The Church of God Bodden Town’s partly finished building on Shamrock Road is, at any rate, a peaceful place.
Instead of scriptural verse, an inside wall is adorned with graffiti, reading: “We out here.” Empty liquor bottles rest on top of piled drywall panels. The only “parishioners” are the 30-odd white hens living in a chicken coop in the back of the property.
The hulking concrete shell of a building is not what church leaders envisioned when they started constructing their multimillion-dollar, multipurpose hall eight years ago. And it is not what Cayman Islands government officials had in mind when they invested more than $1 million of public funds from 2009-2013, partly so that the church hall could also serve as a hurricane shelter.
The unfinished church hall, which serves as an unofficial landmark for the entrance to Bodden Town, is also a physical symbol of the legacy of the now-defunct Nation Building Fund, a community infrastructure program under the government of then-Premier McKeeva Bush that distributed some $13.2 million to various causes, including more than $5.2 million to 26 churches.
Of the churches that received funds for construction, some returned all or some of the money, and most – such as the Church of God Bodden Town – have been unable to finish the projects they started with government’s assistance and assurances.
In July 2015, then-Auditor General Alastair Swarbrick issued a scathing report on multiple aspects of the program, including poor accounting practices and a lack of record-keeping for 15 of the church projects reviewed.
“Without any accountability back to Government, the risk that funds provided to churches were used for purposes other than the intended purpose was high,” according to the report.
Nation Building redux?
But now, after being stalled for several years, construction is recommencing on the Bodden Town church hall, enabled once again by money from government coffers, with few details given publicly on spending or how the funds will be managed.
With the budget for the project still pending approval in Cabinet, government has yet to release the expected cost of completing the 20,000-square-foot church hall. In 2016, that was estimated to be $5 million.
With a commitment from government to complete construction, Pastor Winston Rose said he would like to avoid a repeat of the past.
“My concern is that with government, costs can overrun,” he said.
“We want to avoid that as much as possible. We want to watch closely and do everything we can to ensure it is done properly and kept within the cost.”
This time around, Mr. Rose said, government will not place any money in the church’s hands.
Mr. Rose defended the use of funds in his own project, saying, “We were able to account for every penny and the value we have in there is way more than government gave us.”
He said the church had initially planned to build a much cheaper facility, but after being approached by government, “decided to upgrade to a shelter, scrapped our plans and went with theirs.”
With government involved for a second time, Mr. Rose said the church has hired its own auditor to determine the costs of completing construction. He did not provide an estimate but said his auditor’s numbers were similar to those of government’s.
Government declined to provide a copy or details of its own audit.
A joint statement, issued by the Premier’s Office, Hazard Management and the Planning Department, portrayed the church hall project as a hurricane shelter project.
“In an ongoing effort to increase the total capacity of emergency shelters across the Cayman Islands, work continues to be done to the Church of God in Bodden Town. Updates such as a new roof and windows are currently being installed at the church in order for the building to function safely as an approved Government hurricane shelter,” according to the statement.
The proposed assembly hall at Bodden Town Primary School is also being developed and is expected to provide shelter space for 322 people.
“Together, both locations would create space for an additional 872, which would bring the total capacity of emergency shelters in the district to approximately 1,127 persons,” according to the government statement.
Cost estimates were also not provided for the primary school assembly hall project.
While Mr. Rose said he hopes his facility will be ready by the 2019 hurricane season, achieving that goal appears unlikely.
Tristan Hydes, the deputy chief officer of the Ministry of Commerce, Planning and Infrastructure, said the project will likely not be finished by then. He said Cabinet had tentatively agreed to the project, however, and that “for all intents and purposes, it’s as good as sealed.”
Government has not stated whether any of the other Nation Building Fund churches would receive additional support.
Many churches were forced to abandon their projects altogether. Several churches returned the funds years ago, after realizing the money would not be sufficient to complete the construction projects they planned
By July 2015, five churches – Wesleyan Holiness Church in West Bay, Hillside Chapel in Cayman Brac, Red Bay Church of God Holiness, Webster Memorial United Church and Fellowship Baptist – had returned $949,700 of the funds received, accounting for 62 percent of the original grants allotted to them.
Four of those churches returned the funds in full, but Wesleyan Holiness (the largest overall recipient from the Nation Building Fund) was only able to return $728,365 of the $1.3 million it received, according to a 2015 government audit.
The leadership of Wesleyan Holiness has since changed, and current Pastor Genie Dickerson said the congregation has now “healed” from the rift caused by the project. She said the money not returned to government had been used for architect and planning fees, before the church board moved to reject the project.
“The original plan was rejected by the church, it was way too expensive. The money that was not used, the balance was returned to government,” she said.
Works in progress
Other churches have attempted to salvage their semi-built projects, with congregations picking up where the initial government funds ran out.
Next to King’s Gym in George Town, construction has recommenced on the Light of the World Christian Fellowship. The church previously received $180,000 from the Nation Building Fund but, like the Bodden Town church hall, the project sat dormant for several years.
Workers on the site indicated that construction began again about a month ago. An aluminum roof has since been added and work is ongoing at the site. Church leadership did not respond to requests for comment from the Compass.
At Church of God Frank Sound, the church recently finished paying off $32,000 in debt attached to its mostly finished hall and shelter, according to Pastor Shawn Knight, who took on a leadership role at the church after the project had already begun.
The church had received $125,000 from government for construction. While the funds enabled the church to get the project off the ground, they were not enough to finish the facility.
While the church hall appears complete from the outside, it still requires electrical work, plumbing, air conditioning, asphalt and other substantive work. For years, games and electronics purchased for the planned youth center have been sitting in the hall unused.
Earlier this year, a bat colony that took up residence in the building was evicted with the help of the National Trust.
Mr. Knight estimated the church needed an additional $40,000-$50,000 to finish the multipurpose center, which could serve as a hurricane shelter for about 250 people.
He said the congregation, composed mostly of working-class families, had given significantly from their own pockets to complete the project.
“One reason we’re not really further along is that you can only go to the well so many times,” he said.
While he hopes government will see the benefit of completing the shelter and offer further assistance, the church is moving forward as best it can without additional support.
In West Bay, the Seventh-day Adventist Church recently had reason to celebrate. After 14 years of fundraising and volunteer work by the congregation, the church inaugurated phase one of its construction project: the temple sanctuary.
“The members have made so much sacrifices all of these years, waiting patiently and working hard to see the temple completed,” Pastor Reinaldo Dracket said ahead of the Nov. 25 inauguration.
“You can imagine the older folks are so excited that finally the day is here.”
The church had received $375,000 from government for the multimillion-dollar rebuilding after the temple was destroyed during Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Mr. Dracket said the building suffered damage beyond repair and had to be demolished.
Since the storm, the members had crowded into other Seventh-day Adventist churches on island. Now, the West Bay church, which can hold 550 parishioners, is the largest of the Seventh-day temples in Cayman and will serve as a center for church activity.
While completion of the building marked a major milestone, the feat did not come easily, and work remains to be done.
“When we consider everything and the cost, it’s really a miracle,” Mr. Dracket said.
“The membership gave sacrificially week after week all these years.”
More funds will be needed for the second phase of the project – a multipurpose hall and shelter – and for that undertaking, Mr. Dracket is hopeful that creditors will come through.
Currently, church members are working on extending the parking lot, in anticipation of large crowds for Saturday worship, and the ground has been cleared behind the church in anticipation of the community hall.
One other church project that the Cayman Compass could confirm was completed was that of 90 & 9 Outreach Ministries, a modest one-story building in West Bay that hosts 70 to 80 worshippers every Sunday. In 2016, Pastor Dave Kelly indicated that the church, which received $125,000 from the Nation Building Fund, had been complete for “at least a couple of years.”