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Doing well, doing good

"Doing well, doing good" Continued...

Issue: "Beyond hate speech," Aug. 20, 2005

Just a few hops, skips, and jumps from the front door of the sanctuary are the seven buildings the church constructed. The facilities, totaling 33,600 square feet under roof on four acres of land, with a current valuation of more than $4 million, include:

  • A Women's Care Center decorated in feminine shades of beige and green. It has 18 beds for women "who are tired of being who they are," according to director Charlotte Rubush: Residents must attend daily Bible study and church on Wednesday and Sunday. Some sing in the choir or participate in the church's nursing-home ministry; that furthers the goal to bring these women into the church community.
  • A Men's Residence decorated in utilitarian cinderblock and linoleum. It has 30 beds for those determined to overcome past addictions: Residents spend four months studying the Bible and taking classes in subjects like how to be a man, how to be financially responsible, and how to manage anger. They typically spend four months more in getting and holding onto a job, saving money, getting a car, and preparing to move out on their own.
  • A Pregnancy Care Center with 35 active and regular volunteers who provide free pregnancy testing, medical referrals, nutrition classes, and adoption assistance. Clients who receive ongoing counseling and support pick out their own maternity clothes and receive other help.
  • A Community Medical Care Center that has provided free care to 6,000 of the 8,000 low-income, uninsured residents in the church's region. As director Howard Vesser says, "It's on our property, we present Christ to everyone who comes, and Leesburg Regional Hospital gives us a quarter of a million dollars each year because it saves them a fortune: Everyone we see is someone they don't have to."
  • A Residential Group Home that provides long-term shelter for nine children who have emotional problems that make them unready for foster care and are old enough to make adoption unlikely. Houseparents Mike and Kim McElroy report small but significant victories: After a year, a little boy who wouldn't talk, hug, or hold hands grabbed Mrs. McElroy's hand. An older boy started destroying everything he could, until police came and took him away in handcuffs; Mr. McElroy recalls, "We could have said, 'don't come back,' but we took him back, and since then he's been a changed person."
  • A Children's Shelter that provides emergency housing for 16 kids ages 6 through 17. Director Myra Wood, formerly an investigator with the Florida Department of Children and Families, notes that some of the children had "slept in a corner with animal feces," but the shelter offers them quilts on their beds and orderly lives.
  • A Benevolence Center where 70 volunteers help 1,000 people a month who come with proof of imminent housing eviction or utility cutoffs, or who fill out information sheets and then receive food and clothing. First Baptist has established limits: financial help once in a six-month period, with payment by voucher rather than cash; a two-day supply of food; eight items of clothing per person.

Those ministries have buildings of their own, but 70 others take place in general-purpose church buildings or out in the community. Among them are Adoption Counseling for Birthparents, Backyard Bible Clubs, Caring Hands Deaf Ministry, Divorce Recovery Support Group, Furniture Barn, Grief Share, Haitian Ministry, Jail Ministry, Literacy Classes, Mother's Day Out Program, Nursing Home Ministry, Post Abortion Support Group, and so on. First Baptist also houses its own Christian school, First Academy, which has 400 students and a tuition of $4,600 per year.

The church particularly emphasizes its mentoring program (which includes before- and after-school tutoring), summer reading program, abstinence education, and a "Saturday Sunday school" that unites Saturday-morning activities and Christ-centered mentoring for poor children. First Baptist is largely white but its mentoring program is directed by Minister of Community Relations Ken Scrubbs, an African-American who received one of five Mentor of Excellence awards given out last year by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Not everyone likes the Leesburg approach. Some pastors argue that churches should emphasize worship only, with other Christian groups handling social ministries. Given the theological splits that emerged a century ago, many conservative evangelicals fear creeping social gospelism and worry that emphasizing social ministries will inhibit evangelism and church growth. First Baptist opposes to that its own strong, biblical preaching and its experience. Before the new emphasis, the church added about 30 members a year through baptism, with new members typically the children or relatives of those already in the church. Now (to use one measurement of growth) the church regularly baptizes 200-300 persons each year.

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