Churches mirror county's growth
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET and GAIL HOLLENBECK
INVERNESS -- You don't need the U.S. Census Bureau to tell you that Citrus County is growing. Roads, stores and schools are more crowded this year than last, and new homes and businesses are popping up like spring flowers.
Certain indicators of a growing community are hard to miss, such as the arrival of big chain businesses like Applebee's restaurant, Outback Steakhouse and Home Depot. Then there are the more than 2,750 new homes that have gone up since January 2000.
But there is another segment of the county that is growing just as quickly, if not as noticeably. Throughout Citrus County, there is a quiet building boom going on among churches.
Since January 2000, at least 23 of the 130-plus churches in the county have either completed a building project or broken ground for a new one.
County records and other sources show that at least 15 churches that have either built or soon will build new facilities. Also, six newly created congregations have taken over existing buildings and two other churches have bought land for future sanctuaries.
"Like any other use that's associated with residential use, as the number of housing units grows, the need to service those units grows," said Chuck Dixon, the county's director of Community Development. "It's the same reason you see more grocery stores, drug stores and schools to service the population."
And while other types of growth often stir debate -- just think Halls River Retreat -- the quiet expansion of churches creates more benefits to the community than controversy.
Aside from providing spiritual guidance, some churches offer day-care services or food pantries. Others become election precincts or meeting rooms for the Boy Scouts or the Kiwanis Clubs, so even nonmembers gain from the churches in their area.
If there are any drawbacks at all to this new construction, they would be the extra traffic on Sundays and a minuscule pinch to the tax rolls.
Churches do not pay property taxes, so every time a new church rises, the tax base shrinks. Since 2000, county records show, more than $400,000 in property has come off the tax rolls because of the new churches. But that translates into about $6,500 less tax revenue for a county that pulled in $45-million in property taxes this year.
That's a negligible price to pay, County Commission chairman Jim Fowler said, considering what the churches give back to the community.
"I know a lot of these churches provide many services, and they provide many services that frankly government can't provide," he said.
Such services include temporary shelter for a family left homeless by a fire or other disaster, he said. The county has no place of its own to send a homeless family.
Fowler said the county should sit down with the major churches, find out what services they offer and make the information available to residents who turn to the county for help.
"That way, when these events occur and people come to the county for assistance, we could tell them where to go," Fowler said.
"We just have more and more people all the time wanting to serve other people. It's a feature of this county, unlike many others, I believe, and part of what makes this such a wonderful place to live."
Churches have been a part of the fabric of Citrus County for nearly 200 years.
Protestant church congregations began forming in Citrus in the early 1800s, according to Back Home: A History of Citrus County, Florida, by Hampton Dunn. After the Civil War, as settlements began to spring up, congregations would often meet in school buildings or even under tents.
Services were held sometimes just once a month with circuit preachers often servicing more than one congregation. By the turn of the century, church structures had begun to be constructed and congregation size slowly increased.
The Rev. James Hoge remembers what it was like 50 years ago when he established the first Catholic mission in the county.
"I was here during World War II as a missionary to Citrus and Hernando counties," he told the Times in November. "There was no (Catholic) church or chapel here and not a concentration of people, so I had services for the signal corpsmen stationed out at Cinnamon Ridge. In 1948, I started a weekly mission at Inverness (Our Lady of Fatima)."
Since that time, Hoge helped establish another five churches and a school, now called Pope John Paul II Catholic School. St. Scholastica Catholic Church, which had been meeting in the school's cafeteria, opened a new sanctuary in 2000.
Among the congregations with big building plans today is Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church in Lecanto. Construction on a sanctuary and classrooms that will occupy 37,780 square feet will commence in July on 13 acres that the church has owned for 16 years.
"Our church's goal is not to build a stronger church. It's to build a stronger community," said the Rev. Ray Cortese, senior pastor at Seven Rivers. "We don't want the community to give to us. We exist for the good of the community in giving away our resources, our love, our service."
According to its pastor, the Rev. Mark Whittaker, the First United Methodist Church of Homosassa is also growing to keep pace with its congregation.
"Our theme is "Building for Tomorrow,' but we're building for yesterday right now," he said. "The people are here. This is to give the people who are coming the space they need."
The church's new education building, now under construction, will sit on property the church has owned for about 35 years.
Growing attendance is also forcing First Baptist Church of Inverness to seek more elbow room.
Buddy Brock, administrator of First Baptist, said his church is having meetings now to decide when it will build on its 50 acres of property on County Road 581 in Inverness.
"We used to have one morning worship service and now have three services that are at the point where they're considered full," Brock said.
While some former church structures have been remodeled for use by their respective ministries as fellowship halls or classrooms, the current First Baptist property on Seminole Avenue is under contract to be sold to Citrus Memorial Hospital.
"The contract allows us to stay here for four years after closing and then rent for a year after that," Brock said, noting that the closing is expected in three or four months.
In some cases, as one congregation moves out of a building, another moves in.
Todd Langdon, pastor of First Christian Church of Inverness, said when his new church is built on Colonade Street, the former building on Hillside Court might be bought by another ministry, the New Beginnings Fellowship, that is currently leasing it.
And the former sanctuary of the Crystal River United Methodist Church, still being used for some areas of ministry for the church, is also being used by the Jesus Is! II ministry as well as a Christian school and preschool.
Cortese echoed Fowler's view that the churches serve the growing community in tangible ways that some people may overlook.
"If we feed the poor, or anything we do that helps a needy people, that's one means of service," he said.
Many church members, he said, act as "bishops of their neighborhood" by performing such services as taking incapacitated people for dialysis treatments, cutting their grass, or taking them to the grocery store -- tasks that might otherwise draw on the county's social services.
Another aid to a healthy society comes through the ministering that churches do for children, he said.
"We know that the life of a community, in terms of that being a joyous place to live, depends a lot on whether the children of that community are thriving or not," Cortese said.
"When I look out on a Sunday morning, I see countless marriages that have been kept together because of the ministry of the church that otherwise would have splintered, impacting scores of children.
"How do you make children into healthy adults, so that things like Columbine don't happen? Well, that's what we're about every day. Youth groups, to church worship, to Sunday school, to Christian school, the whole package."
Cortese also noted that Christian schools, such as the one at Seven Rivers, save tax dollars.
"We have 300 students, so you can multiply that times the $6,000 to $8,000 the state spends on every student. We save the state of Florida that amount every year by educating our own kids."
Throw in the taxes paid by the approximately 100 employees who work at Seven Rivers Church and school, he said, and the benefits of churches and religious schools keep growing.
Other church officials point out that the church facilities often become community centers, another benefit to the county.
"Our buildings are used for voting and for training the poll takers," said Gail Kemp, office manager at First Baptist Church of Crystal River.
"We have a lot of groups like Girl Scouts that meet here. We don't charge for those. We also open it to the health department to come in and give flu shots and things like that, and we have a diabetic kidney group that uses it once a month," Kemp said.
"Those are the kind of things that a lot of people just don't know about or think about, but somebody would have to be paying for that if they could not use our buildings. Because it's a time we're not using them, we're happy to let people use them."
Pastor Whittaker pointed to the local subcontractors who are working on his church's new building. "The money we are putting into that (project) goes right into the community," he said.
His church also provides services to the community, Whittaker said, including a new day care program that will kick off this summer. Because volunteers will staff the day care, they will offer the program for only about $3 a day, he said.
"Kiwanis have their pancake breakfasts here, which turns around and all that money goes into social services," Whittaker said.
"We have a food pantry. Many, many churches provide free food to people. We also have a program called SHARE, so we're helping people who are in minimum salary situations. Food, some lodging, some transportation costs, the ministerial associations help people in the county.
"Many churches offer counseling. We have a full-time youth minister who is working with young people to keep them out of trouble, keep them off drugs, helping them become productive adults. The benefits just keep going on and on.
"People of faith have an ethic, a morality, an outlook on life, a relationship to other people, that improves society," Whittaker said. "It lifts society in general so that everybody is better off because the church is there."
Cortese believes some of the church's contributions are priceless.
"Who can put a price tag on praying for police men and women and firefighters, on sharing, on being a constant voice that says racism is heinous to God? God calls us to lay down our life for one another, to sow that kind of impact in a community."
"ln some ways," Cortese said, "churches are the heart and the soul of the community."
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