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Church launches community center, expands scope of ministry

Church launches community center, expands scope of ministry

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Church launches community center, expands scope of ministry

By Sarah Alsgaard | April 24, 2009 {1007}

NORTH FORT MYERS, Fla. — Visitors can expect to receive at least one hug before walking through the doors of Grace Community Center. Located in North Fort Myers, the center offers a variety of programs to help people in need, but hugging comes first.

Door greeter Brian Rankin (right) hugs another church member before worship. Photo by Sarah Alsgaard. Photo #09-1158.

“It could be your first time here, and you feel like family,” said Kim Maffeo, a door greeter at the center. “Where else do you walk into church on Sunday and you get hugged walking in the door? Not just a handshake, but a hug?”

“It is actually a community center more than it is a church,” said Nicole Stillson, who helps with the center’s operation. “When you come in on Sunday morning, everyone kind of knows each other, whereas I’ve spent many years where I just sat in the pew by myself back at the other church.”

Grace Community Center offers a Sunday morning church service, but the rest of the week is dedicated to GED and parenting classes, a celebrate recovery program, and free medical care for area residents. It also operates a thrift shop and food bank, helps out in the neighborhood surrounding the community center, and donates goods to the homeless.

It’s the third campus of Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral, Fla. A second facility, called the Olga Fort Myers Shores Campus, is located in Fort Myers.

“Just behind the center here there is the lowest socio-economic area in Lee County,” said the Rev. Arlene Jackson, who shares preaching responsibilities at the community center and works as director of adult discipleship at Grace United Methodist Church. “We’ve been praying for the people that nobody else wants and nobody else sees and nobody else cares about — the invisible people — for years. And this has just been a culmination of those dreams coming true for us.”

Nearly 600 people attended the launch of Grace Community Center late last year. Photo courtesy of Grace United Methodist Church. Photo #09-1159.

The Rev. Jorge Acevedo, senior pastor at Grace United Methodist Church, first thought about starting a community center in September 2006, according to Christopher Jackson, director of the center. The goal, Acevedo said in an interview with e-Review in 2007, was to provide more holistic ministry to the poor and marginalized in the Cape Coral community and offer more multi-site ministry. Additionally, the Grace Church campus simply needed more space. Acevedo said the church seats about 600 people, but on any given Sunday 1,500 to 1,800 people would worship at the church.

Grace Church bought a closed supermarket in 2007 — doubling the church’s space — and began transforming it into the community center. The 56,000-square foot facility is now in its sixth month of operation.

“This was a God-sized dream that God placed on Jorge’s heart,” Jackson said. “(This center) has been blessed so mightily.”

Maffeo, a member of the community center, volunteers her time however she can and attends the parenting class given during the week. On Sunday mornings she acts as a door greeter.

“I’ve been through some hard times, and everybody here is like a family,” she said. “They walk you through it — every season of your life. It’s just awesome.”

Brian Rankin is a door greeter who seems to know everyone and makes sure to hug everyone at least once.

“The first time I stepped on the Grace campus I felt at home, and I’ve been here for three years now,” Rankin said. “I came into recovery three years ago now. This is where I found God. This was my turning point.”

Approximately 250 people attend the center’s Sunday morning service, which lasts half the day, Arlene Jackson said. 

“The other six and a half days we are a community, holistic healing center where people can come and have those other things happen for them,” she said.

The Rev. Arlene Jackson (left) and volunteer Darline Pinheiro hug before worship. Photo by Sarah Alsgaard. Photo #09-1160.

About 100 volunteers work in the thrift store, which runs parallel to the worship area. Items for the store come from Grace United Methodist church members, people who shop at the thrift store and individuals who know about the store’s ministry.

“As a community becomes more aware of it, I think it will continue to have community support,” said Darline Pinheiro, who volunteers for various projects and helps at the front of the church on Sunday mornings.

In the future, Maffeo and Rankin say they hope to see the community center grow and expand.

So does Christopher Jackson. He said he hopes the project remains “at the center of God’s will.”

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.