F elipe and Janelle deWaard-Silva started Fără Limite Climbing Gym in 2015 to not only teach kids how to climb, but also to cultivate life skills like character, empathy, and discipline. As relationships have developed over the years, they have seen how they can guide kids from disciplined to discipled. They are teaching them how to climb far higher than the top of the wall.
Fără Limite is located near Dallas, Romania. The city’s namesake—Dallas, Texas—is a busy metropolis in the “Bible Belt” of the United States. But this Dallas is a small community, left vulnerable after the fall of communism and decades of relative neglect from the national government. Until recently, there was not a single church in town.
First a climbing gym, then a church
And it’s where the deWaard-Silvas felt called to further the ministry of the climbing gym by starting a church. They planted Anchor Church as a way to deepen their connection to the kids from the gym, their families, and Dallas as a whole.
“Through the church, we have a whole new way to interact with them and disciple them,” Janelle says.
At Fără Limite, she says, they spend a lot of time with individual kids but are not able to be too involved in the community or with families. Through the church, they can truly begin to invest in deepening community ties and relationships.
“At the end of the day, Fără Limite is a climbing gym. We can live the gospel out in many ways,” Felipe says, but there are limitations. The physical space doesn’t provide much room for consistent discipleship, for one thing. And where the climbing gym is especially for youth, a church creates a community with entire families, which resonates in the local culture.
This progression—first the climbing gym, then a church, once the gym had provided a foothold for the church—mirrors a key value of RCA Global Mission, the deWaard-Silvas’ sending agency. That value is holistic mission: ministering to the whole person, and sharing the gospel only when you have already demonstrated care and built trust.
Introducing Anchor Church
That longing for deeper discipleship opportunities led to Anchor Church. And it was a connection from the gym that led to the location of the new church. It is a small former clothing store in Dallas and just up the hill from Fără Limite. One of the climbers knew of its availability and tipped them off that it might work.
Thanks to a large, anonymous donation, they were able to purchase the building and begin renovations. It needed repairs to the roof and exterior walls. Inside, they retrofitted a sanctuary and classrooms.
Over the summer of 2020, they began to use the space to tutor small groups of kids when the pandemic forced schools to close. Local volunteers taught classes in subjects from woodworking to science to finance.
Finally, Anchor Church held its first worship service in August.
Marean Dont is a former gym volunteer and the new church worship leader. He jokes he mostly used to kick kids out of the gym if they misbehaved. In his new role, he gets to work with them and teach them about the love of God through song and worship.
Marean’s wife, Persida Dont, is currently leading the children’s ministry at the church.
“The kids needed love,” she says. “We could see them searching for it when they were at the gym. We wanted to share that with them.”
COVID-19 has, naturally, complicated the opening of the church. An opening planned for May was delayed until August. Occupancy limits have meant smaller gatherings. Mask requirements have made getting to know new people that much more difficult. And yet, the leaders are grateful for the relationships they have been able to deepen.
Relationships and a return to basics
In addition to the weekly Sunday gatherings, Persida and Janelle have started a mothers’ group. This has been a way to deepen connections to the community and to show that being a Christian is about more than outward appearance.
Many from Dallas are from an Orthodox background, and connecting spiritual elements to everyday life is not something they do often. They may attend holiday services at an Orthodox church in an adjacent town, but very few have ever attended a Protestant service.
This has required a return to basics. Many would consider themselves nominally Christian but are disconnected from Scripture.
The first Sunday, Felipe shared, a participant sat in the front row eating chips and talking with Felipe as he was delivering the message. People walked in and out of the building.
“It was like they were trying to figure out what was even happening,” Felipe says.
As the months have gone on, many of the kids who first started coming to Anchor Church through the gym have asked for responsibility and have become leaders. They help with things like running the PowerPoint, teaching Sunday school, or serving coffee. One is learning to play the drums with Marean.
“They love to sing,” Marean says. “It’s easy to worship with them.”
Marean, who has been involved throughout the whole process, is excited to see how these new relationships can change a community for good.
“We are in a place where we get to know people who don’t know God yet,” he says. “People are growing and deepening their faith.”
Mounting success: climbers-turned-disciples
The deWaard-Silvas are quick to say they didn’t always see themselves as church planters.
“We never thought we’d open a church here, but we always thought there should be a church here,” Janelle says.
When they first began to pray about the possibility of planting a church, Felipe says his main prayer was that he would have a passion for the Word.
“Our goal is to see that the Bible is preached, lived out, and understood,” Felipe says. He’s been leading the church through a sermon series on the book of Mark.
“I’m the one who’s been the most changed through the church plant,” he says.
Another answer to prayer has been the blessing of hiring an additional staff member to manage Fără Limite, freeing them up to serve at church. This man, Ionuţ, is a committed Christian who invests in the climbers using the holistic approach the deWaard-Silvas have long taken.
Everyone is thankful any time they see small changes in the kids. And now, thanks to Anchor Church, they have a way to further foster true hope through the gospel.
This past Christmas season, Persida had a chance to lead almost 30 kids as they prepared a Christmas program. She has been blessed to see so much growth in the kids in such a short amount of time.
“They like to come, sing, and practice. I’m surprised!” she says.
These climbers-turned-disciples have truly formed the core of Anchor Church. The deWaard-Silvas recognize how influential the gym has been in opening the church at all. Many in the Dallas community are suspicious of spirituality in general and of outsiders in particular.
“It never would have worked to just start a church in Dallas,” Janelle and Felipe say. “It worked because of the relationships built through the gym.”
Samantha Bouwers is a freelance writer in Coralville, Iowa.