A preview of heaven? Tampa Korean models diversity

WESLEY CHAPEL -- The miracle that members of Crossroads Community UMC prayed for never happened the way they hoped it would.

But faith can be tested in many ways.

In April, Crossroads Community and Tampa Korean UMC joined together as "one in Christ.” Crossroads’ former pastor, Jeff Smith, passed the ceremonial stole to Tampa Korean's pastor, Seung Lin Baik.

It had been an amazing journey for both congregations. Crossroads made the painful decision to close. Tampa Korean, which stepped in to buy the church's Wesley Chapel campus on County Line Road, extended an invitation for Crossroads to continue its legacy by joining Tampa Korean.

About 100 worshipers gathered that first Sunday. About 30 or so of Crossroads' displaced members - a melting pot of whites, African-Americans and Hispanics - were welcomed by their Korean brethren with prayers, fellowship and a luncheon. Members of the Florida Conference also attended and offered prayers for the church's future.

"There certainly was a lot of sadness (for Crossroads) but good hope for the future," says Rev. Dan Jackson. He became the conference's director of New Church Development in September 2013.

For Ralph Hayes, who served on Crossroads’ leadership team, that first Sunday was a day of reflection and joy.

"I'm excited to see where it goes," he says, "and where God is going to take us." 

Members of Tampa Korean UMC form a serving line for a feed-the-hungry mission
Members of Tampa Korean UMC band together on a mission to serve the hungry in Tampa. Photos from tampaenglishministry.org.

Tampa Korean, then almost 40 years old, also had made a difficult choice. For many years, the church was nestled in a tree-shaded campus in a part of Tampa known as South Seminole Heights, serving a diverse congregation that came from Sarasota, Citrus County and, in large numbers, from Wesley Chapel. But worshipers had outgrown the location.

"It's a really neat ministry," says Andy Craske, loan vice president with the Florida United Methodist Foundation. "It is unique in that it’s regional and ethnic. They have a highly active core in Wesley Chapel, but they were thinking as a regional ministry."

At the same time, Crossroads was struggling to hold onto its church building following the real estate collapse in 2008.

More than 15 years ago, the church began with a Bible study group of about a dozen members. As Tampa commuters began to fill new housing developments springing up on the Hillsborough-Pasco County line, the group blossomed into a church holding services at make-do locations, including Clark Elementary School in New Tampa and Wharton High School in Tampa. Crossroads was chartered in 2002 and moved into the Creative Times Academy in Wesley Chapel.

By 2005, church members began thinking about building a church and took out loans from the conference's Committee for New Church Development and the foundation. 

"One day in heaven, this is the way it's going to be. ... You really feel the presence of the Lord there."

-- Ralph Hayes, on the cultural diversity of his new church,Tampa Korean UMC

A year later, Crossroads celebrated a bright future in a new building and a membership of about 300. But as economic recession took hold, the church struggled to meet monthly mortgage payments and membership began to decline.

The foundation mapped out an 18-month financial recovery plan, but the numbers never headed in the right direction.

"They weren't reviving and strengthening as we hoped," Craske says. "The loans weren't even close to the value of the property."

But, he adds, "God works in mysterious ways."

Crossroads’ needs and Tampa Korean's search for a new home offered unexpected opportunities as the conference reached out to help, including Rev. Sharon Davis, who was then a transitional specialist in the South Central District.

"She played Realtor, negotiator, the whole bit," Craske says.

The decision to close Crossroads came in March. "The foundation worked with us and tried to make it happen. We were praying for a miracle but also trying to figure out what we could do," Hayes recalls. "It just never came to fruition."

Not all Crossroads' members chose to join Tampa Korean UMC.

"There are many who are still searching," Hayes says.  

Sanctuary of Tampa Korean, built in 2006
Tampa Korean UMC now worships in the former Crossroads Community UMC on the county line between Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

Pastor James Kim says the transition at times has seemed overwhelming. He joined as the English pastor for Tampa Korean on the second Sunday after the two churches united.

Baik is minister for the Korean services, which are held at 11 a.m. English services are at 9:30 a.m. There are opportunities also for shared events.

Kim was born in Korea but as an infant moved with his parents to Africa and later to Brazil, Texas and California. His dream was to pastor a multicultural church. He had been disappointed when that didn't happen while he lived in Los Angeles for several years.

"I realized it wasn't by my effort but that God had been doing this thing," Kim says of his first sermon at Tampa Korean.

"I was very touched at seeing 100 faces and all those faces looking up at me. It was like standing on holy ground. My vision has always been to do something multicultural, and I believe God has been preparing me for this all my life."

There have been challenges in blending two congregations and bridging cultural divides.

"One of the things we need to emphasize is cultural awareness and remind people that God loves and cherishes people wherever they come from," Kim says. "We don't have to lose our differences."

The congregation newsletter recently announced upcoming plans for a Korean Culture Night at the church, with support from the Tampa Korean Culture Center. Food, Korean drumming and dancing and a subtitled Korean movie are on the agenda.

The opportunities for multicultural fellowship and worship led Hayes to join Tampa Korean.

"One day in heaven, this is the way it's going to be," he says. "You really feel the presence of the Lord there."

-- Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.





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