God calls him Richard. When God speaks to him, says Pastor J. Richard Greene, he uses the formal construction. Just like a parent, trying to make a child obey.
"Richard, you build a kingdom, and I'll build an ark," God had said, night after fitful night in the spring of 1974. Greene understood this perplexing bargain: If he would bring people to God, God would persuade them to use their money and skill to build an ark. For a quarter of a century, Richard has tried to obey.Greene is 61. He lives in this small town two hours west of Washington. He steers an old donated Ford sedan from his modest white house to the rectangular metal building that serves as his church. Behind it, three stories of rust-colored steel beams - the skeleton of his long-awaited ark - are rising from the top of a leafy green ridge. He taps the steering wheel and laughs. This is how he feels when he sees the ark's skeleton:
The Bible isn't clear on how long it took Noah to build his ark, but it does say he was 600 years old when the flood came. So far, it has taken Greene 24 years to erect a steel superstructure. God is long-suffering, the Bible says. He has time enough.
In 1974, when the vision was clear and fresh, Greene thought the ark-shaped church would be up in five years, tops. He was sure that, by now, thousands of people would have flocked to the jaw-dropping structure, built upon ground where miracle healings had taken place. The rest of his life would be about saving souls in his beautiful ark, not struggling to get the thing built.
Back then, Greene was a younger man with some occasional back pain, strong in the Lord, though viewed as a little odd even by the churchgoing folk of this Western Maryland town.
Now, Greene's body feels older than his razor-smooth face looks. A bad back is the least of his problems, compared with his heart. Maybe it's God's will that the ark has taken so long. Perhaps it will never be finished. Maybe God chose the wrong man. Or maybe it wasn't God speaking at all.
God gave Noah plenty of time to build his ark.
What about Greene?
This ark is not for animals. Meant to house a church, a school, an auditorium and a Bible college, it's a life raft for souls. When Greene looks around the world, like any observant person, he sees awfulness. Wars. Famine. Natural disasters. Human-rights horrors. Instead of random events, though, Greene sees signs. The Bible, he says, prophesies that the last days are going to be like this. The ark is a warning that Jesus Christ is coming back, as predicted in the New Testament.
"As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man," reads Matthew 24:37. This is Greene's mantra.
During the days of the vision, Greene's little flock was a part of the Church of the Brethren. He told them of the vision and they believed. A few years later, with nothing in the ground but the beginnings of some concrete footings, the congregation split. Greene and his followers started their own independent church.
That split, he now realizes, is fine, because he knows God doesn't want the ark to have a denomination. He dealt with the setback the same way he dealt with the initial taunts: He outlasted it.
"They're gonna come for you in the white coats," his brother-in-law, Everett Spence, said 24 years ago. Today, he is Greene's associate pastor and construction supervisor.
If Greene has failed to build an ark, he has built a congregation, which may have more substance than steel beams and concrete footers. And his glacial construction pace has had the unintended benefit of buying Greene an odd sort of credibility.
After all, friendly ol' Pastor Greene's been at it for so long, he's part of the landscape.
Folks now even root for him a little.
But even all the goodwill Greene has built up won't pay contractors. He figures it will take $5 million to $7 million to finish the ark. So far, he's raised $750,000. The beams started going up in March, and the steel purchase left the ark fund nearly depleted, with only $20,000.
There's an old gospel line that goes, "Maybe God is trying to tell you something." Greene is even more convinced now than he was 24 years ago that God wants him to build an ark. But it's taken this long to even raise these few steel beams. On the other hand, God can't be judged by man's calendar or his limited, selfish expectations.