An Atlantic City pastor was searching for a miracle so he could relocate his small church to a safer home.
A retired Jewish businessman from Cherry Hill was looking to sell a parcel of land valued at $75,000 to $125,000.
Together, they settled on a price: $0.
It may have been the holiday spirit, or a blessing. Either way, prayers were answered for the City of Hope Worship Outreach Center and Pastor Kenneth Applewhite.
"It was a feel-good type of thing. I wanted to do it, and I did it," James Horowitz, 82, said of his decision to donate the vacant land on the Black Horse Pike in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., so the congregation could build a new church. "I think people ought to do that more often."
Horowitz said Applewhite made a compelling case on behalf of the church, so he decided to give away the land.
Applewhite said the gift from a complete stranger was tantamount to a miracle for his congregation. The church could not afford to move, he said.
"He was a blessing to us. He saw the need," Applewhite said. "Everybody believes God has given us grace and mercy."
After a young man was killed steps from the church about a year ago, Applewhite decided it was time to move from the gritty 200 block of North South Carolina Avenue.
Applewhite called Horowitz on a whim after he saw an ad in the Atlantic City Press that said to "name your price" for the plot. He shared the African American church's plight with Horowitz.
Giving the land to the church seemed like the right thing to do, Horowitz said. The church has received the deed for the half-acre property.
"He seemed like a pretty nice fellow. It appears that they are sincere and want to do something worthwhile," Horowitz said. "If I could help them, I thought it was nice."
Horowitz, who operated a publishing and pool business and dabbled in real estate, had only one request in exchange for the land: an invitation for a first-row seat at the first service in the new church.
Horowitz said he had owned the land for about 25 years. The site has been periodically for sale over the years, but the location and zoning for a single dwelling made it difficult to sell, he said.
Applewhite said the congregation must raise about $300,000 before construction can begin on a church that will be able to hold as many as 200 people. It already has some donated items and services, including a building plan offered by another church, 2,000 bricks, legal services, and labor from Habitat for Humanity.
Founded by Applewhite in 2007, the church first met in Absecon, N.J., where it shared a building with another church. It relocated to Atlantic City in 2009, where it rents space in a storefront, he said.
Over the last nine years, at least 15 people have been shot or killed on the church's street or nearby, said Applewhite, who grew up in Atlantic City.
"We're sorry that they are leaving," said Councilman Marty Small, who represents the Second Ward, where the church is located a few blocks from midtown. "But I understand the concerns of violence in that area. They're are getting a much better opportunity."
The turning point for the church occurred about a year ago, when a young man was fatally shot in front of the church on a Sunday morning, Applewhite said. The church was empty because the congregation was attending services at another church, he said.
On another Sunday afternoon, a woman and her boyfriend were shot dead a block away in front of her three children, he said.
"The crime on the streets was too much. In that area is too much death. I had to make a move," Applewhite said. "It's been crazy."
The church, which has about 25 members, has a good relationship with its mostly Muslim neighbors, Applewhite said. The church has daily services and events, Bible study, and a pantry that provides food twice a week.
Neighbors shovel snow from the church's walkway, sweep up trash, and put out the trash, he said. A storekeeper across the street regularly donates food, he said.
When Hurricane Sandy destroyed the building, the landlord rebuilt it and neighbors pitched in, Applewhite said.
"We never had any problems out of anyone," the pastor said. "It's just time to move."
Applewhite, 54, a former mental health therapist and social worker, said he was impressed by the land where the new church will be built.
The full-time pastor believes membership will grow when the new church is open. The site is easily accessible by public transportation.
Applewhite said the church will meet its fund-raising goal. He quoted Matthew 16:18 as the inspiration for building:
"And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
To contact City of Hope, write to it in care of Pastor Kenneth Applewhite, 4804 Green Ash Lane, Mays Landing, N.J. 08330.