Planting seeds in historic Seminole Heights




It’s hard sometimes for pastors to know if their efforts to reach people are flowering, but all Matt Horan has to do is look at the new butterfly garden in front of his church, Seminole Heights United Methodist. It’s a gift from the neighborhood association.

Debi Johnson, president of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association, said the group is always looking for ways to make improvements around the historic neighborhood just outside downtown Tampa.

The Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association, which has been working on beautification projects throughout their historic neighborhood in Tampa, recently offered a landscaping makeover for Seminole Heights UMC.

“It’s a close-knit community of small businesses and bungalows dating to the 1920s. There are no strip malls,” said Autumn Schwab, who, with her husband Charles White, owns Dragonfly Landscape and Water Gardens. “There’s a small-town feel.”

Schwab is a member of the association’s greenspace committee, which received a $2,500 grant from Hillsborough County for a beautification project.

They decided that Seminole Heights Methodist, an imposing brick church at the corner of Hanna and Central avenues, could do with some sprucing up.

“I saw a blank slate,” Schwab said. “Pastor Matt has pushed to change the feel of the church and open it up to the community, and we want to support them. We approached Matt, and he was super excited.”

Horan was super excited because he saw it as an answer to prayer.

“I’ve been praying for ways to reconnect this church with the neighborhood,” said Horan, who has been pastor for four years.

Seminole Heights was founded in 1927, and at its peak in the 1950s had 2,000 members, he said. Membership dropped as the neighborhood changed, and today 60 people are in the pews on a good Sunday.

The congregation is now a mix of young adults in their 20s and 30s, who live in the neighborhood, and older adults in their 70s and 80s, who live outside the neighborhood. The church has few middle-age members, so young members have assumed leadership.

“It’s been a long season in decline,” Horan said. “It’s a turnaround project. I keep telling the members, let’s do this the right way. Let’s be the hands and feet of Jesus in our neighborhood.

People have bought into that.”

Seminole Heights has reached out to the neighborhood by making the church available for events, as well as hosting movie nights, selling pumpkins in the fall and trees at Christmas. They’ve installed church bells that chime the hour.

The neighborhood is popular with young singles and families.

“A lot of them are ‘nones.’ They don’t have a lot of church baggage, but there’s a cultural barrier to going to church,” he said. “What I’m hearing is: ‘I don’t go to church but if I was going to go, this is where I’d go.’ I think that’s progress.

“Then to have the neighborhood to reach out to connect with us was the answer to prayer,” he said. “God’s solution is a lot better than my solution.”

About 50 volunteers spent two weekends working on the project—clearing the site one weekend and planting and mulching the next.

Coincidentally, a father with a daughter in the church’s preschool offered to repair the irrigation system, which Horan said hasn’t worked in about 20 years. The neighborhood association added drip lines.

Schwab said for the landscaping, she chose flowering plants that would attract butterflies and add lots of colors: blues with plumbago and blue daze, yellows with thryallis and lantana, pinks with hawthorn, loropetalum and muhly grass.

“It really changes the whole feel of it,” Schwab said. “Nothing makes people smile more than flowers.”

Except maybe answered prayer.

--Lilla Ross is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville.



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