Main Menu

Lakeland mission gives area youth alternatives

Lakeland mission gives area youth alternatives

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Lakeland mission gives area youth alternatives

By Sarah Alsgaard | April 13, 2009 {0999}

LAKELAND, Fla. — Ministry leaders describe the downtown Lakeland neighborhood around Wesley Mission as low-income, with drug deals taking place across the street from the mission and prostitution behind it.

David Collinsworth describes the mission as “first and foremost a buffer” to that activity.

Kalandrea McNeal and Terrence Driver act out a scene in a Christmas play written by David Collinsworth. Photo #09-1144.

“It’s our motto that busy hands are hands that don’t commit crime,” said Collinsworth, who works as youth pastor at the mission and lives in the community.

Collinsworth says the mission keeps boys from the neighborhood busy with basketball, card game tournaments, watching movies and just hanging out together. The girls get together Wednesday nights for their group, called God’s Angels, making dresses and jewelry, going to dinner or the mall, or doing their homework.

“It’s been my whole life,” said Terrence Driver, 15, who lives across the street from the church. “I’ve been here since I was a little kid. I like it.”

“Besides going to school and my aunt’s house, I’d be here all the time,” said Shan Thomas, 14.

Collinsworth began working as youth pastor 13 years ago at what was then Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church. Last year the church became a mission of the Florida Conference’s South Central District.

Collinsworth said the mission connects with more than 58 youth from the neighborhood and surrounding Lakeland area through Sunday school lessons and after-school activities.

“I focus on leadership building in my youth group,” he said. “I’m kind of a foundation builder where I rely heavily on the kids that come from this neighborhood and then give back to the neighborhood.”
The neighborhood was the inspiration behind a play Collinsworth wrote and members of the mission presented in December.

Titled “Joby’s Christmas Present,” the play focused on the struggles of a family to make ends meet during Christmas. The mother of the main character, a boy named Joby, played by Driver, can’t afford to pay the rent or buy crucial prescription drugs, but she buys gifts for her son. On Christmas morning Joby’s mother is taken to the hospital. The local pastor visits Joby there and explains to him the meaning of Christmas. Joby’s mother dies, but Joby learns that celebrating God is the true reason for Christmas.

David Collinsworth (third from right) and members of Wesley Mission complete their presentation of the Christmas play. Photo #09-1145.

Collinsworth said he based the play on what he has seen in the neighborhood.

“I noticed how the kids reacted during Christmas, and I noticed that the financial stability of the families was always shaken during Christmas because the kids always wanted these really expensive gadgets and clothes and toys,” he said. “The family ends up going into debt and can’t pay rent at the end of January, end of February.”

“It relates to this ministry because there’s also people here that were going through the same thing as Joby’s mom,” said Kalandrea McNeal, who played Joby’s mother in the play. “So it’s like it’s kind of an eye-opener … to make them feel like, OK, they’re not the only ones that go through this.”

The Rev. Dr. Larry Rankin, volunteer pastor at the mission, says Collinsworth initially developed the youth ministry around basketball with the boys, but it has become much more than that. “He became sort of a surrogate father for many of these young people,” Rankin said.

The mission’s gym has also become the focal point of ministry for both the mission’s activities and those of other ministries, according to Rankin.

Parker Street Ministries uses the gym for weekly after-school programs for about 30 to 40 area children. Alcoholics Anonymous uses the gym for its weeknight meetings, and until recently, a program called Prodigy, which teaches arts and drama to children, also used the facilities.

Wesley is like a community center for the neighborhood, Rankin says, and is “literally keeping at bay more darker elements that would really be very damaging to the (youth), such as drugs and prostitution and some other issues.”

Despite those strides, the mission faces an uncertain future.

“We’re reaching a point where almost 10 years ago … (the congregation) reached the point where they could no longer sustain the ministries of the church,” Rankin said. “And they have been living with bequests and some other resources for quite some time now, and those resources are going to come to an end unless there’s some new monies that come in through grants or other programs or through other ministries that could help supply it.”

When asked what she would do without the church, Thomas said, “What would I do? That’s the question. What would I do? I don’t know.”

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 for e-Review.