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Religion

Grace Christian's wandering to end

A sanctuary for a Largo reform congregation will be a sight for sore eyes, and rear ends, after nine years of shuffling around.

By EILEEN SCHULTE
Published December 6, 2003

LARGO - Most Christians believe God is everywhere.

But probably, not everyone thinks the ideal place to worship him is a recreation complex. Or a cultural arts facility. Or a community center.

The 550 members of Grace Christian Fellowship in Largo know this. After nine years of dashing to and from three separate city-owned buildings for services, Bible studies, youth group meetings and Bagel Sunday breakfasts, they decided they needed a space of their own in which to pray, a place where they don't have to pay $45,000 in rental fees to Largo.

So they are thrilled that in a few years, their $2.5-million dream sanctuary will be built on 5 acres of prime property in Largo.

"It's perfect," said Rev. Randy Evans, founder and senior pastor of the church. "It's difficult to find a good property anymore in Largo."

The church, which has an annual income of $327,000, has raised $903,000 in cash for the project; another $400,000 has been pledged.

The wind blowing his white hair, Evans stood one morning last week in the middle of the weedy property, marked off in a rectangular shape by yellow caution tape.

The church bought the parcel at Ridge Road and Ninth Avenue SW for $435,000 three years ago, he said. Three houses, a large shed and some dead trees were removed to make way for the 23,000-square-foot building.

As cars drove by on busy Clearwater-Largo Road, he smiled and put his hand around a wooden stake driven into the sandy earth.

"This marks the pulpit," he said. With a sweeping gesture, he said: "This is where they'll sit."

If all goes according to plan, and with the full knowledge that construction projects rarely go according to plan, he will be preaching to an audience of 600 congregants from that very spot in the spring of 2005.

The facility, designed by JW Smith Design Co., will have 12 classrooms, a kitchen, a music room and "nice comfortable chairs," Evans said.

"We've been sitting on metal chairs for nine years," he said.

A groundbreaking ceremony with guests including Largo Mayor Robert Jackson took place Nov. 30.

More than 20 years ago, Evans, who holds a bachelor's degree in psychology from Trenton State College and a master's degree in gerontology from the University of South Florida, joined Countryside Christian Center with his wife, Becky.

He worked as a gerontologist at Mental Health Services of Upper Pinellas (known now as Directions in Mental Health) for seven years before serving as youth pastor at Countryside Christian Center for seven years.

Near the end of his tenure there, he said he "felt the Lord wanted us to start our own church."

With help from Al Ruechel, news anchor for BayNews 9, the music director at the church, and Heath Watson, associate pastor, he formed Grace Christian Fellowship, a nondenominational Christian church.

For nearly a decade, about 300 active members met for Sunday morning services at the Largo Community Center, Sunday evening youth group at the Highland Recreation Complex and Thursday evening Bible study at the Largo Cultural Center, and enjoyed "a wonderful relationship with the city of Largo," he said.

Ruechel, who plays guitar, writes spiritual contemporary Christian music and leads the praise team, describes the church as "family."

"It's a real joy," he said. "We do not "perform' at our church. It is worship and praise together. Because of that, we think the worship is very anointed."

- Eileen Schulte can be reached at 727 445-4153 or schulte@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 6, 2003, 01:33:58]


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