In a far corner of Northeast San Antonio, amid rapidly growing subdivisions, sits a little piece of heaven. Actually, the 13.2-acre patch of land along Binz-Engleman Road between Ackerman Road and Mystic Sunrise Drive is more like a Garden of Eden, with roaming creatures and fertile soil supporting peach and apple trees and a burgeoning vegetable garden.
The Adam and Eve of this Eden would be Juan Elizondo Jr. and wife Amanda, who started a Bible study group in their nearby house 22 years ago. That group grew to become a nondenominational fellowship church, gradually building its new home across the road from the Sunrise neighborhood it serves.
After Juan’s death in 2007, Amanda now entrusts the home, and the future church, to Randy Chandley, a former Austin bartender who relocated to San Antonio eight years ago to become a church trustee.
To help the church maintain its agricultural exemption for the land, keeping its property taxes low until the church can be built, Chandley bought several head of longhorn cattle to graze the land. He also brought with him ranching and farming skills he’d learned growing up in southern Indiana.
One of his endeavors is visible in the fluorescent green, handwritten “Longhorns For Sale” sign on the gate of the wire fence surrounding the property. Fifteen head of longhorn cattle graze, feed on hay, and rest in familial clumps here and there on the land. They’re his cash cows, a means of raising funds to build the church.
“This is the most photographed cattle herd in all of Texas,” Chandley said, recounting how often he spots drivers stopping to take pictures of the photogenic longhorns as he tends to the orchard, garden, and temporary wooden pavilion he built with his own hands.
“It’s the peaceful feeling, the Texas feeling that they get when they’re here,” he said of the drivers’ reason for stopping. “I hear that over and over and over.”
The pavilion is where church members worship for now, eventually to be replaced by a church building and a learning center once enough funding is raised to design and build a new home for the congregation of the Harvest Community Fellowship.
“We don’t want a big megachurch. That’s not what we’re after,” Chandley said. “The main goal of the church has always been the kids of Sunrise,” which he called a “pretty rough neighborhood,” rough enough to have earned the nickname “Gunrise.”
The church will be “a safe place for the kids to come and learn about Christ, first and foremost, then to learn about agriculture and all that other stuff, teach them how to raise cattle and chickens, and garden,” he said.
The need for food in the area is real, Chandley said, just like it was for his own family growing up. With 70 chickens in the barn, and the garden and orchard, “two years ago, we’d already given away over 2,5oo dozens of eggs and hundreds of pounds of produce – squash and tomatoes and zucchini, peaches,” he said.
“We try and help Sunrise, people through the church that we realize need help, neighbors that need help, anybody that needs help.”
When the church trustees first bought the land eight years ago, in an agricultural district annexed by the City of San Antonio, it was in a flood plain and needed to be leveled before any construction could begin.
One day when he arrived to tend to the cattle, Chandley noticed a semi trailer behind him, loaded with dirt. The driver, from a nearby construction site, asked Chandley if he needed any fill dirt for the land. “I said yes,” Chandley said, noting the providence of the occasion.
“The way everything has worked from day one for this project, right up until now, there’s been a reason for every single thing that happened,” he said.
The first load was followed by another, and eventually a total of 3,000 truckloads were dumped and spread over the land. The soil, from what is now a U-Haul Super Center on Seguin Road, is an Old Spanish Trail gift that keeps on giving, Chandley said.
“The ground is so rich, no matter what you put in the ground it grows,” he said, naming off the winter crops of squash, eggplant, broccoli, lettuce, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower currently growing, and summertime crops of “tomatoes, corn, green beans, everything.”
Coincidentally, or perhaps also providentially, Chandley noted, the day eight years ago the project was started was also Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “I have a dream,” Chandley said, quoting King in memory of the original Senior Pastor “Brother Jim” Simmons’s dream of carrying the church forward from its small residential home to a new, dedicated site. “This was his dream, to have a place for the kids.”
The dream was not without its nightmares, Chandley said. “This little church has been through everything that the devil could send at us, and he threw his best lightning bolts,” including a replacement pastor that took the church in a bad direction, was voted out, and for a time refused to leave, Chandley said.
Three memorial plaques stand on either side of the temporary church pavilion. One is for Elizondo and another is for Brother Simmons, who passed away last year. The third is for Amaris Ariel Segura, known as “Frankie,” a 14-year-old resident of Sunrise who committed suicide after being bullied, according to Chandley. The Harvest Community Fellowship will help kids like Frankie by giving them a community of support, and pride in learning new skills, he said.
For her funeral, the congregation planted a red maple in her memory, a non-native tree from more northerly climes that also somehow flourishes in the fertile soil.
Still, these experiences provided lessons. “There’s so much that God has taught us,” Chandley said. “Every time we needed a place to put our foot down, to take the next step, not knowing how we were going to do it, it was there.”
The church and learning center have not yet been designed, and for now, the congregants worship in the pavilion on Sundays when the weather is good. During the holiday season, they stage a living Nativity, visible at night from the road with lights in the shape of angels overlooking the pavilion, turned into a manger for the occasion.
Sales of longhorns will continue, and with eight of them pregnant – including the 20-year-old Roxie – more are on the way. Money raised, between $1,200 and $5,000 for each cow or steer, will go toward the new buildings, adding to the barn on the back of the property and other facilities built from the estimated sales of 30 to 40 longhorns so far.
On a chilly, blustery day in mid-March, Chandley affectionately stroked the forehead of Billy, a bottle-fed longhorn steer who nudged his handler for attention.
“As long as I have a breath in me, this dream’s going to go on,” Chandley said, “It’s going to work.”