Church plant seeks to rebuild community

By Susan Green, Special Contributor…

ORLANDO, Fla.—Step into the cavernous worship hall of South Street Ministry and you’ll hear the sounds of childish chatter, pounding basketballs, and teachers or coaches guiding their flocks through the daily lesson.

A polished gymnasium floor and basketball hoops have replaced the former carpet and pews. But the stained-glass windows—now protected from the inside by Plexiglas sheets—reinforce the echoes of yesterday’s sanctuary: babies crying during baptism, confirmation youths pledging fidelity to Christ, brides and grooms pledging fidelity to each other.

Planners launched South Street Ministry—a United Methodist church plant in Orlando, Fla.—by first reaching out to the community through an after-school mentoring program, preschool and summer camps. Worship services will start this fall at the site of the former Trinity UMC, a church that closed in February 2011. PHOTOS BY DON YOUNGS

Trinity United Methodist Church closed in February 2011, its 60-year history ending after construction of a new toll road in Orlando divided the surrounding community and shrank the congregation’s membership.

Now it is one of a handful of Florida Conference church plants trying a new approach: Woo the community first, worship formally later, in a style tailored to the people being served.

“This will be a worshipping congregation with an out-of-the-box-style worship experience,” said the Rev. Jim Berlau, who is spearheading the project as a ministry of First UMC, Winter Park.

“It will be rooted in worship, but it will be a church that is a very active part of the community . . . and utilizing the gifts that are already present in the community to do the ministry.”

Mr. Berlau is mindful of Trinity’s legacy and sensitive to the pain of those who mourned its demise. Even so, he is resolute about the resurrection: The church will rise again, but it won’t be Trinity.

What will it be? The answer is still unfolding.

“This is letting the community dictate what South Street Ministry will be,” Mr. Berlau said. “What we’re trying to do is not fill the community’s needs but capitalize on its assets.”

For now, South Street is a campus filled with children in summer camps or preschool on weekdays. During the school year, it’s an after-school mentoring program for youngsters from one of Central Florida’s largest government-subsidized housing developments a few blocks away.

A year into a ministry dubbed “South Street” for the name of the pavement outside, the pastor is cautiously making plans for the first worship services to start in September. Relatively few members of the surrounding community will be invited, and together the group will try this and that for a few months until they agree on the appropriate mix of service and song.

Mr. Berlau is hoping to throw the doors open to everyone around Christmas. He said he is encouraged that parents ask him about services when they drop off or pick up their children.

Building any ministry can be challenging. At South Street, Mr. Berlau is trying to tailor a church to fit a community that includes the working poor, an upscale neighborhood and one that includes a significant number of gay residents.

Making it financially sustainable is among Mr. Berlau’s long-term goals. In the meantime, the ministry depends on grants, donations from the Florida Conference and other churches and volunteers from First UMC-Winter Park, First UMC-Orlando and other nearby congregations.

Mr. Berlau hopes the concept will take off as well as a garden planted by children in the after-school program.

“It’s a really cool analogy to what we’re trying to do with this mission,” Mr. Berlau said. “It’s not us that are tending to the garden. It’s the kids tending to the garden. . . . It’s the community itself partnering with Winter Park [UMC] to do ministry.”

Rita Horvat, a member of First UMC, Winter Park, retired from her job just as the ministry was getting started. Now she spends most weekdays at the mission, preparing meals for the children. During the school year, she volunteers her time to drive students from nearby Lake Como Elementary School to the after-school program.

The work has been rewarding, she said. She recalled a third-grader who was failing in school before enrolling at South Street’s mentoring program. The child finished the school year with C grades.

“He went from crying every day to accomplishing things,” Ms. Horvat said.

Mr. Berlau is confident that South Street’s efforts will result in a disciple-making mission.

“I feel so certain in the call, that this is what God is calling us to do, that I’m just going to take it one step at a time, knowing that we’re following God’s lead in this,” he said. “So it’s got to be going somewhere.”

Ms. Green is the editor of the Florida Conference Connection.

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