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The goodwill flood of 2006

A church devotes Saturday to an outpouring of community service.

Published March 12, 2006

TAMPA - Mary Diaz, 82, started Saturday morning with a fall and a nagging backache. Then the ladies from Idlewild Baptist Church showed up, and the day began to brighten.

Diaz and nearly 40 of her neighbors at Carrollwood's Hearthstone Assisted Living, plus more at five other retirement homes, sat for manicures, makeup and photo sessions courtesy of Idlewild.

Afterward, Diaz looked in a mirror and smiled.

"You think I'll find a boyfriend now?" asked the Tampa great-grandmother with a laugh.

It was one of many moments of community service Saturday morning in the splashy style of Idlewild Baptist.

More than 3,000 Idlewild members swarmed across north Hillsborough in an event the megachurch planned for nine months. They spruced up schools, parks, roadsides, children's homes and a YMCA. They ferried home-cooked lunches to about 30 fire stations. They staged a block party at Robles Park featuring two church choirs and 250 other volunteers. They befriended single moms, smaller churches, the Salvation Army and seniors.

At Hearthstone, Jean Stout set aside her oxygen tank for a makeover and photo. It was the first time she had worn makeup since her daughter's wedding 10 years ago. "It made me feel 18 again," said Stout, 77.

"You can't believe the enthusiasm and how nice these guys are," said Jay Muffly, president of the Lutz Volunteer Fire Department, where Idlewild painted the entire building, washed the fire trucks and barbecued lunch for families of all the firefighters. Idlewild's senior pastor, Ken Whitten, helped paint the exterior walls there.

"The tongue in your shoe and the tongue in your mouth - they've got to go in the same direction," Whitten said. "You can't just talk about serving your community without getting out and doing it."

The event also was a way for Whitten's 9,000-member church to introduce itself to Lutz, where it moved to a 144-acre campus in October. In June, Whitten created a staff position for local missions and hired Ray Sanabria, a former financial planner fresh from seminary. Saturday's work became a prime project.

Initially, many people whom Sanabria approached last year couldn't quite grasp the scale of Idlewild's intentions. They were grateful, he said, but their wish lists were meek.

"You have to have more needs," Sanabria would say.

One of those taken aback was Capt. Miguel Rivera at the Lutz fire station. "I've been here five years," Rivera said. "It's the first time anybody has approached me and said, "Hey, what can we do for you guys?"'

In planning with Rivera, Idlewild's Paul Puleo discerned that firefighters missed their crumbled old barbecue pit. So an Idlewild crew built a new one. Then they realized the picnic pavilion had no lighting; they found an electric company to wire it, gratis.

Muffly, the Fire Department president, heard about Idlewild's zeal and decided to mention the Lutz Depot, a full-scale replica of Lutz's original train depot 95 years ago. It functions as an entertainment stage a block away from the fire station.

"Tell 'em the depot needs painting, bad," Muffly instructed Rivera.

Puleo's immediate response: "Sounds like a plan."

"Everything we have thought of doing, they were one step ahead," said Rivera.

In some ways, the goodwill was overwhelming.

Idlewild's senior Bible classes recruited 150 members to cook for firefighters. Based on six to eight servings from each donor, they calculated they could feed 25 fire stations. But so many cooks donated that Idlewild had surpluses, including huge pans of lasagna, chicken and yellow rice, said Jake English, the church's minister to seniors and college students.

So Idlewild members carried home-cooked feasts unannounced to a half-dozen fire stations in Land O'Lakes, Wesley Chapel, Sulphur Springs and Tampa, English said.

Idlewild landscaped Northdale's Bob Sierra YMCA and painted a set of outdoor murals. To cap off the project, the church erected a 30-foot cross on former church property where the YMCA is expanding. But a cross-carrying procession had to be interrupted: there were too many Baptists for one cross. So one group hauled it halfway and another finished the trip.

After a closing prayer, they looked up at the newly painted cross and noticed something startling in the sky. A billowing jet trail and a slender cloud had intersected high in the sky to form another unmistakable cross. Keith Doster, an Idlewild member and the YMCA's associate executive director, took it as one more blessing. "That's what happens when you keep your eyes upward," he said.

Bill Coats can be reached at 813 269-5309 or

[Last modified March 12, 2006, 01:17:10]

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