Something about the lone wooden cross on property across the street from Shauna Wilson’s school drew her eyes outside her classroom window every single day.
The Orcutt Union School District teacher can only describe the attraction as a “calling.”
For what, exactly, Wilson had no idea.
“It always kind of spoke to me,” said Wilson, who teaches a kindergarten through second-grade combo class at Orcutt Academy Charter’s K-8 Casmalia campus, at 3491 Point Sal Road in the town of fewer than 150 residents about five miles south of Santa Maria.
Wilson had been teaching at the school for about a year before she had enough of just staring.
One day in October 2011, she walked across the street toward the cross and into the unlocked church behind it — a small Quonset hut that had been built by what’s now nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base.
“The weeds were four feet tall,” Wilson told Noozhawk last week, noting the place was trashed with broken doors and windows and dead animal carcasses.
She saw a glimmer of hope in an old, wooden piano that remained in working condition, however.
“Pews, untouched. Bibles, untouched. Song books,” Wilson said. “Here it stood.”
Wilson, who lives in Orcutt, told other members of her church, Orcutt Presbyterian, about the relatively undisturbed church. The members, who had previously offered a free barbecue to the needy in Casmalia, decided to make the restoration a mission project.
“We felt strongly that this could be a gathering place,” she said.
With help from Kinyon Construction, which cleared the weeds and provided doors and windows for free, members of Wilson’s church deep-cleaned the space, all the while knowing that they were — technically — trespassing.
Ironically, about the time that Wilson began devoting herself to salvaging the church, the pastor in charge of the property had just about given up hope of saving it.
Pastor Wayne Lidbeck of the InFaith missionary had been forced to close the Casmalia church for good in 1992 after congregants stopped coming.
Lidbeck, who supervises seven other churches from Salinas to Thousand Oaks, couldn’t imagine a way to save the ministry that had been established in 1948. He considered selling the property.
“There’s nobody here to take it,” Lidbeck said last week, recalling the thought. “In between that time, I was praying for somebody just like Shauna. God moved her into the community as a teacher. She was the answer to my prayers.”
Drawn together in determination, Wilson, Lidbeck and members of the Orcutt church visited the Casmalia hut every Sunday to pray for the space and the community.
When their numbers dwindled to just Wilson, Lidbeck and fellow Casmalia school teacher Diane Brand, the trio decided to hold services every Sunday, preaching to no one.
“We don’t know when the people will be coming, but we have to be ready,” Lidbeck recalled saying.
Several passing months without an audience didn’t deter the group.
Then, finally, a person walked in and sat down.
“And then a couple more came,” Wilson said.
Today the church service, which is at 4 p.m. every Sunday, has seen as many as 14 participants. An interest in learning more about religion also prompted Lidbeck and Wilson to start a Bible study class at the church, at 6 p.m. Tuesdays.
“It’s funny how things work out,” said Wilson, who believes she was destined to be at the school to save the church across the street and help revitalize a community.
The church, which had been named Casmalia Baptist Church, has been renamed Casmalia Community Church.
Lidbeck said the name change reflects the ultimate goal of the church, which is to be a place that the entire community recognizes as its own.
“It’s kind of a forgotten place,” Wilson said. “People are coming every week.
“It’s just kind of a remarkable story that it has survived,” she continued. “It’s a very special place. I look forward to coming out here every Sunday.”