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Faithful live on a wing and prayers

A man and his fellow worshipers move to Tampa with nothing but their desire to start a new church.

By JOHN BALZ, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002

WESLEY CHAPEL -- For Joey Perea, rock bottom was a Saturday night cocaine and alcohol binge. It was passing out at a party and waking up dazed. It was vomiting in the back of an old pickup, being found by a crying wife and thanking her with a hard shove to the ground.

Perea was 22. Twelve years before, his father swallowed a gun barrel and pulled the trigger. His mother died of breast cancer three years later. In high school Perea was a star wrestler. Now he was just a fighter, a drug-abuser and petty criminal.

Perea says he went home with his wife, Rosa, early Sunday and passed out, again, in her lap. Rosa had begun attending church two weeks before. She woke him up and, grudgingly, he agreed to join her at a service.

"I walked into the church, and that's where I saw people I didn't like," said Perea, who at 37 still possesses a wrestler's stocky body. "And what I mean is there were all these people with smiles. To me, I thought it was fake and phony."

The preacher welcomed the crowd.

"I started thinking about my next line of cocaine and my next case of beer," said Perea. "And just then, God showed up."

He followed what he says was God's advice to, "stop trying, just give up." He spent the next 15 years building youth ministries at churches in Texas, Ohio and Colorado. In January he moved to Florida determined to start his own non-denominational Christian church, House of Prayer, in New Tampa.

"My mindset now is to help people," he said. "My job today is to help the injured spiritual people who are out there and point them toward their destiny."

Perea made the 1,850-mile trek from Aurora, Colo., just outside Denver, where he worked as a youth pastor with the Heritage Christian Center, a "megachurch" with 12,000 members.

Megachurches, one of the most significant developments of American Protestantism over the past 25 years, are designed to attract baby boomers who drive giant SUVs and shop in grocery stores the size of small countries. They follow a conservative Christian theology centered around the Bible, although they are usually not affiliated with mainstream denominations.

The Heritage Christian Center has instituted a number of social service programs. In 1997, it purchased and installed satellite dishes in Colorado prisons, "in order to meet the desperate need for Christian television within the prison walls," according to the church's Web site.

As part of his job in Colorado, Perea ministered to hardened youth, reaching them with $80,000 light shows, star athletes, and Christian rappers.

But Perea always wanted his own church. He spoke with Heritage's lead bishop, Dennis Leonard, about planting a new chapter. After a scouting trip to Florida, he says God told him Tampa was the place.

Leonard gave Perea some seed money -- six months salary -- and Perea put out an open invitation to Heritage members. For the 28 who accepted his offer, the choice was not easy. They quit their jobs without lining up new positions. They pulled their children out of school in the middle of the year.

Anna Delahaye, whose husband, David, left a position with Allstate Insurance, said the family relied on heavy doses of prayer and faith to reach a decision.

"It was a calling from God," said Mrs. Delahaye, the mother of four children, Joseph, James, Matthew and Timothy. In addition to living off their savings, Delahaye has worked temporarily as a bookkeeper.

For House of Prayer's members, the first month in Florida has been less about religion and more about logistics. They have found apartments and scoured newspaper classifieds. Most remain unemployed.

"We're not following (Perea) as a man, we're following God," said Chuck Murphy, the father of two high-school children who owned a construction company in Denver. "We're going to build a church for God."

House of Prayer isn't well-known yet.

New Tampa and Wesley Chapel have a high turnover of churches because of the high rents, said Jeff Hager, 28, an associate pastor with the First Baptist Church of New Tampa, one of the oldest in the area. The region's population explosion does not guarantee the success, he said.

Undeterred, House of Prayer officially opened its doors to the community last Sunday in Wesley Chapel. In the living room of Perea's home on Richland Street, the 90-minute service often felt like a rhythm and blues concert -- a "holy ghost party" as one song put it -- where the 35 members swayed, clapped and sang along.

On this Sunday, in his sermon, "Dreams really do come true," Perea encouraged members to serve God through the fulfillment of their professional dreams. Become a doctor or schoolteacher, he said, if that is the path God has set you upon.

House of Prayer hopes to move into a New Tampa strip mall by March and eventually build its own church and a congregation of 2,000 as close to Tampa as possible. The goal is a multicultural congregation that will "help mend broken families," said Perea.

He hopes to set up outreach programs in low-income areas. He'll rely on word-of-mouth to reach people across the city and plans on chartering buses to bring them to House of Prayer.

Asked if he thought his urban busing plans might cause friction with his new suburban neighbors, Perea said that it will be a positive experience for everyone.

"When this area takes a look at the changes in these people, they are going to be so blown away," he said.

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