Inspire and Empower: Fresh Approach to Loving Others Bears Fruit in Florida
By Carl Stagner
What if it’s possible to express love in ways that are less than helpful—perhaps well-intentioned, but either not-so-well-received or, at least, without lasting effect? Sawgrass Community Church in Hollywood, Florida, has verified such a proposition to be true—not because they’re stumbling over trial-and-error methodology as ambassadors of Jesus Christ, but because they’re deliberately “loving in ways that matter.” When the coronavirus crisis created chaos across the country and around the world, the Lord was busy creating a brand-new ministry that involved following his direction by faith, breaking out of the box of traditional outreach, and inspiring and empowering others to serve. Nearly two years later, this fresh approach to loving others is still bearing fruit.
“The word pandemic stirs up many emotions, in even the most faithful of hearts,” Pastor Kristen Doty explains. “So, it stands to reason that only a faithful God could dream up a new ministry in the middle of a pandemic! After all, it was God who opened the door that allowed us to pray with Louie’s brother before he passed into the arms of Jesus; it was God who revealed Louie’s needs and offered us the opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ; it was God who opened the door to provide funding to kick off the ‘Come Visit, Louie’ ministry.”
Uncle Louie is the resident of a local senior citizen trailer park whose brother passed away from COVID-19 at the dawn of the pandemic. Before his brother Jim passed away, Jim’s nephew had gotten in touch with Sawgrass Community Church after seeking—long-distance—someone who would be willing to simply pray with his dying uncle. Debbie Frederick, associate pastor at Sawgrass, followed through with that request, praying daily with Jim over the final stretch of his life on earth. Through the ministry of prayer, Sawgrass developed no ordinary relationship with Uncle Louie. This was the beginning of something bigger than Pastors Kristen and Debbie could have imagined.
Instead of simply providing Uncle Louie with food and basic grocery supplies, the church figured out a way to empower him to also serve others from the comfort of his own home. Every week, neighbors could come to his trailer where they could receive, from Uncle Louie, food items themselves. And they came and came, ultimately forming and solidifying neighbor-to-neighbor relationships that thrive to this day.
“In our limited vision,” Pastor Kristen recounts, “we saw Louie getting to know his neighbors while we helped meet some of their basic needs over the course of six months’ time. Oh, what little dreams we dreamt compared to God! After nineteen months, the ‘Come Visit Louie’ ministry is still going strong! Not only has Louie gotten to know his neighbors, but they have also celebrated two birthdays with him, and even attended an Easter service with him that we held in a local park. As the neighbors got to know one another better, they began helping each other collect the bags of food each week. When one neighbor was unable to pick up their food, another neighbor would step in to help. One of Louie’s neighbors began joining us faithfully each week to help distribute the food, and would call every family to remind them of our visit so they wouldn’t miss the opportunity. This same neighbor would then take some of the leftover food items to hand out at her workplace so that nothing got wasted.”
“Loving in ways that matter”—the purpose of Sawgrass Community Church—is built into everything they do. The church doesn’t even meet in a building they own, reinforcing their mission and avoiding hindrances to the mission sometimes tied to property ownership and upkeep. But in a very practical sense, their purpose could hardly have been clearer in the way the church has both inspired and empowered Uncle Louie and their neighbors to not just be served, but to serve others.
In a submission to Church of God Ministries about their project, the church noted that “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tells us that higher-level needs (like spiritual ones) are often not realized when life is about lower-level needs (like food and security).” They continued, “The neighborhood around our church is filled with hard-working individuals who need to work multiple jobs (and have both parents working) in order to just survive. It is easy to get caught up in the busyness of survival. This busyness too often robs people of the possibly for self-actualization of needs. Services for food, in this area, do exist. Yet, a family can get caught up in ‘getting’ and never experience the joy of ‘giving.’”
Because of the Change the Story fund, Sawgrass Community Church was able to get the idea for such a project off the ground. Today it’s going strong and self-supporting, thanks to the blessing of the Lord throughout, and a generous outpouring of love from members of the community.
“When word got out to local food stores that we were helping the community, they offered to help,” Pastor Kristen explains. “We currently have a local grocery store with another beginning to help next month and two additional bakeries that have offered their baked goods for the ministry. We have received such an abundance of goods that we supply another local church with baked goods for their community. In the abundance that God has provided, we continue to feed the neighboring families to the building where we meet, and also feed the hopeful (the term we use for our homeless) community. And we still have enough for the people in our congregation to hand out food items in their own neighborhoods! This is God’s fulfillment of ‘loving in ways that matter,’ where each person finds their value and purpose in God’s kingdom plan!”