By VIRGINIA SHANK
Maurice and Janeta Johnson said they were looking for a local church they could attend and bring their family to regularly.
The family moved to Warren from Cleveland a few years back and decided to check out the opening day of services at the new The Movement church on Sunday downtown.
"We enjoyed it. It wasn't the typical church service, like church as normal, we've been to. The whole worship experience, the atmosphere, everyone was so welcoming. You feel like no matter what you belong here. This is a place for you and your family. We'll be back next Sunday," Janeta Johnson said.
The church held its initial services Sunday at the corner of Elm Road and East Market Street - the home of the former Sunset Lounge, where a 25-year-old man was shot to death on New Year's Day.
Tribune Chronicle / Virginia Shank
Hope Deemer, 23, of Johnston, left, and Dustin Burton, 21, of Howland, oversee the Kid Movement area of The Movement church in Warren on Sunday.
The Sunset Lounge has been closed since early January, after the shooting. Building owner and liquor permit holder Joe Sankey Jr. voluntarily closed the bar a few days later as part of an agreement with the city, which had been trying to have the bar's liquor license renewal blocked.
The agreement also held off an effort by the city from seeking a nuisance action against the bar.
Church leaders said they are well aware of the controversy and a death that had occurred at the location. On Sunday, they also expressed concern over events in downtown Warren, including the December 2012 shootout in which Marco Dukes, 32, was killed and his cousin wounded. Early Saturday morning another man was gunned down at a gas station on West Market Street.
"We know all of that. But it's time for things to change around, for this place to represent life not death. This city needs change and we want to be part of that chance," The Movement's founding pastor, Doug Garasic, said Sunday.
Garasic said he couldn't be more pleased with the outcome of opening day. Dozens of people, mostly walk-ins, made their way to at least one of the two morning services, which were each met with standing-room only crowds.
"It's fantastic. We couldn't be more pleased or excited. It's great to be here, to be part of something positive, a good working taking place in this city," Garasic said.
Garasic grew up on York Avenue. He said he "gets the hardship, the struggle, the poverty" city residents face.
"But we're here to embrace the community, to be part of the solution, not to be the solution, but be part of it. There's a need in Warren and we're here to do what we can," he said.
Garasic said plans are for Sunday services to continue each week at 10 and 11:30 a.m.
The Movement, based at the Eastwood Mall in Niles, recently purchased the former club in an effort to expand its outreach efforts. The building has undergone a renovation and plans are to expand as the congregations grows, church leaders said.
Garasic said the church has received the full support of the city administration and its residents.
Attendees are greeted at the door by church leaders. The first area is the cafe, which offers coffee and refreshments. As the service begins the lights are dimmed and the band begins to lead worship in music. Garasic described the services as "worship experiences."
He said church leaders canvassed the area the past few weeks, knocking on doors and handing out invitations.
The Movement started two years ago in Vienna then moved to Eastwood Mall. The Warren location is known as the Warren Campus.
Debby Rodgers, who started attending the Niles site about a year ago, said she is willing to help in anyone she is needed.
"I'm so excited to be part of this, even in a very small way," she said. "To be part of something good and positive like this, even in a small way, it's amazing. It's time for Warren to be known for something more than it's been known for in the past.
''So many people think of Warren and you think of the violence and the death and crime. But it's more than that and it can be so much more. We just need to work together," Rodgers said.
Church leaders said that about 20 people moved from the Niles site to the Warren Campus as part of a church plant. They said they anticipate establishing other area sites as well.
"We know that there's a need in Warren. But Warren's not alone. We're just here to serve any way that we can," said Bert Amoline of Champion.
Laura Sylvester, 33 of Hubbard, said she doesn't know how anyone couldn't be excited about the transformation at the building.
"Warren needs to have something positive. It's truly amazing to see what God is doing here. I know it will continue and we will have just as many, if not many more, every Sunday. To see a place known for death and to see God bring life to it. God brings us from ashes to life. That's exactly what He's doing here. It's time."