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Religion | Churches are coming up with creative ways to meet struggling people's physical needs-and opening doors to address their even deeper spiritual needs

Issue: "Terrorism: Unmasked men," Oct. 16, 2004

Cecil Johnson is certain he once met an angel. It was on July 28, 1996. Fleeing a decades-long crack cocaine habit, Mr. Johnson had left Eustis, Fla., the day before on foot and walked all night in a soaking Southern rain. He was determined to hitch a ride to Atlanta.

"I just needed to get out from around drugs," he said. It was a humble departure for a man who had once been an uptown drug dealer, spending lavishly on the ladies from a suitcase full of cash he kept in the trunk of his canary-yellow Lincoln Towncar.

That was before the dope got hold of his soul. By the mid-'80s, "I wasn't the dealer anymore," Mr. Johnson says. "I was his best customer." But by 1996, he was tired of that. So, 48 years old, drug-ravaged, and broke, Cecil Johnson took off walking. He wept as he went, crying out to a God he had never met.

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Night passed and morning came. Then, at a service station at the intersection of Highways 44 and 441 near Leesburg, Fla., up drove a man in a pickup truck. Mr. Johnson told the driver he was headed for Atlanta, but the man took him instead to a men's rehabilitation home run by First Baptist Church (FBC) of Leesburg. The man arranged for Mr. Johnson to stay at the home, then told him, "I have to leave now, but I'll be back to check on you."

"He ain't been back yet," Mr. Johnson says of the man who was at least an angel of mercy, "but thank God he took me there."

His feelings echo those of hundreds helped through FBC's "high touch" outreaches to the needy. The church is among many in the nation delivering compassion in innovative ways that meet both physical and spiritual needs.

Situated an hour west of Orlando, FBC today runs more than 60 programs for the poor, imprisoned, divorced, ill, unwed-and-pregnant, addicted, and otherwise needy. Such outreach began 25 years ago, when new senior pastor Charles Roesel kept hammering home a message: that FBC had a responsibility to really help people. A number of ideas evolved, including one that wasn't too popular: The church could buy the two-story house across the street from FBC and open a shelter to help men recover from drug and alcohol problems.

The notion split the church nearly in half. Those in favor cited the Bible's mandate to help the needy. Those opposed noted that the house was 75 feet from the church's front steps. Was it such a good idea to have a houseful of drunks and addicts so near?

The plan to build the shelter prevailed, and its success soon changed the minds of the dissenters. "The impact of the shelter was astounding," said FBC executive pastor Art Ayris. First, a few men-not all, he is quick to add-kicked drugs and got their lives turned around. Some made commitments to follow Christ; some found jobs.

Cecil Johnson did both. He not only kicked crack and joined FBC, where he worked as a groundskeeper and became an usher, then a deacon-he also got married, opened his own landscaping business, and now has four men working for him.

Since opening the men's home FBC has expanded its works of compassion, opening a pregnancy care center, a community health clinic, a women's shelter, a children's shelter, and a children's group home. All combine Christian teaching and varying levels of evangelism, from low-key with kids to direct biblical instruction in the case of adult addicts. "We meet all kinds of needs, but we understand that people's greatest need is reconciliation with God through Christ," Mr. Ayris said. "We've found that when you help with physical needs, people are much more open to the gospel."

Tom Shirk agrees. Pastor of Calvary Bible Church in Boulder, Colo., Mr. Shirk said volunteers from his congregation have brought the gospel to city- and county-run social services programs such as Heritage House, a 12-bed county-run foster home for teenage girls. Calvary connected with Heritage last fall when the church began taking on "kingdom assignments," a series of innovative, compassion-centered outreach challenges. One assignment called for volunteers to sell one possession worth at least $100 and donate the money to a church fund designated for helping Boulder's needy.

The 115-year-old congregation hadn't always looked at Boulder as a mercy mission. In fact, most leaders and members viewed the city as a godless and politically hostile university town in which Calvary was more of a refuge for believers than a lighthouse for the lost. But during the '90s, said Mr. Shirk, "We committed ourselves to bringing blessing." Members of the congregation began to volunteer at local social service organizations, including homeless shelters, rehabilitation centers, and homes for displaced children and youth. Then in 2003 came the series of "kingdom assignments," further lifting the century-old bushel from over Calvary's light.

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