DAYTONA BEACH -- As one might expect in a city of 61,000, scores of churches dot the neighborhoods of this tourist destination – but only one is known as the “church where you can get the cross.”
For the last seven years, Community UMC has been the source of a free cross pendant necklace that's touched lives not only in the surrounding community but across the city, state and beyond.
“It's an opportunity just to simply share and witness for Jesus,” says Pastor Ken Zimmerman, who started the practice after seeing a woman personally engaged in a similar ministry at First UMC, Tarpon Springs, on the west coast of Florida. “We've had folks take them back overseas and come back and ask for more.”
The practice is simple: Church members wear a cross necklace that they can then give to others when an opportunity to share the message of Jesus presents itself, although Zimmerman makes sure to add it's not a heavy-handed practice.
“There's no need to pound it into anyone,” he says.
First-time guests at a worship service at Community UMC also receive a cross necklace as a welcome gift, with instructions to “wear and share.” And when community members arrive at the church to benefit from its outreach programs, including a food pantry, they receive a cross necklace as well. In fact, people have stopped by just for a necklace and nothing else.
“We always ask them if you know what it's about,” Zimmerman says.
Although Zimmerman says a common initial response when someone is offered a necklace is “No, I can't take it,” about 12,500 necklaces have been given away in the last seven years.
The inexpensive gifts are ordered from a catalog company and provided by an individual church member no longer in Daytona Beach.
People from all walks of life – motorcycle riders, Vietnam veterans, teachers and panhandlers -- all sport the symbol of Jesus’ love for humankind.
“It crosses all socioeconomic (groups),” Zimmerman says.
If church members have given away their cross within any given week, they can share their stories at Sunday worship during a time set aside for “cross testimonies.” Members can then choose to get another cross to share.
People facing homelessness have come back to the church as a result of being given a necklace, Zimmerman says. And even children, like the 6-year-old who gave a necklace to a panhandler, are moved by the practice.
It's a tradition that's spreading, as other churches adopt their own cross necklace ministry. Churches in The Villages and Lakeland, as well as in the state of Tennessee, have started sharing cross necklaces, according to Zimmerman.
As for Community UMC, the tradition has, quite literally, become linked with its name: The image of the cross from the necklace has been incorporated into the church's printed material.
– Karen L. Shaw is a freelance writer based in Tampa.