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The Portico launches at new downtown Tampa campus

The Portico launches at new downtown Tampa campus

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An overflow gathering eagerly filed into a place called The Portico, the new downtown Tampa campus of Hyde Park United Methodist Church, for the inaugural weekly worship service on Sept. 11.

“In 2013 we started talking about how we could be a gift to the city,” the Rev. Justin LaRosa, lead pastor of The Portico, told worshippers gathered for the first service.

LaRosa and church leaders held focus groups with the community to help define the mission of the downtown campus.

They decided The Portico would be “a place in the city to gather for conversation, connection and participation in community change,” he said.

Already, twice weekly meditation, as well as monthly porch parties, documentary film nights and an array of other events have taken place here. It is hoped the start of evening worship services will help solidify the campus’s role in the community.

“It really does connect with those that are spirit seeking in downtown,” said the Rev. Magrey deVega, Hyde Park’s senior pastor.

“It also seeks to draw in those who might not have a church background or who have had bad experiences with churches in the past,” LaRosa said.

The Sept. 11 launch coincided with the 15-year anniversary terrorist attacks. “It’s so embedded in our collective memory,” deVega told the congregation, reminding them “the only center that matters in times of chaos is Jesus Christ.”

The Portico services are also said to take a bit of an unconventional approach combining the Bible, communion and praise music with meditation and discussion.

Left to right, Revs. Justin LaRosa and Vicki Walker, lay leader Cheryl Parrish and Rev. Magrey deVega lead a dedication service for the installation of the 'Homeless Jesus' statue at The Portico earlier this year. Photo by B.C. Manion.

Hyde Park leaders had hoped for 120 to commit to attending services, aligning with what the church says experts call the ideal number needed to launch a new church. According to deVega, Hyde Park UMC also realized that 120 was a biblically rooted number representing the number of people gathered at the moment of Pentecost.

With 150 answering the call, it was standing room only.

Currently, the sanctuary and administration building are in the midst of a $2 million renovation which will have the mission of aiding society’s most vulnerable.

The Portico took over the former location of First United Methodist Church of Tampa – the oldest Methodist church in the city, which closed its doors in 2011 after a vote by the Florida Conference.

“The decision to close a church is not one the conference takes lightly,” deVega said.

The conference transferred the campus to Hyde Park, located a little more than a mile away, because it believed Hyde Park was uniquely positioned to leverage the assets of the First United congregation and use it in a meaningful way that would help transform the urban core, deVega said.

“I want to be as supportive as possible,” said Hyde Park member Linda Hurley, who attended the first service and was said to appreciate the adventurous way they go about things. “I love the spontaneity, the openness,” she said.

Tea Reljic, who serves on The Portico’s event planning team, said she decided to get involved at the campus after taking part in Disciple Bible Study.

“It challenged me to step out of my comfort zone of faith and not just attend Sunday service,” she said. “I wanted to contribute more to the development of downtown Tampa.”

Among The Portico’s many missions will be supporting the city’s artistic community. A massive mural, “For the Love of THIS City,” representing Tampa’s rich history, has been painted on the side of the campus’s Branscomb Hall.

A second work of art – a life-size bronze “Homeless Jesus” statue, depicting Jesus sleeping on a park bench, also underscores The Portico’s mission of aiding the homeless.

The statue is a replica of the original by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz. It portrays Jesus sleeping under a blanket. His bare feet are uncovered, showing the nail marks in his feet.

The Portico has already helped several previously homeless individuals move into new homes.

“Our opportunity is all around us. We don’t have to look very far,” LaRosa said.

Starting this fall, the non-profit Love INC (Love in the Name of Christ) will be located on the campus. The organization aims to bring together churches, individuals and community organizations, reaching across denominations to provide assistance for those in need.

“The Portico is really a central hub for addressing the problems we face together,” deVega said.

--Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa.