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"Look at the nations and watch and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe even if you were told."

The biblical passage from Habakkuh 1:5 is the favorite of Colton Irving, pastor of 360 Church of Petaluma. But even he of major faith is having a difficult time believing what is happening to his church and how it has grown from 10 parishioners with $500 in the bank to making plans for one of the largest religious complexes ever conceived in Petaluma.

It was just three years ago that Irving established the church. In October, 360 Church of Petaluma closed a deal to purchase the former North Bay Construction headquarters property (almost nine acres) located ont Payran Street near Lindberg Lane for $8.2 million.

Plans are for a church that will seat 800 to 900 worshipers, church offices, a pre-school, a playground for kids, meeting rooms for outreach programs and even a fitness center that will be leased to a private operator.

Irving said the planned new church is the result of faith, hard work, good fortune and a touch of bravado.

As the once-tiny church grew into its present size of more than 200, with a strong indication that more growth is coming, Irving began to look for a larger location.

A tip from a Realtor sent him online to check out the North Bay site. "It looked perfect," he recalled, "and I had just seen the buildings. I didn't even know about the eight acres. Once I saw it, I forgot about other sites."

There was only one minor problem — the church had just $16,000 in the bank when Irving found his dream site, the result of its having devoted much of its funds to outreach programs and donations to community charitable causes.

The initial offer was for the church to put down $1.6 million and for the owner, John Barella, to finance the rest.

"We agreed that, outside of God's help, it would be impossible," Irving recalled. "We shut down all our ministries for a week and took the time for prayer and fasting."

In the midst of the negotiations, Irving's older sister, Becky Irving, died.

"The last message she sent me was: &‘I only hope my little brother is working on our new building and that's why he never called me back,'" the pastor recalled.

There was still little hope of obtaining the down payment when, on last Easter Sunday morning, Irving received a call from a congregation member. "She said, &‘I have $1.6 million, do you want it?'" Irving remembered. "I about passed out. The whole thing seemed surreal."

By the time the negotiations had ended, the parishioner, Mari Benson, widow of the late Petaluma entrepreneur Bob Benson, guaranteed for the church the $3 million it needed for a down payment that would allow the mortgage payments to come down to a manageable level.

At Benson's urging, those negotiations were conducted in person rather than through Realtors and other agents.

"I kept telling Colton we needed to have a face-to-face meeting with John Barella," Benson said. "My husband always told me, &‘You've got to go meet the people.' Once we got to communicating on a person-to-person level, we got things worked out."

Benson has been a member of the Church of 360 of Petaluma for about two years, joining after the pastor of her former church moved away. Like Irving, she has strong faith.

"A lot of it comes down to my faith and what is God's work," she explained. "This was an opportunity to share and I felt it was the right thing to do."

After the initial $3 million down payment, Barella agreed to finance the remainder of the purchase price.

"It was bitter-sweet for me," Barella said. "It was a little tough because I got my start here, but I'm excited about seeing Colton get his start here too."

Barella has owned the property since purchasing it from Toby Giacomini in 1981.

Things have been moving rapidly since the church purchased the property. By selling off equipment North Bay Construction left behind, the congregation has managed to cover most of the application and design costs.

Irving said Heather Hines and other members of the city planning staff have been helpful in obtaining needed permits and completing mandated studies.

"Our consultants Steve LaFranchi (civil engineer) and Steve VonRaesfeld (architect) have been a huge help in dealing with the city and a lot of other aspects of the planning process," Irving said.

He added the only major planning component left is design review. A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 8.

"The congregation is praying that it goes smoothly," he said.

Irving's vision for the church is broad. The former North Bay Construction office building will become church offices, with room for a women's outreach program and a preschool in the back. A building behind the offices will be leased to a private company for a physical fitness center and batting cages. There will be an outdoor basketball court and a state-of-the-art playground structure for the children.

The main church, to be remodeled inside a hanger-sized building that North Bay used as a mechanical shop for its equipment, will have theater-style seating and be built on a hardwood floor that can be easily converted into a gymnasium with a full-size basketball court once the floor-level seating is removed.

Upstairs are more rooms that can be used for outreach and recreation programs. On the ground level will be a cafe for parishioners to eat and enjoy refreshments after services.

The size of the property also gives the church ample room for parking, an important consideration as it grows.

Irving estimates construction costs at around $2 million, a total he hopes to halve with volunteer work from congregation and community members.

The plan is to have the project far enough along to hold 360 Church of Petaluma services in its new home on Easter Sunday, 2013.

"We don't have a building fund or anything like that," Irving said. "We're working on complete faith. The only thing I ask of the congregation is that each member pay for their own chair ($46)."

Irving describes the non-denominational church as "Biblical Christian."

"We have people of all denominations worship with us," he said. "We are based on biblical principles."

Irving explained that the 360 name comes from his vision of people linking their arms as they circle the cross. "It is a place where everyone is welcome," he said.

The planned new church is something well beyond what Irving could have dreamed of when he established 360 Church of Petaluma three years ago after overcoming a whole series of misfortunes in his early life that included striking out on his own at 15 because of family financial problems, and a serious back injury from a construction accident shortly after graduating from high school.

He was later a successful salesman before quitting to devote more time to his growing Christian youth outreach program.

His interest in the area's youth led him to become the founder of Harvest Christian School. When Irving took over, the school was struggling with an enrollment of just 27 students. Under his guidance,the school now flourishes with more than 160 students in kindergarten through eighth grade learning in a large facility Irving helped locate, finance and renovate on Lakeville Highway.

Irving is, indeed, amazed at what is happening. "For me and my wife (Julie) it's very humbling to think God would call us to be a part of something so big," he said.

"My wife would say, &‘It is God doing it. We just have a front-row seat.'"

(Contact John Jackson at johnie.jackson@arguscourier.com)

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