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Small church shines light for Florida Keys’ poor and disenfranchised

By Barbara Denman

July 30, 2013

ISLAMORADO—(FBC) Every Tuesday, the 20-member congregation of Islamorada’s First Baptist Church feeds a hot meal to nearly 100 persons from the communities stretching along the Florida Keys and then fills bags of groceries for them to take home.

Their guests are homeless, or the working poor who are forced to choose between eating and buying gas to drive to work; and those in need of company. Families, singles, teens, elderly, young—they all come to break bread and hear the gospel message proclaimed.

First Islamorada has listened to the needs of its community and said “Here I am Lord, send me.” Though small in number yet big in heart, they are a lighthouse in the Keys for the poor and disenfranchised in their midst.

Nearly a dozen volunteers weekly sort and pick up canned goods and fresh produce given by food banks, grocery stores and local groups. The firemen at the nearby fire station send cooked meals once a month. A restaurant sends pizzas. A woman bakes desserts each week; another sends a little cash—her birthday money, she says. Boy Scouts and the Post Office workers hold food drives.

It is a community-wide effort that brings volunteers from all walks of life and religious denominations to the little white church at mile marker 81.5. Over 13 years, they have fed 15,000 people and given away 20,000 bags of food. A clothes closet meets additional needs.

Construction worker Bill Sidbottom once slept in his car, but now has a place to stay. A member of the working poor who struggles to make ends meet, he comes to the church “once a week for a good meal. They give a lot of love. It don’t matter who you are, what color you are, rich or poor it doesn’t matter.” The groceries he receives there, in addition to the hot meal, sometimes must last him a week he said.

Boyd Bagwell sweeps floors at the church as his own way of payment for his weekly meals. Church members found him a motel room when he was homeless and have driven him to Miami when he needed to get a driver’s license. They are his friends, he said, they are his family.

When a family of four lost everything they owned after their houseboat capsized, they turned to First Baptist Church for their first hot meal. The church helped them survive until they could get on their feet again.

Amid the azure blue waters that separate the Keys and the tropical balmy breezes and white sand, Monroe County is a beacon for the poor, homeless and those who want to escape or disappear from life, said local pastor Robbie Davis, who assists in the weekly dinner. He serves as pastor of Layton Community Church, located on Long Key at Mile Marker 68.5, just south of Islamorada. “It’s as far south as you can go and not need a passport.”

“Whether they live under bridges or in million dollar homes, many of them are lonely and in need,” he said. Both extremes can be found at the church’s community dinner.

The ministry is a passion of Islamorada church member Joyce Wynne who has spearheaded the weekly dinner for several years, and said simply, “We are here to feed the people and tell them about Jesus.” Each week they see miracles as donated food arrives; and needed supplies suddenly appear. But they also see miracles in the people whose lives are touched and turned around.

Wynne does more than tell them about Jesus; she demonstrates the gospel message in hugs, touches, words of encouragement, calling guests by name and expressing interest in their wellbeing. Is there a need in their lives, she asks and then sets out to resolve the issue.

“We mainly work for Jesus,” the red-haired volunteer said.

The group took a step out in faith when their government liaison said they could not share the gospel when using government-subsidized food.

So they prayed, Wynne reported, and found God opening other doors. She approached local restaurants, grocery stores, bread companies and accessed resources in Miami and found others willing to give.

Some donations come from individuals, but Wynne sadly explained that many who once gave have become recipients as they have fallen on hard times in this depressed economy.

The ministry was begun by former pastor Dale Millsap and his wife, Marilyn. But after he became ill and eventually died, church members carried on with their mission.

“I was the town drunk,” said church member Brook Vincent, when pastor Millsap found him sleeping on the church property and kicked him off the grounds. But the pastor ministered to him and Vincent eventually escaped his demons and has been sober for ten years. He now works maintenance at a local condominium complex.

“Once I accepted Christ, He took all my habits from me and freed me,” he said while eating his weekly meal at the church. “I plan to spend eternity with the Lord.”

“I have seen my share of miracles. This is the church of miracles,” Vincent said.

After Millsap left the Islamorado church due to his health, volunteers asked help from Pastor Davis. Serving in an upscale community where there is little need for hunger ministry, Davis gladly joined in the effort and presents a devotional during each weekly dinner.

“We serve Jesus,” he said.  “We make no bones about it. It’s not us that provides all this; its Jesus himself.”

Earlier this year, the Islamorada church called Jonathan Elwing as pastor. The young man became drawn to missions through his work with Florida Baptist RA camps.

He has become immersed in the project, making trips for groceries, running errands and providing leadership the church needed.

Wynn said the church is excited with Elwing’s arrival and in just a few months he had already made an impact finding solutions for problems and making decisions. “He has energy and the ability to go get things done. He does it for God.”

As parents of preschoolers, Elwing and his wife are looking for new ways to attract young families to the Islamorada church, including sponsoring its first community-wide Easter egg hunt.

Because the congregations of Islamorada and Layton churches are small in number, less than 20 each, Davis and Elwing are partnering together to serve both churches. In a unique relationship, Elwing serves as the worship music leader at both churches, while Davis assumes the preaching duties. Every Sunday they travel to each church for services.

When one of the pastors needs to do hospital visits on the mainland, the other covers crises along the Keys. Their partnership has brought a new excitement to the ministry in the Keys.

The mission partnership of the two congregations demonstrates that even small churches can make a big impact for God’s Kingdom.

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