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Worship without walls

The faithful in fast-growing New Tampa often find they have a congregation before they have a church, steeple or synagogue to meet in.

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2000


TAMPA -- The members of Temple Ohev Shalom have ridden the elevator to the third floor of a mirrored office building on Fletcher Avenue and ended up here, in a narrow hallway.

It's just before sundown on a Friday, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath.

It's time to draw nearer to God. But the secular surroundings keep getting in the way.

"Are they going to let us in?" asks Emily Weissman, one of the founders of the 2-year-old synagogue that has no home, no rabbi and, alas, no key.

Office security guards are rushing around trying to find a way into the locked orthopedist's office, where the conservative synagogue meets on the first Friday of the month.

Temple Ohev Shalom, like many fledgling churches and synagogues in New Tampa, is a house of worship without a home. These faithful families meet in schools, office complexes and movie theaters. They bow down in borrowed buildings as they work to build their own, transforming the worldly into the holy, if only for a few hours at a time.

Men and women fresh from work, still wearing their ties and suits and harried expressions, lean against the walls. Children dart around their legs. The time left to usher in the Sabbath wanes as the sun slips farther and farther down the sky.

"This is one of the problems of not having our own place," says a frustrated Mark Weissman, an internist who is president of the temple. "It presents a lot of difficulties and a lot of scrambling." He worries that the Shabbat will be "a really unique service" if it is held in the fluorescent hallway outside the waiting room of Dr. Ira Guttentag's office, where most visitors are patients who come to hear about knee and hip replacements.

Where tonight heavenly meditations will reign.

Where, finally, a key is found and a door flung open.

"It's always the scrambling around," Mrs. Weissman says, leading her two young daughters into the waiting room.

Throughout New Tampa, as in other fast-growing communities, there are similar churches without churches and synagogues without temples. Worshipers sit in buildings without pews. Pray in temples without arks. Kneel where there are no altars. They struggle to attract members in locations where they can't post signs. They spend their tithes on rent and haul their Bibles, keyboards and song books in their car trunks. And when they want to organize an Easter egg hunt or hold a wedding, they have to ask themselves, 'Where?'

But there are pluses to being a homeless congregation.

"You come together for the right reason," said James Saxon, pastor of Tampa Bay Presbyterian Church. His congregation once bounced between a movie theater, school, office building and Masonic Lodge before moving into its own facility on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in 1988, becoming one of the first New Tampa churches with a building.

"You're not there because of a beautiful organ or building. You're there to worship the Lord."

A sign on the outside door reads 'We Sell Fresh Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.' But inside the Joyful Reader & Holy Grounds bookstore and espresso bar, the Joyful Servants Lutheran Church congregants are receiving nourishment of the spiritual, not the physical, kind.

Their voices meld together in song:

No eye has seen, no ear has heard

No mind can know, what God has in store

So open up heaven, open it wide

Over your church, and over our lives.

In the corner of the room, the Rev. David Gardner Tweed leads the 60 seated men, women and children in prayer from a makeshift stage that is hidden most days of the week by movable shelves. The bookstore and coffee shop, a ministry of the church, is located in a suburban strip mall called the Pebble Creek Collection.

A 12-inch gold cross sits atop a pole behind him. Homemade sheets cover three of the shelves closest to the altar. Behind them are children's books such as Stellaluna and The Mouse and the Motorcycle. On the other side of the room, a man stands behind the counter where hazelnut lattes and Korean ginseng tea are brewed.

"We give you thanks, oh Lord," Tweed says.

Even though the coffee shop is a temporary location for the Joyful Servants, Tweed, who pastors the church along with his wife Rita, likes being in the heart of New Tampa commerce -- a high-visibility location for a congregation with an evangelical bent.

"When people come in here," he says about the Christian bookstore that also sells CDs and videos, "they're going to a church and they don't even know it."

Later in the service, he invites the youngsters to gather around his feet at the front of the church for the children's sermon. One blond-haired boy shyly snuggles up next to his mother, trying to keep his seat and his anonymity.

Tweed walks over and jokingly tugs at the unmoving boy.

"If you don't come to church," Tweed says, "a really good church comes and gets you."

* * *

The days of synagogue in a suitcase will be coming to an end soon for the families of Ohev Shalom. The temple is buying a 3.9-acre parcel on Tampa Palms Boulevard about a mile east of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

But it will take at least a year to raise the $350,000 needed to build the first phase of a temple.

In the meantime, the 34 families that make up the congregation will continue sharing the responsibility of leading the Friday service and carting wine and challah to the monthly Shabbat on Fletcher Avenue.

At the doctor's office waiting room, the adults rearrange the stuffed fabric chairs into rows. The young children are taken past the examination rooms to a seminar room to play. The men and boys pull yarmulkes out of a cardboard Yellow Crookneck Squash box and cover their heads.

Pam Cazes, who is responsible for recruiting new members, wishes the surroundings were more religious. She wishes the congregation had enough money to hire a rabbi. She wishes there was a Torah.

"People may be against praying in a physician's office," says Cazes, who attends Ohev Shalom with her husband and four children. "I don't know.

"You kind of have to imagine what's not there. It'd be nice to pray somewhere that's built for prayer."

Soon after the waiting room is arranged, black prayer books, written in Hebrew and English, are passed around. The service begins.

Ascribe unto the Lord, ye ministering angels

Ascribe unto the Lord glory and power.

The devoted men, women and children bowtheir heads and pray in front of detailed drawings of knee arthroscopy: "A bad slide into home plate, a sudden twist of the knee . . . can mean a torn cartilage."

Exalted and honored be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, whose glory transcends, yea, is beyond all praises, hymns and blessings that man can render unto Him; and say ye, Amen.

Behind the counter where patients are told "deductible and co-insurance payment are expected at time of visit," a cleaning woman wipes a printer with a dust rag.

Emily Weissman looks up, distracted from her prayers.

* * *

After gathering in David and Rita Gardner Tweed's living room, at the Pebble Creek Golf and Country Club and in the Benito Middle School cafeteria for months, the Joyful Servants Lutheran Church began holding services at the Joyful Reader Christian bookstore in April.

The church in the marketplace was a step toward a more permanent presence in New Tampa, but still a temporary location.

"It's warm, inviting," David Gardner Tweed says. "It's worshipful, and it's cramped."

The church, an informal congregation that hosts baby showers for its members and jazz music on Friday nights, is negotiating to buy property in the area and build its own church.

Then, it will no longer be the "Church of Fiction and Flicks," a name it picked up because of the video store that was there before the bookstore opened.

"This may be an odd place to meet," says member Chris Pall pushing a stack of chairs into a closet after a recent service, "but it's the best church I've ever been in."

The weekly transformation from coffee shop to church is a dramatic and orchestrated one.

Parishioners placed wheels on the 5-foot bookshelves and made detailed drawings showing where to place the chairs and numbered shelves.

"When I first came here and saw all these shelves, I thought, "How's this going to work?" says Chrissy Southern, who helps with the music ministry.

On Saturday nights, church members push the 18 bookshelves into a storage closet and arrange about 80 padded chairs around the room. The store and coffee shop are closed for business during the service, but members can get a cup of coffee or buy a book if they write it on a list near the counter and leave the money.

Pastor Tweed said he looks forward to the day when the Joyful Servants Lutheran Church will have its own church.

"A permanent home for the church provides stability in the eyes of the community, a sense of organization and permanence," he said. "A storefront doesn't provide that."

But holding church services in the bookstore has had its advantages, Tweed says. Several people who have had little interest in church now attend regularly.

"People are hungry, but they don't want to go to church," Tweed says. "Everytime they walk into our church, they also receive a message: You can get uplifted from more than just a cup of coffee."

* * *

Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3473 or melanie@sptimes.com.

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