Florida Baptists find new ways to minister to mobile-home residents
Jun 5, 2014
By CAROLYN NICHOLS
For dozens of Florida Baptist churches, reaching out to their neighborhoods includes finding ways to minister in local mobile-home parks. The avenues of ministry are as varied as those who call the parks home. These are the stories of three churches’ experiences in ministering to park residents:
Trinity Baptist Church, Apopka
About two miles from Trinity Baptist Church’s campus in Apopka, Clarcona Resort offers residents—mostly senior adults—leisurely living under sprawling live oaks.
Established as a place for campers and tourists 60 years ago, Jellystone Park became Sun Resort in the 1970s, then Clarcona Resort about 10 years ago. Trinity Baptist has had a ministry there for much of the park’s history.
Bob Donaldson, retired from the wholesale greenhouse business, has led Bible studies in the park’s recreation hall for 18 years with fellow church member Kenny Harris. Donaldson dashes to Clarcona Resort to lead worship after teaching Baby Boomers in Sunday School at Trinity Baptist. He and Harris alternate teaching at Clarcona.
|Bob Donaldson, right, with Trinity Baptist Church in Apopka, leads a Wednesday evening Bible study at Clarcona Resort. He has led studies at Clarcona for 18 years. Courtesy photo|
“We are very laid back, and I don’t think anybody has ever worn a tie. I’d say that we are very orthodox in doctrine and a tad unorthodox in our delivery,” he said.
During services, Miss Wanda, a resident, plays an organ that Donaldson found in a thrift store for $25. The group sings favorite hymns, and sometimes sings Christmas carols in July. Whatever the song, “we have to find hymns with only flats. Miss Wanda doesn’t play sharps,” Donaldson said.
“We like to have fun, but when we get into the Word, it’s all business,” he said.
About 60 of the 1,000 residents attend weekly services, although attendance has dipped lately since “the snowbirds are back home now,” Donaldson said.
Through the years, Trinity Baptist volunteers have conducted weddings, memorial services and baptisms in the park swimming pool. A Wednesday morning Bible study draws several residents, and even more residents drive to Trinity Baptist for Wednesday evening suppers.
The Lord’s Supper is offered twice annually. The church hosts an annual Christmas banquet for residents, and provides a Sunday breakfast every six weeks.
Relationships with the residents are vital, said Donaldson, who describes himself as “outgoing.” He and Harris visit residents during the week, and they often escort residents to appointments. Donaldson recently went car-shopping with a resident. Miss Dorothy, age 99, calls him at home at 6 p.m. every Sunday. The calls began as reminders to watch one of her favorite TV shows, now we “just catch up,” he said.
“We have a ball with this ministry, but it is definitely not just Sundays and Wednesdays,” Donaldson said.
First Baptist Church, Bonifay
Although First Baptist Church in Bonifay had reached out to the residents of two mobile-home parks near the church for more than a year, those efforts expanded to an on-site Sunday School class and worship service last December.
Pastor Shelly Chandler, Associate Pastor Jeep Sullivan and Sunday School Director Earl Garner sought and received permission from park owners to make the newer park’s community center—an adapted mobile home—a church on Sundays and Wednesdays. Two couples who were “in Sunday School together at big church” volunteered to lead Sunday School and worship there, ministry leader Gary Brown said.
|Scott Collins, who sometimes preaches in the Community Center in place of his father, Harry, plays with neighborhood children on the new soccer field. Courtesy photo|
Brown teaches adults while his wife Sandy teaches children, and Harry Collins preaches and his wife, Mary, leads the music. The Collins’ son, Scott, also preaches occasionally. About a dozen residents gather every Sunday morning to study and worship.
“It is awesome to see God at work there. During the winter there wasn’t much door-knocking going on, but we’re doing more of that now. We’re growing slowly,” Brown said.
During a visit on a home’s front steps, Brown said a resident told the visitors he could not come on Sunday, but would come if they met another day. That spurred the beginning of Bible studies on Wednesday nights. Ten residents gather mid-week to study the Book of John.
The two owners of the mobile-home parks, totaling about fifty homes, have been allies in the church’s evangelistic efforts from the beginning. The owner of the older park donated five acres for the eventual construction of a church building, and the owner of the newer park gave First Baptist the key to the community center. Church volunteers are free to contact residents.
“It is wonderful to have help from the owners. We feel free to roam anywhere there,” Brown said. “If we had been met with ‘no soliciting’ and ‘keep out’ signs, this would have been a much harder nut to crack.”
As in most communities, the resident families’ needs are varied. Most adults work, although some are retired. Some have financial needs and a few have family members in prison. Some residents “slam the doors in our faces, and others are glad that we are concerned,” Brown said.
He said an older lady, living on her Social Security check, has attended every church gathering. She lives alone and always has abundant prayer requests. She “just needs to be loved on,” he said.
Volunteers from First Baptist will lead recreation during the summer on a field in the newer park. The church is installing soccer goals and will lead T-ball and soccer games. A playground also is in the plans.
The future also may hold the construction of “a brick and mortar church instead of a trailer,” Brown said.
“The owners’ goal is to make the parks clean and safe places to live, and anytime you introduce Christ there, it makes a difference,” he said.
Rosemont Baptist Church, Niceville
Rosemont Baptist Church in Niceville is part of an effort by several local churches to help residents of an area of mobile-home parks where “police are called all the time,” according to Pastor Doug Fannon.
Rosemont Baptist “piggybacks” with First United Methodist Church and other churches to provide an array of ministries for park residents of all ages. Local church leaders meet quarterly to coordinate their efforts. Churches refer park residents to the church that can best meet their needs. The Methodist church operates a thrift store for clothes and household items. First Baptist Church operates a pregnancy crisis center.
|Rosemont Baptist Church hosts Kidz Kount every Tuesday and Thursday afternoons after school. Volunteers offer snacks and homework help to children who live in the nearby mobile home park. Courtesy photo|
Rosemont Baptist is home to “Kidz Kount,” an after-school gathering place for park children. The church’s location, across the street from the mobile-home parks, makes a convenient spot for children to go on Tuesdays and Thursdays for an afternoon snack, homework help, tutoring and a Bible lesson.
One Saturday every other month the church hosts a family game night with free food, sports and activities. Church volunteers are “minglers in the crowd, building relationships,” Fannon said.
“We pray with whoever comes here, and we share the Gospel,” he said. “We make sure that they leave here with hope.”
Vacation Bible School leaders at Rosemont Baptist expect 70-80 children from the parks to attend this summer. Plans are already in place to handle children who show up with no parents and without emergency phone numbers. VBS teachers often walk children home when no one picks them up after VBS, Fannon said.
Rosemont Baptist ministers to families in crisis, using “the term ‘family’ loosely, since it is an elusive term there,” Fannon said. A single father went to Rosemont Baptist in 2011 seeking help in his addiction to drugs. While receiving help, he broke into the church, stole a purse and later forged checks from the purse. Fannon, a volunteer chaplain at Okaloosa County Jail, counseled the man, who was sentenced to state prison. He made a profession of faith while awaiting trial. Fannon baptized the man’s 10-year-old son May 11 after the boy’s father was released from prison. The church and a family in the church, with the help of Florida Baptist Children’s Homes’ Caring Family Program, are “overseeing the family’s progress,” Fannon said.
Although Rosemont Baptist’s 80- to 100-member congregation “can’t do it all,” Fannon said the church does not hesitate to find help for park residents from other churches’ ministries. The pastor often drives those who need help to other churches.
“We are Kingdom-minded people here in Niceville, and when someone goes to a church from the mobile-home parks, everybody rejoices,” he said.
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