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For some, it's a day to begin anew

Dozens of people will be baptized at a park on Easter Sunday, followed by a huge service at Times Bayfront Arena.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- Until a few months ago, Jason Hatch's life was all about chasing the perfect swell: East Coast, West Coast, Tahiti, Mexico, Costa Rica, wherever.

Occasionally his interests veered beyond surfing. Sometimes he played in a punk rock band. Or hung out. Or partied. For him, the recreational drugs of choice were marijuana, LSD and hallucinogenic mushrooms.

No more.

The 23-year-old says he is a new man. On Easter Sunday, the day Christians worldwide commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Hatch plans to affirm his new life. As dawn breaks, he will wade into waters off North Shore Park for a very public baptism marking his spiritual rebirth.

"I feel like it's furthering my work with the Lord," Hatch said of the baptism that will be conducted by Calvary Chapel, a large nondenominational church that meets in a renovated Winn-Dixie supermarket at 9021 U.S. 19 N in Pinellas Park.

"I know that the Lord is calling me to do this," said Hatch, whose baptism off North Shore Park will be one of dozens Sunday.

Calvary Chapel has already grown to about 2,000 adults and 500 children since its founding in the early 1980s and has spawned two new communities in Seminole and Oldsmar. But the Rev. Danny Hodges and others at Calvary Chapel hope to cast an even wider net Sunday. After the early morning service at the park, the newly baptized will head to the Times Bayfront Arena, which Calvary Chapel has rented for a mega worship service.

Easter Sunday seemed just the right time to do something like this, said the Rev. Bob Corry, associate pastor at the church.

"Typically, in many fellowships, many churches throughout the world, if people are going to go (to church) at all, they are going to choose that day," Corry said.

"We feel if they are looking for a non-threatening environment and they have decided they want to go to church on Easter, then we have put together a place for them."

Calvary Chapel hopes to fill the 7,500-seat arena with both church members and visitors, Corry said. For the past three or four years, he added, the church had rented the Mahaffey Theater for Easter. The drawback was, however, that it had to hold two services to accommodate all the people who wanted to attend.

"This is the first time that everyone is going to be together in one room," Corry said. "I haven't seen that for 13 or 14 years, since we were much smaller."

Since there will be no Sunday school classes that day, the church is planning to hand out 600 crayon and coloring book packages to children under 6.

"You never know what to expect. You invite the city, and the city might show up," Corry quipped.

The almost two-hour contemporary service will include a short concert by recording artists Two or More, testimonies and music by Calvary Chapel's worship band. No collection will be taken, and parking will be free.

"We don't want to say that we have to charge somebody to hear the good news," Corry said.

The Pinellas Park church, with its contemporary music and casual dress, is a member of the fellowship of the international Calvary Chapel movement. Founded in 1965 by surfing enthusiast Chuck Smith in Costa Mesa, Calif., Calvary Chapels emphasize verse-by-verse teaching of God's word.

The local Calvary Chapel's Easter service will conclude a weekend of events in downtown St. Petersburg, including a free concert at Bayfront Arena. While using the arena is new this year, it has been about 15 years since the church first started conducting its Easter Sunday baptisms at North Shore Park. This Easter the church is renting bleachers to seat about 500 worshipers. Six pastors will dunk an expected 70 or more believers into Tampa Bay.

"We do a full immersion because we feel symbolically it is representative of death, burial and resurrection," Corry said of the ceremony.

"It is an outward sign of an inward change that we are allowing the old self to die and are walking a new life in Christ."

Hatch, who says he has given up his old life of parties and drug use, is excited. For the past five months, he has been working on a 100-foot power yacht, washing, waxing and performing other tasks while the vessel sits in its slip at the Pasadena Yacht and Country Club and also when it takes off on excursions.

These days the Florida native attends church every Sunday and sometimes as many as three times a week. He has found a home away from his former friends. He has moved in with Mike Cole, the youth pastor at Calvary Chapel. He still surfs, but most recently it was with Calvary Chapel's competitive surf team, which traveled to Barbados in March on an evangelizing mission.

The church has become an important part of his life, Hatch said.

"I used to be a Catholic, and I never got anything out of church. It was just more of a ceremony going on," he said.

He likes the way Pastor Danny Hodges teaches the Bible and communicates to the congregation, he said.

"It's more like person-to-person. It's not like some show going on," he said.

It was a former member of his band who introduced Hatch to Calvary Chapel. It's not that he listened the first few times Gabe Graham tried to tell him about God, though.

"He had prayed with me a couple of times, and I still didn't jump on it at the time. I still kept doing the things I wanted to do, thinking that they were going to please me," Hatch said this week.

But the words of youth pastor Cole made an impression.

"He gave a message and pretty much basically to the point said you have to lose your life before you can find it," Hatch recalled.

"That was pretty much what I was doing -- losing my life."

If you go

Easter service with contemporary worship service, testimonies and music, 10 a.m. Sunday, Times Bayfront Arena. Sponsored by Calvary Chapel. Call (727) 577-7705.

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