Building hope: Construction 'fever' invigorates church group


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Richard Bischoff swears that he was ready to take it easy.

He'd sold his pickup in favor of a Nissan Sentra, figuring that "after you get to be 80, you don't need a truck anymore."

He'd put an easy chair in his little home wood shop and said that most sawing noises issuing forth came from his adenoids, not from his machinery.

"She was worried," he said of his wife, Betty. "It got to the point where I was sitting in the La-Z-Boy, head leaned over to the side, drooling." He demonstrated, his tongue lolling out, then chuckled. "She called 911 a couple times, wasn't sure if I was still breathing."

So in his version of the story, he had to be wheedled and cajoled into taking a look at a church project to build tables for Katrina victims. And when he looked at the instructions for the tables and the non-existent woodshop at the First Presbyterian Church of New Brighton, "I knew I didn't want to get involved," he said.

Church pastor John Dickey shook his head at Mr. Bischoff's telling of the story. "Richard tends to be a bit modest," he said.

The way he tells it, Mr. Bischoff of White had proposed to make birdhouses and board games with church kids as woodworking projects, and was looking for things to do. Mr. Dickey said when he heard about the Western Pennsylvania Table Project, he knew it was a match.

The project was started by Jim Moose, a furniture builder from Lawrence County. Seeing a need for furniture in the recovering Gulf Coast area, he designed a simple, sturdy table with two benches, created kits so volunteers could build them with limited training, and started to spread the word.

Mr. Dickey heard about it at a seminar, then saw an article on it in a Presbyterian magazine. He said he was drawn by Mr. Moose's infectious enthusiasm and knew if he got Mr. Bischoff up to Mr. Moose's workshop, the two would click.

He was right.

"They call it Moose fever, and it is like a disease," Mr. Bischoff said with a sheepish smile. "I came back all fired up. I took another fellow up there later, and he said, 'You're right; I've got Moose fever too.'?"

Mr. Dickey, again, has a slightly different version, with the fever running both ways. "It was the meeting of two guys with the same spirit," he said.

That meeting was in January. In short order, Mr. Bischoff and others from the church were running heavy-duty wiring to an unused room. He squeezed about half his woodworking equipment into his poor, abused Sentra, and got it up a couple flights of stairs to the wood shop.

"There is definitely a step problem," Mr. Bischoff said. "There are 42 of those rascals from the street to here."

With significant help from church members Scott Marks and Eugene Morrison, Mr. Bischoff got the shop up and running. Those three and a handful of others started spending Saturday mornings there, working on tables.

And by March 14, they had eight tables, with benches, ready to ship to New Orleans.

"We prayed over them," Betty Bischoff said, "rang the church bell, had a lunch -- gave them a real sendoff."

They also included a few personal touches -- the words "May God Bless All Who Gather Here" are inscribed on the underside of each table, and the people who worked on them sign them.

"We call this the "Upper Room Workshop,'?" Mr. Bischoff said. "Gotta get a little religion in there."

The tables are made of red oak, a sturdy, moisture-resistant and abundant wood. It comes rough-cut from a sawmill in New Wilmington, which makes stair treads from the same material.

In the workshop, the volunteers plane tapers into the legs, cut and sand the table tops, notch the leg supports, cut out bench legs and do assembly.

"I'm becoming pretty good with the band saw," volunteer Loraine McGown said. She said she had no experience with woodworking tools before, but has gotten a kick out of learning.

She still has all 10 fingers, too, "though I did lose my manicure."

Ms. McGown credits Mr. Bischoff for driving the project forward.

"He's my mentor," she said. "Richard talks about Jim Moose being enthusiastic, giving people Moose fever. Well, he's the same way with me."

Betty Bischoff, meanwhile, is happy to stick with staining, but is enjoying working with her husband instead of checking on him in his easy chair.

"Anything we do is a package deal," she said. "If he's involved, I'm involved."

But how long can they all be involved? Mr. Bischoff noted that many of the volunteers are in their 70s, and their ranks have been depleted by illness even since January.

"I feel like we can touch the community," Mr. Bischoff said. "When people from the community hear a saw running, it's not the sound you usually hear coming from a church. I think they'll want to see what's going on, and when they do, it will grow."


Brian David can be reached at bdavid@post-gazette.com or 412-722-0086. First Published April 16, 2009 4:00 AM


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