The structure is not visible from the road, tucked a hundred or so feet back, hidden behind temporary plywood walls. From the parking lot of the adjoining property, King’s Gym, the view is clearer, though one might still not be able to discern what, exactly, the building is supposed to be.
It appears abandoned, not even half-finished, with rebar jutting out of its first floor like a crown of thorns. Inside, the purpose of the building becomes clearer. The deep, rectangular hole in the floor is filled with litter: plastic bottles, cans, construction refuse. Algae and other plant life have claimed it as their home, but, unmistakably – this is a baptismal pool.
In March 2011, the Light of the World Christian Fellowship was granted $100,000 from the Cayman Islands government’s Nation Building Fund to assist with the construction of a church, which was also to be used as a hurricane shelter. Later it was granted an additional $80,000 from the fund.
There is no sign outside of the apparently abandoned construction site next to King’s Gym, but records from the Lands and Survey Department show this property belongs to Light of The World.
The Cayman Compass made repeated attempts to contact church leadership to discuss the status of construction, and to determine when, or if, the church might ever be completed. Messages were never returned.
Between 2009 and 2013, 25 other churches also received Nation Building Fund grants, amounting to more than $5.2 million. Grants from the fund – a total of $13.2 million – also went to other individuals, organizations and initiatives, but churches accounted for the lion’s share of the Nation Building program.
Some of the grants helped churches with relatively small projects like repaving driveways or buying new church pews – but the most substantial grants were intended to assist churches with the construction of buildings, many of which were also to double as hurricane shelters.
Today, three years after the last grant was received, some churches have completed or nearly completed construction. Others, however, are struggling to come up with the rest of the funds they say would be required to finish construction.
‘Nothing in life is perfect’
The Nation Building Fund was established by former Premier McKeeva Bush, who said he campaigned in 2000, 2005 and 2009 on the pledge that the government would assist churches.
“We said we would partner with the churches as they are, where our people are on a weekly basis, and as the church is the moral guidance of the nation,” Mr. Bush said. “We have to help our people in every way possible, and the church is the community.”
In an auditor general’s report released last year evaluating the management of the Nation Building Fund, the office found that the government “failed to effectively manage” the millions of dollars of public money funded under the Nation Building Programme, leading to “a significant waste and abuse of public funds,” and that the project also “created the potential for corruption.”
The report reviewed 15 churches that received funds for construction of buildings and infrastructure and found that “the risk that funds provided to churches were used for other than the intended purposes was very high,” though it noted that there was often a lack of record-keeping at the churches and “files held by the recipients found little documentation to support the funds spent.”
In one case, the report notes, a church received more than $1 million for construction “without any plan for how” it would obtain the remaining $3 million it needed to complete the building.
“A two-page letter from the church indicated that the Government had made many oral commitments to partner with the church in financing and completing the project, but nothing was agreed in writing,” the report states.
Mr. Bush said that if he were in Cabinet today, the churches that are still struggling to complete the construction they began with the Nation Building Fund grants would be “getting the help they need.”
He says he supports every one of the grants that were given.
“Of course, nothing in life is perfect and there [is] always need for improvement and government programs, and that is what could be and should be done with such community outreach programs,” he said.
The 10 largest grants given to churches ranged from $122,585 to $1.3 million apiece.
Wesleyan Holiness Church in West Bay received the largest grant given to any church: $1.3 million toward the construction of a $2.6 million multipurpose hall and hurricane shelter, and to buy the land on which it would be built.
In July, 2013, the church returned approximately three-quarters – $728,365 – of the grant to the government.
According to press reports at the time of the repayment, the church was also expected to return the land it had bought – or its full value – to the government. The Compass could not determine whether the full value of the land was returned to the government, but according to land records, the church still owns the land it bought with the grant.
Four other churches – Hillside Chapel, Red Bay Church of God Holiness, Webster Memorial United Church and Fellowship Baptist Church – also returned funds to the government, bringing the total of money returned to $949,770.
“These repayments were made voluntarily when it was clear that the churches receiving the funds were not in a position to use them for the intended purposes,” the auditor general’s report states.
Church of God, Bodden Town
The Church of God in Bodden Town received the second largest grant from the Nation Building Fund: more than $1 million to assist with the construction of a multipurpose hall and hurricane shelter.
The estimated cost to complete the approximately 20,000-square-foot building is $5 million. The church’s pastor, Winston Rose, estimates the church still needs “a couple” of million dollars in order to complete the hall.
Construction on the hall began in 2010. Mr. Rose said “nothing has been done in recent times” to the building that sits just outside Bodden Town on Shamrock Road, but that the church is “in the process now of getting windows and doors and things to that end.”
“We’re hoping to make some major progress this year,” Mr. Rose said. “I don’t think necessarily we’ll have it all done at all. We’re hoping to make a start.”
Mr. Rose is not sure where the rest of the funds will come from to finish the construction.
“We were supposed to be in partnership with the government in doing [this],” he said.
Church of God, West Bay
The Church of God in West Bay is facing a similar funding conundrum as it works to complete a construction project that kicked off with a $550,000 grant from the Nation Building Fund.
The church’s sanctuary was badly damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and the structure had to be razed. The grant received from the Nation Building Fund was supposed to help the church rebuild.
The church is still in the process of building the new worship center, which could also be used as a hurricane shelter, but it needs hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete the project according to church leadership.
The roof alone, Pastor Stanwyck Miles estimates, will cost around $300,000 to complete.
“We have a capital fund campaign and people are contributing money,” Pastor Miles said. “We had hoped to get a loan from one of the banks and to use our capital fund to pay back the loan, that has not worked out so far.”
The church exhausted its funds building the frame of the hurricane-proof worship center, and building a bell tower that connects the Christian Life Center – where services are currently held – and the new worship hall.
In addition to the roof, there is still tiling, electrical work, plumbing and painting that needs to be completed before the worship hall is usable.
“At this point, I don’t know, we are just depending on the mercy of God – it’s His project,” the pastor said.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church in West Bay received $375,000 from the Nation Building Fund to assist with its church rebuilding program.
From the outside, the church appears basically complete. Not only does it have a roof, windows and doors, but it also has a paved entryway and recessed lighting to illuminate the entrance. The church’s front lawn is meticulously landscaped.
Pastor Renaldo Dracket said the church is pushing to finish the project by December, and may be able to get an occupancy permit before then so that church members can begin using the facility.
“We are in the finishing stages at the West Bay church, just trying to push a little bit, trying to see if we can really bring it to completion,” Mr. Dracket said.
He said the project has been dependent on donations of church members and that the parishioners have also been helping to do some of the work.
The pastor says the church is eager to finish it quickly so it can do more projects for the community.
“The faster we are able to finish it – we really wanted to do community projects, but when you do not have your own place, you cannot store stuff,” Mr. Dracket said. “The final details are what take time and take money.”
The New Testament Church in West Bay – which received $130,000 from the Nation Building Fund – is also making progress, assisted by church members who volunteer for work days at the large two-story structure on Boatswain Bay Road.
Several windows have been installed and a bright blue roof protects the progress that has been made inside. According to one church member, a regular Friday fish fry and dinner sale helps raise funds to complete the construction.
Driving down Powell Smith Road in West Bay, it is easy to miss the hall where parishioners of the 90 & 9 Outreach Ministries meet.
There is no sign, no steeple, nothing to outwardly indicate the humble one-story building that is filled every Sunday with 70 to 80 worshippers.
The church was granted $125,000 from the Nation Building Fund for construction.
On a recent visit on a rainy weekday, workers were pouring concrete outside.
Inside, Pastor Dave Kelly pointed with pride to the varnished hardwood ceiling, the modest side rooms where Sunday school classes can meet, and the clean, tiled bathrooms.
There are no pews, but a hodgepodge of chairs, acquired over time, suffices. Some were recently donated by a funeral home.
As the pastor describes it, 90 & 9 is a bit different than other churches.
“If you want to come here in shorts and a dirty T-shirt, you can come here,” the pastor said. “But if you need a suit, we’ll help you get a suit.”
Construction on the church has long been completed, with assistance from the congregation. Mr. Kelly could not recall exactly when it was finished – “at least a couple of years.”
The concrete being poured outside? Just a path, the pastor said, to make it easier for elderly churchgoers to get in and out of their place of worship.