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Job loss, economy prompt church to reach out

Job loss, economy prompt church to reach out

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Job loss, economy prompt church to reach out

By Sarah Alsgaard | Dec. 15, 2008 {0953}

SARASOTA — Neighbors stopped by Crossroads United Methodist Church in Sarasota one day in November to get sleeping bags, workman’s boots and food. Organizers also hoped the visit gave them a little hope.

“People need to know that the community is coming together to help them, and they need to know where to go to get help so they don’t lose hope,” said Keith Givens, who was in charge of advertising for the Nov. 8 outreach event, called HOPE for the Community.

Volunteers prepare to distribute clothing at the HOPE for the Community event coordinated Nov. 8 by Crossroads United Methodist Church in Sarasota. Photo by Kevin Hayes. Photo #08-1068.

More than 70 organizations, hundreds of volunteers and approximately 1,000 people participated. The church distributed hundreds of sleeping bags, boots and more than 350 weeks’ worth of food. Volunteers also gave away 2,000 items of clothing and 1,000 prizes for children.

The event took place from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., and there was still a long line for sleeping bags and boots near the end of the day.

“Everybody’s getting laid off, and there’s a lot of people that are homeless,” said Robert Fellows, director of outreach ministry at Crossroads. “There’s a lot of people that don’t have any jobs at all, and some are only working one or two days a week, and that’s not something you can support a family on.”

With the event taking place only 10 weeks after the idea was conceived, the Rev. Bob Suter, pastor of the church, said it was a “God thing.”

“I know it was God because I don’t think you can humanly do this in six or seven weeks,” he said. “I don’t think you can get the coverage or the draw that happened here in that amount of time if it wasn’t God and the prayer. All we did was send out letters and pray … this had God all over it, which was part of my prayer, to be honest.”  

Many of the organizations the team initially invited to participate declined to help, Suter said. Organizers remained positive, however, and formed groups to pray for the organizations. Suter said many ended up calling back and agreeing to help.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital gave free HIV testing, and both Manatee Pregnancy and Women’s Health Center and Sarasota Pregnancy Center participated in the event, as did Second Chance, Last Opportunity. Participants also received free haircuts, flu shots and dental services, according to Givens.

“We relied on God,” said T.J. Donato, who coordinated the volunteers’ schedules. “We prayed a lot and had weekly, if not daily, sessions of prayer, and we really put it in God’s hands, and if a couple doors closed, four or five opened.” 

The outreach was Suter’s idea, and he felt it needed to take place before Thanksgiving.

Robert Fellows, director of outreach ministry at Crossroads United Methodist Church in Sarasota, speaks with a neighbor attending the church’s outreach event. Photo by Kevin Hayes. Photo #08-1069.

“It came from a dream and then a vision and then a lot of wrestling with God,” Suter said. “To not pull churches together as much as pull the community together. To not only meet needs, but, more importantly, to find out what the real needs are. We all try to guess at them, and so many people fall through the cracks.” 

Approximately 300 children also attended the event, according to Aimee Donato, the event’s kids coordinator. Activities for them included two bounce houses, games, prizes, clowns, circus acts, face-painting and caricature drawing, Donato said.

Dyana Suter was in charge of distributing free clothing.

“We went through just about everything, so I would say over 2,000 items left here,” she said. “Almost 1,000 T-shirts were donated, and then we purchased the Crosswords HOPE for the community T-shirts — 1,000 of those — and then we purchased some real good deal on sweatshirts and sweatpants for children.”

HOPE for the Community also provided 1,374 hamburgers and 1,000 hotdogs at no charge, which church member Jay Martin and 15 other volunteers cooked.

“I’m just really proud of our minister,” Martin said. “This was his idea; he has a real heart for helping people.” 

Dyana says the event may become annual, part of the church’s ongoing ministry to its community.

“The thing is that the people who need help now know where we are,” said Mike Bullerdick, who volunteered at the event. “We’ve got this ministry going on every day, and we have a feeding ministry.”

“This is not about the church; it’s not about the people,” Fellows said. “It’s about the Lord. It’s about the people that are in need, and it’s just a community-wide outreach program, but we’re not trying to promote any one church or anything else.”

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is a freelance writer based in Lakeland.