The state of Florida banned gill-net fishing more than 23 years ago because of concerns it was killing fish and sea mammals, such as turtles and dolphins.
Some have called it one of the most controversial conservation measures in state history. Others say it rescued fishing in Florida.
But for residents of the quaint seaside village known as Cedar Key, it was a 911 call for a new way of life that is still evolving. It hasn’t been easy; but when residents struggle, it’s a call to action for churches and non-profit organizations.
|Rev. Susie Horner|
One of the churches that stepped up was Cedar Key United Methodist Church, pastored by the Rev. Susie Horner since July 2015. The church has always been passionate about helping the community, and there is a vital need for what it has to offer. Both the church and community pursued the future with resilience.
“We are an open, welcoming and loving church,” Horner said. “Everyone is welcome to come and worship with us. We're not just a group. We're a family.”
It is a relatively small family. During summer months, about 30 people attend services. In the winter season, that number swells between 50 and 80.
“We're not a big church, at all,” Horner said. “I'm amazed that a little church can do as much as we do.”
After the net ban was put in place, some Cedar Key residents began to focus on tourism over fishing, and that important industry exists today. But Cedar Key remains a community with pockets of economic upheaval.
The 2 1/2-mile long, 2.1-square-mile, walkable island—situated among a cluster of barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico, known as the Cedar Keys—also was home to generations of fishermen. They held on to what they knew, the often difficult, but rewarding, life working the water.
Though she has only been in the Cedar Key community for three years, Horner understands how the net ban “really decimated the economy here.”
Tourism has helped, but it has been a mixed blessing. When wealthier people moved onto the island as seasonal residents, the domino effect caused everyone's property taxes to increase. That led to more strain on struggling year-round residents.
“Now do they not only not have work,” she said. “Now they cannot afford the taxes for where they live. That's caused a lot of them to move off of the island.”
Financially, it's difficult to make ends meet working one of the non-maritime jobs in Cedar Key, such as wait staff, retail and housecleaning.
|A food pantry is one of the primary outreach projects at Cedar Key United Methodist Church.|
That’s another area where the church has stepped in.
The church's primary outreach and mission projects seek to feed (a food pantry), clothe (Clothe-a-Child Closet) and educate (back-to-school supplies) children and their families. It's also known as the church with the pumpkin patch.
Horner said a good example of Cedar Key UMC’s impact was evident when the church helped a family living in government-subsidized housing to purchase school clothing for its nine children.
Horner also said the food pantry also “is a vital part of our community.”
The pantry fed about 20 families at its outset. Now open year-round on Thursdays, the pantry provides up to 60 families with milk, produce, meat, bread and cheese, among many other items, from Farmshare, a statewide organization, and the Bread of the Mighty Food Bank in Gainesville.
Cindy Turner is not a church member, but she has volunteered in the food pantry ministry for almost two years.
“It's definitely grown, and the quality of the food has gotten a lot better,” Turner said. “More and more people are coming. They're just thrilled with it.”
Clients qualify if their income is $300 or less per week.
“We want to be open and inviting to everybody,” Horner said. “Our goal is to greet them and welcome them and love them as Christ would, through our actions, our words, that we can show them what Christ means to us.”
That's important because, as long-time Cedar Key UMC member Janet Carroll said, while the clamming business in Cedar Key is doing well, there aren't many job opportunities on the island.
|The Cedar Key UMC pumpkin patch, run by the UMW, is important to the community because it's the only one on the island.|
As president of the United Methodist Women and chairperson of the staff parish relations committee, Carroll likes to talk about the long-time prayer circle and the church's angel ministry (cloth angels for adults and children).
When Horner was hired, members of the church suggested discontinuing the pumpkin patch. But Horner advised against that because it's unique to the church in this community. People rely on it.
The Cedar Key UMC pumpkin patch, run by the UMW, is important to the community because it's the only one on the island.
Its a different kind of pumpkin patch than the traditional ones. Instead of using it as a fundraiser, the church’s patch serves the residents and gives pumpkins to the children to take home.
Pumpkin patch activities resemble Sunday school, as children hear stories, create crafts, eat snacks and select their small pumpkins to take home. About 100-115 children participate each year. Carroll says because the Cedar Key School (K-12) doesn't take students on many off-the-island field trips, the pumpkin patch is the one big field trip each year for kids in grades K-5.
“The kids look forward to it so much,” she said. “Look at how many people we get into the church.”
“A safe place to hang out and just be teenagers,” Horner said. “That's our vision.”
For now, the pantry, the pumpkin patch and the other programs are good examples of how Cedar Key UMC adheres to the philosophy espoused by St. Francis of Assisi, who said: “Preach the Gospel as best you can, and if need be, use words.”
The hard work and incredible results at Cedar Key UMC make Horner feel humble and grateful for her members.
“I am blessed,” she said, “to be in a church family that is willing and able to step in and say, 'We're going to help you.'”
--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.