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Fishers of men move onto turf of seafood spot

Jesse's Dockside on the Dunedin Causeway has been converted. Now boaters can pull up and listen in; baptisms will be held in a pool.

EILEEN SCHULTE
Published June 6, 2004

DUNEDIN - It just may be the only church in town with a tiki bar.

And boat slips.

And a hostess stand.

Indeed, New Purpose Community Church, with its full-service kitchen, is designed to feed hundreds of people, and it intends to.

But it won't be fried grouper and shrimp cocktail on the outdoor deck.

Instead, it will be ample portions of God's word that will fill hearts instead of stomachs.

As the Rev. Jim Sisk puts it: "They'll get served, but they'll just get another kind of service."

Sisk, 55, and the staff are busily preparing for the first services today at their new sanctuary, the former Jesse's Dockside Restaurant overlooking St. Joseph Sound on the Dunedin Causeway.

The nondenominational church will have services on Sundays and Bible study on Wednesdays in the restaurant's Anchor Room, where tables are still set up as if for the evening dinner rush. It will have a grand opening July 4.

The church, with its 130 members, was started eight months ago by Sisk and the Rev. Dennis Williams, 47, after both left their jobs at North Bay Community Church on McMullen-Booth Road. They wanted to start a church based on the teachings of the book, The Purpose-Driven Life.

The notion of turning the restaurant into a church took hold three months ago. Members Ed Proefke and his wife, Betty, found out that Destin-based BTW Foods wanted out of the restaurant because they were tired of managing from hundreds of miles away. The couple, who owned the land, decided to buy the facility, planning to demolish it in a year and allow their son to build condos on the site.

But instead of leaving the more than 15,000-square-foot building vacant in the meantime, they offered to lease it to the church for $1.

"I was stunned, followed by exceeding joy," Sisk said. "We plan to double attendance within a few months with curb appeal and visibility."

Not everyone is thrilled with the church moving in. At a board of adjustments meeting at which the church requested a variance on the property, "Forty people showed up to say they didn't want us on the causeway," Sisk said.

"We didn't need another church," said Marvin Stone, president of the Dunedin Beach Civic Association. "If you go up Curlew Road, they've got the police directing traffic (Sundays) because there are so many churches."

For 17 years, Jesse's Dockside was a Dunedin landmark. It was founded and operated by descendants of Jesse Johnson, a Seminole pioneer, until they sold it in 1999 to BTW Foods. The family also owned restaurants in Seminole and Clearwater.

BTW Foods operated it until it closed on May 16.

Although the restaurant was a popular destination for locals and tourists, it was not without controversy.

For years, the restaurant battled persistent rumors that it was affiliated with Scientology.

"Fifteen to 20 people have asked me (if we're Scientologists)," Sisk said. "Ed (Proefke) is flabbergasted people think that. We have absolutely no ties to Scientology whatsoever. I'm thinking of putting on the marquee "We are not Scientologists.' "

Said Proefke: "Jesse Johnson was a staunch Methodist, and I got married in the Methodist church. Shoot, when I was growing up in Dunedin, we never even heard of Scientology."

Church leaders hope to sway detractors with their casual atmosphere. The church hopes "Rollerbladers and bicyclists come off the Pinellas Trail and come in," said Williams.

The dress code is relaxed. Even the pastors will be leading services in Hawaiian shirts.

"It will be like a sports bar but a Christian bar without the booze," said Sisk, laughing.

Instead of liquor, the church will serve free Starbucks coffee and soft drinks.

TV monitors will be set up in front and in back near the boat docks so people can stay outside and still attend services.

Baptisms will be held at the Marker 1 Marina swimming pool next door, which is also owned by the Proefkes.

Sisk envisions boaters pulling up to the docks on Sundays, having a cold drink and listening to a service. "We really want people who don't like church," he said, adding that traditional notions of church services can be intimidatingly formal. "We aren't sanctimonious. We're different."

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

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