TAMPA – Like many United Methodist congregations, Seminole Heights UMC hosts a movie night as a family affair that unites a church with its community.
But the congregation recently upped the appeal by inviting commercial food trucks to the campus, making dinner and a movie the kind of convenient, low-stress outing many parents only dream about.
On the church lawn on a recent Saturday evening, dozens of children tossed a football, spun hula hoops around and line-danced to the rhythmic instructions for the "Cha-Cha Slide."
"Slide to the right. Slide to the left. Cha-cha real smooth."
Parents flapped blankets on the grass, unfolded lawn chairs and pulled snacks out of backpacks, settling in front of an outdoor screen. The evening's movie was "Home," an animated science-fiction movie starring actor Jim Parsons.
Around the corner, lines formed at the open windows of three food trucks: Aloha to Go, The Dude with the Food and Steveorino's Italian Favorites. Menus included Hawaiian-style wraps, sirloin cheese steaks and pizzadillas.
"I love this kind of stuff," says Jason Gonzales, who brought his 8-year-old daughter, Melia. "I think it's great for the church. It's a great community event."
Movie night is a restart of a community-oriented event that church members remember from years past. For a congregation seeking to reinvigorate its role in the community, it’s also a way to connect with the neighborhood, and food trucks give the event an added twist.
The restaurants on wheels are a foodie trend in Tampa and at popular Seminole Heights venues, including the seasonal Sunday market days outside nearby Hillsborough High School.
The Sept. 26 family event at Seminole Heights followed a similar event in April, which marked the first time the church invited food trucks. That spring event drew about 200 people, recalls Sarah Ellis, operations and communications director for the church. Plans are to have quarterly movie nights.
About 25 church volunteers pitched in to produce fliers and press releases, sell concessions and secure the film for screening.
While events such as movie night are simple gestures, they carry clear messages about the church and its value in the community, says Pastor Matt Horan.
"It gets to your reputation in the neighborhood, to where if you need something spiritual, you think, 'Oh, I think I'll go there,' " Horan says. "It's been a neat opportunity to build a bridge that wasn't there before."
Horan became pastor about two years ago, after serving as associate pastor at Hyde Park UMC, Tampa.
The church he pastors now sits on a visible corner of oak-shaded Seminole Heights at Hanna and Central avenues. It is across the street from Seminole Heights Elementary School and a short distance from Memorial Middle and Hillsborough High schools.
Horan, a former English teacher, says the church is an active partner with the neighborhood's schools.
The movie was free but proceeds from sales of popcorn, sodas and candy will help pay for scholarships for children to go to camps. On another occasion, money was given to pay for headphones for a computer lab. The church also will host a Pumpkin Patch spaghetti dinner on Oct. 18 to collect money for its own preschool and Seminole Heights Elementary.
Last winter, the church sold Christmas trees as the choir stood outside and sang Christmas songs, inviting passersby to join in.
Community outreach is the main focus, but Horan says the activities have brought people into the church -- at least to give it a try -- and some may stay on as members.
"It could be that people come to faith in Christ because they bought a Christmas tree," Horan says.
Most people who come to movie nights are from the surrounding neighborhood. Many can walk from their homes.
David Bryant, his wife, Anastasia, and their 9-year-old daughter, Jackie, remember the movie nights from about two years ago. They live in the neighborhood and come to some Sunday services. Bryant says they are thinking about becoming church members.
"I think [movie night] is great," David Bryant says. "I think it's a good attraction for the community. It's kid-friendly."
Deni Blankenship, and her mother, Carole Blankenship, grew up in Seminole Heights and are lifelong church members.
"We've got a lot of new faces," Carole Blankenship says.
Her daughter, who is lay leader and active with the church's youth ministry, says movie night helps neighbors know the church cares about the community
"It shows the church has an open heart, open mind and open door."
– Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.