Public Square

Restoration on the West Side of Jacksonville: How One Man’s Recovery from Tragedy Revitalized a City

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Tony Nasrallah heard the news, but it did not compute. A plane went down in Denver, Colorado with his wife and kids on board.

He caught the next flight from Jacksonville, Florida to Denver as he read the words of the November 16th, 1987 New York Times article detailing the crash:

The jet lay upside down in three pieces in a snowy field, surrounded by an army of rescue workers. A trail of clothes, baggage and other items lay stretched out in the icy distance.

He could not believe this was happening, but pinching himself did not wake him from this nightmare. His children were two of the twenty-six lives claimed by the trauma of the crash. His wife was fighting for her life in a critical care unit at Denver General Hospital.

Just hours before, Tony’s pursuit of the American Dream was nearly complete: beautiful family, high-paying job, and a nice home. None of that mattered now. He was angry at God and bitter at the world.

The doctors gave his wife a slim chance of surviving through the night. Tony peered out the hospital window with a strong urge to leap into whatever awaited him after death. Nothing could be as bad as the agony he was living with now.

Slowly and miraculously, his wife began to recover, but his heart would take much longer.

Life Before the Crash

Years before the accident, Nasrallah was determined not to continue the lifestyle of partying and binge drinking as had become his custom in college. He came to know Jesus Christ as his Savior and he immersed himself in any Bible study or worship gathering he could find every night of the week.

However, when it came to Friday and Saturday nights, he found no Christian environment offering any type of service or ministry opportunity. He spent many Friday and Saturday evenings at home with his parents for fear of slipping back into his former lifestyle.

Eventually, he heard of a coffeehouse hosting local musicians on the weekends and started attending and volunteering with these events. He developed strong friendships with the staff at the coffeehouse as they challenged him on what it meant to truly follow Christ.

After beginning his career and moving around the country, Nasrallah returned to Jacksonville a few years later to find the coffeehouse shuttered. No lattes, no friends, and certainly no music. It was out of business.

Tony immediately thought of the impact the coffeehouse made in his life and believed someone should reopen it or a similar venue to fill the void created in its absence.

He was, of course, too busy to think about making this happen himself; he did not even have time to travel with his family on their upcoming trip to Denver to visit the in-laws.

Then the accident happened.

A Fleeting Thought

Six years after the plane crash, Nasrallah found himself at a church retreat, contemplating how to put aside the misery and hatred for life that still hovered around him. He was not sure if he could ever be happy again, and he certainly did not know how he was supposed to recover his career.

However, he felt the God he blocked out for the past six years beginning to heal and bring restoration in his life. It was at this moment he remembered the fleeting thought about someone opening a coffeehouse, and he felt God calling him to do just that.

He looked at a few properties that had some immediate potential to serve as quaint neighborhood coffee shops, but something did not seem right.

Months later and still in search for the right location, Nasrallah heard the Murray Hill Theatre, a cinema he had frequented as a child had also closed its doors. The Murray Hill neighborhood, just west of downtown Jacksonville, was an area of town now considered to be on the wrong side of the tracks. Low property values and high crime rates were prominent members of this community.

Nasrallah parked under a lamppost along Edgewood Avenue, hid any valuables in his car and triple-checked to be sure he locked the door. He took his first steps inside Murray Hill Theatre in many years and was appalled.

The current tenant turned the nostalgic theatre into a gothic-industrial club called The Dungeon, complete with decorative prison bars and skeletons. The seats were ripped up and a make-shift stage was constructed. Nasrallah left haunted by the thought of young people wasting their life away in bondage to sin and death.

Still, he had a strange sensation regarding the theatre. It was the combination of seeing a property in utter shambles while at the same time recognizing its potential. Although it would be a much bigger undertaking than a simple coffeehouse, he felt it might be the right place for a concert venue. He could envision students spilling in the doors, hanging out in the lobby, and being exposed to the truths of Scripture through music.

After a short time, the Murray Hill Theatre was back on the market. It needed major repair both inside and out. Not to mention, the neighborhood was precisely the place people avoided hanging out and building relationships, especially at night. However, Nasrallah believed these were the exact ingredients for the start of a redemptive movement that would spread through the streets of Murray Hill and the city of Jacksonville.

Life Change through Relationships

God had given Nasrallah the resources to take some risks. And so he did.

He purchased the theatre and immediately set to work installing new plumbing and carpet, as well as updating electrical and air conditioning systems. He even repaired cracks in the foundation in preparation for re-opening the Murray Hill Theatre to the public. Volunteers helped clean up the parking lot and added outdoor lighting, which significantly decreased illegal activity in the area.

The grand re-opening occurred in 1995. With a standing-only mezzanine and a beautiful stage, the Murray Hill Theatre is a Christian concert venue now operated by Murray Hill Ministries, the non-profit organization Nasrallah also established the same year. The theatre uses live music to present the gospel of Jesus Christ in a positive and relevant atmosphere, encouraging all patrons and particularly engaging those without faith in Christ.

Open most Fridays, Saturdays and an occasional week night, Murray Hill Theatre is one of the oldest running, Christian concert venues in the country. It is billed as an alcohol-free, drug-free, smoke-free, all-ages nightclub that showcases live music with a positive message.

“We use music and the arts to present things of faith in a positive light,” remarks John Harret, one of the two full-time staff members. “As an alternative to typical bars and nightclubs, we give people a safe nightspot to enjoy live entertainment.”

This vintage outpost for God’s grace hosts musical libations from Five Iron Frenzy to David Crowder. It also embraces the serenade of many starving artists with the simple desire to share their God-given talent with the world.

No matter who takes the stage, the patrons at Murray Hill expect great music. And Nasrallah is consistently discovering and shining a spotlight on the best and brightest young Christian artists.

“I thought I would fix the place up and hand it over to a young college graduate to run after a year or two,” Nasrallah reflects. “Twenty years later, I still am trying to get a handle on this place and I have loved every minute of it.”

Besides Harret and Flip Padilla, the theatre manager, the rest of the energetic staff, stagehands, and crew are all volunteers, including Nasrallah, organized by one part-time coordinator. They invest their time to have an opportunity to share Christ with latte sippers, head-bangers, and anyone who might just need someone to talk to.

“There have certainly been times I have thought about closing up shop because I had poured so much money into this place,” Nasrallah continues, “but the life change that occurs through relationships sustains this place.”

First the Heart, Then West Jacksonville

Purchasing and reviving a neighborhood theatre is enough of a challenge for most people. But Nasrallah didn’t stop there. He felt God asking him to do more. So he bought up the entire block of buildings adjacent to the theatre seeking further impact in Murray Hill and the common-good of the city.

Many tenants have taken up residence in the shops flanking Murray Hill Theatre on either side over the last 19 years, but the furniture store, coin shop, café, flower shop, and salon now occupying the storefronts on the 900 block of Edgewood Avenue are bustling with the excitement of a vibrant community.

Mr. Robinson, owner of the coin shop celebrating its fiftieth year in business, has seen many changes in the community, but is proud Murray Hill remains a neighborhood.

“I’ve always believed entertainment should occur in community,” states Mr. Robinson, “and having an active, wholesome theatre along with thriving businesses has a positive influence on our community and sustains our neighborhood.”

This is a remarkable impact for an area of town many counted out. It is even more remarkable when considering the couple behind this movement survived heart-wrenching tragedy and wrestled through deep depression before ever dreaming of establishing an environment in which people could meet Jesus.

Tony and his miracle-wife Anne claim every kid that steps through the doors of Murray Hill Theatre as their own and sum it up this way:

Twenty-eight years since the accident, I can confidently say that if it wasn’t for God, I would not be here and none of this would be possible. He alone has brought healing and wholeness.

Restoration had to begin in Tony’s heart, long before it could sweep through the West side of Jacksonville.

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