that, in 2007, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory even called "corridors of crap."

"We know the [mall's] reputation is bad, but this church is for liars, dreamers and misfits. This mall has been forgotten, dismissed and overlooked," said Martin. "Our goal in coming here is to serve the people in the mall. We would love to unleash people on the food court. We're hoping to bring some life back to this property."

When Eastland was built more than 30 years ago, it was the largest mall in North Carolina. But in the 1990s, the mall began a slow decline and the changing economic demographic of east Charlotte continued to add to the death spiral.

These days, since business hours have been cut, the mall is only open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; management seems nonexistent; and according to an Oct. 9 article in the Charlotte Business Journal, Glimcher Realty Trust, the "real estate investment trust that owned Eastland Mall has handed the property back to its lender," stating that "it would no longer 'fund any further cash deficits at the property.'"

In 2007, a study -- which the city commissioned by the Urban Land Institute -- suggested that Eastland Mall should be turned into a mixed-used development with retail and housing.

City officials, however, have yet to start on those plans.

Martin and many of the leaders of his church live in east Charlotte, and they don't want to see Eastland destroyed. "We don't want to see this become another Ballantyne," he said. "And we love Ballantyne, God bless it."

Inside the church, the lobby offers coffee and a cozy seating area. The former cinema's three screening spaces have been transformed; the largest one is the sanctuary of the church. Next door, a nursery has been constructed, and the final theater is still outfitted to show movies. Martin hopes to screen free family films there so that people in the community can come to the mall and have an affordable day out. And after watching a flick, perhaps visitors will do some shopping.

Martin said that by showing up in the mall, the church is building relationships, and next year, Renovatus plans to connect with an east Charlotte neighborhood to do charity work.

"Our church has a strong emphasis for justice and mercy," Martin said, quickly adding that he and his members don't think they're in the mall to save the day.

Other tenants in the mall, however, think someone needs to save Eastland.

"No one has expressed a vision for this mall. If it's tear it down, then let's do that. If it's revitalize it, then let's do that and move on," said James Muhammad, owner of Dynasty Book Store.

Is the church the answer? Maybe, maybe not.

As far as Martin is concerned, people shouldn't give up on Eastland. "In some ways," he said, "I wonder if the mall's best days aren't ahead."

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