His church, Freedom Church, has been suffering growing pains and had been looking for a new home.
“We were praying and asking God to open up the right doors,” Searcy said.
Freedom closed about two weeks ago on the purchase of the Illiana property, and is seeking approval from Lansing officials for a variance to hold worship services.
Five years ago, the church started out holding services in a Country Club Hills movie theater, and for the past four years has rented space at Woodlands Community Church at 183rd Street and Governors Highway in Homewood.
Searcy said that, generally, Sunday worship draws between 400 and 500 people, and Freedom Church started a building fund at the beginning of 2019.
The pastor said he walked through “probably every single church in the south suburbs that was available” before securing the Illiana property for just under $500,000.
“We needed something big, some space where we can grow and expand,” he said.
Sitting on roughly 10 acres, the property, northwest of Torrence Avenue and Ridge Road, includes two gymnasiums, an auditorium, tennis courts, ballfields and parking for more than 200 cars. The original building dates to 1948, with additions built in 1968 and 1976.
Illiana Christian had called Lansing home home for about seven decades before relocating to Hanover Township, near St. John, Indiana, where a new, more modern and roomy building was constructed and opened to students in summer 2018.
Illiana had, at one point, sought $4.5 million for the Lansing property, but was unable to close on a sale and the site went on the auction block last November.
Searcy said he’d looked at the Illiana property at the time and knew Freedom Church couldn’t afford it.
“It was out of our league,” he said.
Chicago-based Rick Levin & Associates, which handled the auction, had contacted Searcy beforehand and encouraged the church to submit a bid.
Searcy said he had worked with the firm’s president, Rick Levin, when it was offering two other south suburban properties that Freedom was interested in.
For the Illiana site, the church “seemed like a logical buyer,” Levin said.
“When you have an unusual property like a closed high school you have to think of alternative uses,” he said.
Searcy said he and other church officials “kept it somewhat quiet among the congregation” as far as the purchase of Illiana, then told parishioners the news at Freedom’s Feb. 23 service, two days after the closing of the deal.
Lansing’s Planning and Zoning Board is expected to consider later this month the church’s request for a special use permit to hold worship services, according to Dan Podgorski, village administrator.
Freedom Church would also need a variance from a restriction that churches in the village be at least 750 feet away from another church. Oak Glen United Reformed Church is just to the north of the Illiana property.
Any recommendations by the panel would then go to the Village Board.
Searcy said that Freedom is a nondenominational, multicultural “thriving, growing healthy place,” but that “when you don’t have a spot of your own you are so limited.”
“The possibilities of going into a place like (Illiana) are endless,” he said.
He said there are plans to make space available for community groups that need rooms for meetings or events.
“This is their space too,” he said of the Lansing community.
While one gym is being converted to the sanctuary, with seating for 500, a separate, larger gym that seats 2,200 will be reserved for events, Searcy said. A cafeteria next to the gym that will be used for worship could possibly host wedding banquets, and a wing will be renovated for the church’s children’s ministry, he said.
“As a church we are just overwhelmed that God did this amazing thing for us,” he said.
Understanding Illiana’s long history in the community, Searcy said the church is cognizant of the legacy it has inherited in taking over the property.
“We’ve been entrusted with this thing and it’s bigger than us,” he said.