When Rev. Kevin A. “Corky” Calhoun arrived at Georgianna United Methodist in Merritt Island in 2004, it was already 118 years old, but it was looking like it might not get much older.
“It was a little historic church that looked like it should have gone to the cemetery, but God kept it alive,” Calhoun said. “Faithful people kept the doors open.”
Mona Becker, then working part-time as the church’s do-everything administrator, said it was “well-loved in the community” and had a core of devoted attendees. But it didn’t have much else going on.
“Everything was stagnant, it was just the status quo,” she said.
Sunday services drew around 80 people—a number that wasn’t changing--“and we had few activities of any kind during the week,” she said.
She was the only staff besides a children’s minister.
“The pastor handled everything including leaky faucets,” she said.
Today things are different.
The Sunday services draw around 800 people.
“We’re still a tiny little church without much resources, but we’re packing them in,” Calhoun said.
And those people are busy during the week, not just at the church but also in the surrounding community.
|Rev. Corky Calhoun, left, on mission in Haiti.|
Hundreds of church members run or volunteer in dozens of missions ranging from a girls’ orphanage in Haiti to an infant rescue station in Kenya to a group of men who teach boys in local high schools how to tie a necktie.
Becker attributes much of the change to Calhoun. But Calhoun said it is because of an orientation toward mission and charitable work.
“We believe the church exists to give itself away,” he said.
Becker keeps a weekly tally of volunteerism through the church and logs activities by around 300 people in a typical week.
Those people mentor kids in a nearby disadvantaged community’s elementary school, hand out gift cards at WalMart and go on medical and “work/care” teams to Guatemala, Belize and Kentucky.
They produce and send “care packages” with home-baked goodies to church family members away at a college or in the military.
“We started becoming known for being the church to the community,” Becker said.
The fall and rise of Georgianna mirrors that of the surrounding Space Coast, which was devastated economically when the space shuttle program at Kennedy Space Center, 15 miles to the north, ended in 2011.
Unemployment hit nearly 12 percent in surrounding Brevard County.
The area has since experienced an economic rebound with new government space programs and private space ventures.
But Georgianna’s rebound started before the crash and continued through it.
|Georgianna's Chili Cookoff in February drew a crowd. Thirty-three chilis, eight judges and two hours of fellowship made for an amazing afternoon.|
“It affected our community in dramatic and challenging ways, but not the church,” Calhoun said. “There was no downturn in our attendance or giving, and we continued our level of mission work.”
The church helped unemployed members with food donations and financial assistance.
"I and the rest of the staff didn't take raises, but people not affected by the space center were faithful, and we kept growing.”
The church was founded in 1886 when a group of locals ordered a “church kit” from Woolworth’s with blueprints, hardware, and fittings. It was a common way people built small homes and other buildings in rural, pre-industrial America.
Today, the original sanctuary they built is still used as a prayer chapel, wedding, and funeral venue on the church’s small campus on South Tropical Trail in Merritt Island—“Where historic meets relevance,” according to a slogan on the church’s web site.
The “new” sanctuary next to it, 10 years old, holds three Sunday services to accommodate all the attendees: a “casual traditional service” followed by “spirit-filled contemporary” services.
|Channon Bullion with girls from a Haitian orphange.|
But there seems to be more church activity happening off campus.
In Haiti, the church took over the orphanage when the previous organization that owned it was going bankrupt. It has since put around $1 million into it, Calhoun said.
The orphanage has a staff of 10 and houses about 20 girls aged 11-19 just outside Port-au-Prince.
In Kenya, church members work with abandoned babies. Two medical teams a year go to Guatemala, and work/care teams go to Belize and Kentucky, where they help a local church.
At home, 40 or more members a year volunteer in classrooms at Cambridge Elementary Magnet School in Cocoa. It is an arts and sciences magnet school where 100 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Calhoun is one of the volunteers.
He is “classroom dad” to a third grade, where he helps the teacher, grades papers, reads to the kids and just put together a Valentine’s Day party.
Gina Tagye, the new principal at the school, called the volunteers “a true blessing to Cambridge – they do things we couldn’t do without them.”
“They really live to the standard of giving their time, talent and treasure,” Tagye said.
The church’s “Tied Together” program, founded by church member Glenn Outlaw, teaches high school boys how to tie a necktie, shake hands and “act like grown-up men,” Becker said.
Another youth ministry program takes church kids to a local Walmart where they hand out gift cards to shoppers.
The young volunteers choose the recipients themselves, and sometimes see the responses those people send to the church, which helps them understand the nature of giving, Becker said.
The church also supplies volunteers to homeless assistance and feeding programs run by other local organizations, said Becker, who now carries the title of “executive pastor” at the church.
She’s one of a team of 13 paid and volunteer church leaders including designated “pastors” in the church’s four “focus areas”—missions, children, worship and youth.
The dramatic change in Georgianna has achieved something many churches yearn for: an increase in the number of young families attending.
“We’ve become known as the place where things are happening,” Becker said.
—William March is a freelance writer based in Tampa.