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Congregations find places to call home- for now

Some congregations meet in theaters, others in public schools or members' homes as they plan and pray for something more permanent.

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2000


New Tampa is filled with wandering worshipers who don't let their lack of a roof put a cap on their spirituality. Without their own churches and synagogues, these modern-day nomads have learned to set up church on the move.

Among them:

The Cypress Point Community Church, a Southern Baptist congregation, has been meeting at 9:30 a.m. Sundays at the Muvico Starlight 20 Theaters at I-75 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard since January.

"The seats sure are comfortable," said Dean Reule, pastor of the church, which has an attendance of about 150. "They're like these big Lazy Boy chairs."

The 2-year-old congregation hopes to someday build a church. It used to meet in the Hunter's Green visitor's center. But when it outgrew the center, the church decided against renting space in a local school like many others.

"We thought Muvico vs. the public schools," Reule said. "Hmm. There wasn't a lot of decision to be made."

The main service is held in one of Muvico's large screen theaters and youth services are held in the hallway. And when the service lets out, Muvico employees are usually preparing the theater to open.

"When they get that popcorn going right as we're going out, it smells great," Reule said. "They sell some popcorn."

This Sunday, worshipers will get a private screening of Disney's Fantasia 2000.

Reule is telling his parishioners: "Bring your unchurched friends. If nothing else, you can get a free movie."

St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church at 9724 Cross Creek Blvd. splits its Mass schedule between its offices, the Tampa Bay Presbyterian Church and Wharton High School.

The church hopes to have an 800-seat Family Life Center and a daily chapel completed by the end of the year on its 27-acre site on Cross Creek.

In the meantime, the 1,400-member congregation uses a portable baby baptismal. It erected a tent for Easter services. And certain events are held in other churches.

"Sometimes you have to ask, am I coming or am I going?" said the Rev. Austin Mullen.

"Yeah, and there aren't a lot of people who have asked to have their weddings at Wharton," said church officer Terry Darken, laughing.

For more than a year, the Crossroads Community Church, a United Methodist congregation, has been meeting at 10:30 a.m. Sundays in the cafeteria at Clark Elementary School, 19002 Wood Sage Drive.

"It's tricky," said the Rev. Greg Freeze. "We call it church in a box. You have to set it up every week. And you're not allowed to leave anything out.

"Everything has to go back in a box."

Church members go to the school every Friday to set up. They put up a sound and projection system and block out the windows of the church with vinyl-like shields. And when services are over, they have to make sure they leave no religious materials.

The 2-year-old congregation began as a Bible study group at the Meadow Pointe development's clubhouse. Currently, it's negotiating to buy several acres in the area.

"Part of the fun for us is we have our offices in our home," Freeze said. "It makes for an interesting time when we're trying to do counseling or have a meeting. We have to meet in living rooms or a series of homes. There's all kinds of creative things you have to do."

Tampa Bay Presbyterian Church worshipers once met in the Varsity 6 movie theater, then the Temple Terrace Elementary School and then a Masonic Lodge.

"You feel homeless," remembers James Saxon, the pastor. "No building quite fits the unique needs of a church."

The congregation of 200 members moved into its own church at 19911 Bruce B. Downs Blvd. in 1988. Now it lets other churches use its facilities because Saxon said he remembers the days before the church was built and members felt more like vagabonds.

"I'm glad those days are over," he said. "I really am."

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