A Publication of WTVP

At a Crossroads

by Thomas Bruch | Photo by Ron Johnson |
Crossroads Church lead Pastor Jason Woolever
Crossroads Church lead Pastor Jason Woolever

Crossroads Church in Washington stepped up big-time following the devastating 2013 tornado, and it continues to be a ‘beacon of light’

On a warm Sunday morning in November 10 years ago, more than 600 people filed into Crossroads Church in Washington for that morning’s service.

A typical service would find a few hundred more in attendance, but many churchgoers backed their cars out of the garage, saw the ominous storms approaching, and promptly retreated back into their homes.

As soon as that morning’s worshipers entered the church, they were ushered into a shelter space within the church as tornado sirens blared. The faint sounds of debris hitting the roof were audible as everyone huddled together.

Emerging from church once the all clear was given, the congregation viewed the destruction the tornado wrought on the nearby subdivisions. Improbably, Crossroads incurred minimal damage. Even the vehicles in the parking lot escaped relatively unscathed, although 13 dumpsters eventually were filled with debris that had fallen on the church’s sizable property.

A fortuitous connection to Caterpillar set in motion a quick transition for Crossroads to become a hub of relief efforts in the deadly tornado’s wake. Donna Cimino, the executive director of the church since 2012, said that some church members routed a generator to the property, with electricians volunteering to plug it into the main electrical line. A small amount of power was restored.

“We try to be a beacon of light in this community,” said Tim Lee, director of contemporary worship arts at Crossroads.

With Washington plunged into darkness that first night, residents said that the light from Crossroads was all that was visible.

The Religion of Resilience

The histories of the town of Washington and the church now known as Crossroads are almost inextricably linked.

Washington was established in 1825. Three years later, a Methodist preacher on horseback named Jesse Walker founded the church that would become Crossroads, with support from the civic leaders of the time.

For the vast majority of its history, the church resided near downtown Washington on Elm Street, in a small brick building just off Washington’s historic Square (in a building now run by Cana Event Venue). But by the 1990s, the congregation began to discern that Crossroads might need to grow into a new worship space.

Through years of research and prayer, the congregants settled on the current Crossroads location off U.S. Route 24 and built the structure in 2000. Seven years later, as the church continued to experience growth, several new components were added to the building, including the current sanctuary space, classrooms and activity spaces for a preschool and more.

Crossroads’s roots remain an integral part of the church. Several generations of Crossroads members can be found attending services and activities throughout the week, and a traditional worship service is still held at 8:15 a.m. every Sunday.

In an era when the national trend sees old churches, parishes and congregations on the decline, Crossroads is an uncommon story of perseverance.

“I feel humbled to be part of a church that is that resilient,” said Jason Woolever, the pastor of Crossroads. “We value the past. We value tradition.”

The ‘Modern’ Crossroads

A native of Charleston, Illinois, Woolever studied guitar in college and moved to Austin, Texas in the 1990s to be part of the music scene there. But his life’s trajectory turned when he became deeply involved in a church there.

“I really met Jesus in a powerful way there,” Woolever said. “And it really redirected my life and what I wanted to do for a living.”

He felt a new calling, going to seminary to become a pastor and meeting his wife before returning to his home state to serve in churches in Illinois. Now in his ninth year as pastor at Crossroads, Woolever is helping chart a new course for the venerable Washington institution.

Crossroads recently became a Global Methodist Church, a growing denomination across the world.

“Worship passionately, witness boldly and love extravagantly,” Woolever said in describing his church’s new ethos.

Father, Son and don’t forget the Holy Spirit

Crossroads’ major focus is on the Gospels of Jesus, said Woolever. Instead of preaching on more topical and contemporary issues, the messaging and exploration is rooted in the books of the Bible, he said.

Additionally, Crossroads places a special emphasis on the Holy Spirit, the third person in the Holy Trinity — alongside God and Jesus — in which the majority of Christians believe. Often overlooked or forgotten, the Holy Spirit is central to Crossroads, Woolever said, with congregants being trained in matters of the Spirit.

“Our vision is to be a congregation that is Spirit-filled, Bible-teaching, soul-saving, church-planting and globally minded,” Woolever said. “Some of those things are aspirational, and some of those things are who we already are.”

While the traditional worship service on Sunday morning still draws in a good crowd, the modern service that follows at 10 a.m. commands the majority of attendees from the 650 people that typically go to Crossroads every Sunday.

At the modern version, Lee presides over a number of audio, visual and musical accompaniments to the hour-long service. That can range from organizing the volunteer musicians and singers, setting up the microphone audio and producing the online version of the service.

Lee gets to take some risks and employs some improvisation to keep a worship service fresh. He fires up Google on his laptop during the sermons delivered by Woolever or Associate Pastor Megan Hoenig in case a piece of the subject matter can be represented in an exciting way visually.

In one particular sermon, Woolever was relaying his love for 1980s metal music and hearing a Quiet Riot song on the radio with his daughter.

“And then this live Quiet Riot video started playing without me knowing it,” Woolever said, laughing.

“You’ve got to give people context,” Lee said with a wry smile.

Another priority for Crossroads is implemented and led by Emily Russell, the director of children’s ministry. She coordinates Sunday School and the Awana Club, which is an extension of Sunday School held on Thursday nights for children from age 3 through fifth grade. She also oversees Vacation Bible School every summer, which brought in more than 300 kids this year.

In each of these programs, the children are encouraged to come with a friend, a practice echoed from the pastors’ messaging to parents and other adults in the congregation to bring friends or members of the community to Crossroads services and activities.

“It’s open to anyone, any kids who want to bring a friend,” Russell said. “That helps grow … in their relationship with God and grow their community with other kids. So, when they go into difficult times in their life, they have that fellowship with their friends that will keep them on the right path.”

‘A pretty special place’

Despite the significant role it played in the aftermath of the 2013 tornado, there is no special event in the works to mark the 10th anniversary this fall. However, Woolever will participate in an interfaith commemoration with the City of Washington.

Washington Mayor Gary Manier certainly remembers the critical role that Crossroads played in the storm’s aftermath.

“The Red Cross and The Salvation Army are really trained to do all this relief work. But when churches step in, there’s no blueprint for that. They just went ahead and went to work,” said Manier. “It got really cold in the days after the tornado, with sleet and rain. It was a nice warming center for people to go to, and then they started to provide meals.”

Crossroads really became something of a Disaster Relief Central, with insurance companies setting up in their parking lot to help people with their claims and government agencies doing so, as well, with their assistance programs.

Meanwhile, Crossroads has been not just a ‘beacon of light’ but a survivor in its own right, still standing after enduring not only Mother Nature’s wrath but a Civil War, economic depression, two world wars and multiple pandemics.

“I think it’s a pretty special place,” Woolever said.

Thomas Bruch

is a writer and editor based in Peoria Heights. He has worked for the Journal Star, Peoria Public Schools and Bradley University