LEESBURG, Fla. -- Some churches want their sanctuaries to be cathedrals. A church here had a better idea.
Located about an hour's drive northwest of Orlando on a main street that also boasts a McDonald's, Subway and Ace Hardware, the First Baptist Church of Leesburg (pop. 15,596) sports a standard denominational look: columned portico, steeple and lots of people -- an average attendance of 2,200 during the winter and 1,400 during the summer.
By the early 1990s, some church members wanted to build a larger sanctuary so the church would not need two (now three) worship services on Sunday morning. Senior pastor Charles Roesel, though, insisted that the church should spend the money on building a Ministry Village with homes for abused children, battered women and men who wanted to turn their lives around, along with a free medical clinic and other facilities to help the needy.
Since Roesel had been preaching about such "ministry evangelism" for a decade, church members embraced his vision and donated $2 million to construct seven buildings smack by the steepled church. (Some churches want their ministries of compassion to be geographically separate from and financially unequal to their worship functions, but First Baptist supports Christ's teaching that loving our neighbor belongs in the same sentence as loving God.)
The buildings now house a women's care center decorated in feminine shades of beige and green, with 18 beds for women "tired of being who they are," and a men's residence decorated in utilitarian cinderblock and linoleum, with 30 beds for those determined to overcome past addictions.
A pregnancy care center has 35 active and regular volunteers who offer counseling and support, ranging from nutrition classes and maternity clothes to adoption assistance. A community medical care center provides free care to 6,000 of the 8,000 low-income, non-insured residents in the church's region.
On the church grounds are also a benevolence center that helps people with emergency food, housing and clothing needs; a residential group home that provides long-term shelter for emotionally troubled children; and a children's shelter that provides emergency housing for endangered kids. Director Myra Wood, formerly an investigator with the Florida Department of Children and Families, notes that some of the children had "slept in a corner with animal feces," but the shelter offers them quilts on their beds and orderly lives.