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Tough love leads to Project Love, a community ministry

Tough love leads to Project Love, a community ministry

Editor's note: When a discontinued congregation vacates its campus because of declining membership, it may seem like a death knell. But some hear a clarion call to keep God's work in the house. This is the last in a series of stories about church campuses retooled to continue ministry in the afterlife of a departed congregation. 

ELOISE – By 2011, four years after Eloise UMC was discontinued, the church was housing a congregation of immigrants, so to speak -- but not from the surrounding community where farmworkers from Mexico and Central America were taking root.

Exterior of former Eloise UMC (now St. John's UMC mission)
A community ministry center in Eloise near Winter Haven retains the look of a church as volunteers report there for God's work. Photos by Susan Green.
Sanctuary with sewing supplies, clothes on tables
Volunteers have plenty of space to sort clothes, keep fabric and supplies for sewing classes and run a food pantry, among other ministries, at Project Love.

Nearby St. John’s UMC, Winter Haven, was charged with developing a mission on the Eloise campus, according to Florida Conference records. But a few former Eloise UMC members were driving from Bartow and Fort Meade to worship there, said Rev. Dan Parrish, who became St. John’s pastor in 2011. 

“There was a little remnant that the former pastor allowed to stay there and hold services on Sunday,” Parrish recalled.

After Parrish was appointed to St. John’s, he met with the Eloise group to discuss their role in the future of the church campus.

“I said, ‘Who is it that you’re called to minister to? What about those right around the church?’”

As St. John’s moved to provide Vacation Bible School, a health care clinic and other ministries to the local community, only one family from the former Eloise UMC initially took part. And that participation was short-lived.

“We never saw them again,” Parrish said. “They did not have any desire to reach out beyond their own little group. … If you’re not here to minister to the community in which you exist, you need to think about what you’re doing.”

Today, the 50-year-old church building looks pretty much the same from the road.

“Everything is the same from the outside,” said Janey Powell, who with her husband, Larry, and other volunteers from St. John’s and elsewhere, oversees a health care clinic called Angels Care in the Eloise church’s former fellowship hall.

Inside the buildings, though, everything has changed. Butterfly artwork, courtesy of a local artist who teaches classes at the site, offers a symbol of transformation. The campus is now a community hub of services to address the spiritual and physical needs of the low-income residents who live nearby. 
Detergent and toiletries that will stuff a giveaway bag for seniors
Detergent and toiletries for Project Love giveaway bags are among items that can help seniors save money for pressing needs.
A green tomato with other crops in the background
A plot of vegetables behind the former Eloise UMC offers community residents a chance to learn gardening skills through Project Love.

The church sanctuary is now Project Love, named for a nationally recognized ministry started in the Eloise area long ago by St. John’s members under the leadership of Ann Thayer, who died in 2011.

With the help of St. John’s members, community volunteers and United Methodist NOMADS workers, the church kitchen was remodeled and the former church sanctuary has been turned into a multipurpose space.

Open three days a week, it accommodates sewing, art and nutrition classes, Bible study, a food pantry, a clothes closet and a place for volunteers to pack gift bags of toiletries and comfort items for seniors in need. A small plot of vegetables staked out on campus provides an outdoor classroom for budding gardeners.

Powell said she marvels at how quickly the ministries at Eloise came together. She rattles off donations that include medical equipment for Angels Care and industrial-sized coolers for Project Love.

The resurrected Project Love opened in August 2013 and offered assistance to more than 650 people in its first six months of operation. About 6,000 have sought help at Angels Care since it opened in March 2011.

“Obviously, this building has become just the center here for the community,” Powell said. “This is now a migrant and working poor community. They’re really good people, but they’re really struggling just for the basics in life.”

About a dozen churches of various denominations have pulled together to supply funding and volunteers for the ministries.

“It’s not about denominations,” Powell said. “We’re just all God’s children working together.”

Parrish said he has been touched that some of those who receive services at the center return to volunteer.

“The joy has been to watch these folks come and give back,” he said. “It’s a real message of God’s love.”

-- Susan Green is the managing editor of Florida Conference Connection.