At 55, James Mileti says he is somewhat old to be starting a new job. However, he is not the least bit afraid of the challenge, one he admits will not be easy.
The newly minted River Westlake Baptist Church is taking over what appears from the outside to be a home at 22965 Detroit Road, precisely on the border of Westlake and Rocky River. A sign in front of the church takes note of the Rocky River border.
At 11 a.m. Sunday, Mileti will preside over the first service for a new congregation in what could be said to be a new church.
“I can’t wait,” Mileti said.
If the building appears to be a home from the outside, the interior cannot be mistaken for anything but a church. Rows of well-polished pews have room for about 70 people. What Mileti referred to as a small, makeshift pulpit is in the front of the church. There is a choir loft in the rear.
Until the past month or so, the church was home to the congregation of St. Peregrine Catholic Church, Mileti said. He added the first thing he had to do in terms of revamping the church was to remove several statues of the Virgin Mary common in Catholic churches.
When a visitor asks if the small booth-like structure at the rear of the church is a confessional, Mileti states with a laugh that it is now a coat room.
More than a century ago, the church first served as home to a Methodist congregation. It later became a Lutheran church. The congregation of St. Peregrine arrived in 1983. That church relocated to Richfield for reasons of which he is unaware, Mileti said.
The opening of River Westlake Baptist marks Mileti’s first turn at being a pastor. He is a graduate of Heritage Baptist Institute in Brooklyn, Ohio. Mileti studied there for four years. He is somewhat worried people will think he is not ready to be a pastor, but states he graduated from the Baptist institute in 2019. He has spent the time since filling in for pastors and preaching at Baptist churches around the area.
But, Mileti said he always had thoughts of being a pastor. He saw his opportunity when St. Peregrine decided to move and put its building up for sale.
“So, in the middle of a pandemic, in the midst of riots and unrest, I decide to buy a church,” Mileti said.
To make that purchase feasible, Mileti took a leap of faith and put something up for sale himself, namely his home in Lakewood. He admitted that talking to his wife, Rebecca, on the subject made him nervous.
“But she was right on board from the first,” Mileti said.
He declined to talk about the cost of the church building or its renovations, many of which he undertook himself. The leaders of St. Peregrine took at least some of the church fixtures with them to Richfield.
For the future, Mileti hopes to revamp the pulpit, among other improvements. A small electric keyboard will serve as the congregation’s musical accompaniment for now. Mileti hopes to replace it with a real piano.
The new pastor assumes his initial congregation will be a small one. In addition to the church being new, the coronavirus pandemic may affect attendance, Mileti said.
During the first service, the issue of wearing masks or face coverings will be left to individual visitors. Attendance at the new church's first service should be small enough worshipers will be social distancing by default, Mileti said.
The new pastor expressed confidence his congregation will grow as he strongly believes Baptists in Rocky River and Westlake are underserved. Between the two cities there is a population of roughly 77,000 people, he said.
An internet search shows only one Baptist church in Westlake and none in Rocky River.
Last week, Mileti said he already was at work on his first sermon as pastor of River Westlake. His topic will likely include the tough times in which we all find ourselves.
Mileti clearly enjoys talking about his new endeavor, but adds the story is “pretty simple and straightforward.”
“It will all work out in the end,” he said. “I know it will.”
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