When First Baptist Church of Orlando took up a collection for homeless families in March, the record $5.6 million in pledges stunned even church leaders. But as the news sank in, a heavy responsibility emerged: How could the church spend the generous outpouring in a way that would make a lasting difference?
"Immediately afterward, people started showing up on our doorstep," said the church's senior associate pastor, Danny de Armas. "We didn't want to send people away, but it wasn't appropriate to just start handing out money. Our goal was not to treat the symptoms, but to treat causes."
The outpouring had come one week after an emotional "60 Minutes" segment on the newly homeless — families with school-age children — that zeroed in on Central Florida. Visiting preacher and author Bruce Wilkinson asked congregants to imagine themselves in the shoes of the children shown weeping as they told of going to bed hungry and watching their parents struggle to find a job. Then he encouraged them to "sacrifice like you have never sacrificed before."
The result has been $2.1 million collected so far from the 15,000-member congregation — one of the largest Protestant churches in the country — and another $3.5 million in donations pledged before March 2012. Though varying experts have warned de Armas to expect only 35 to 80 percent of the pledges to be fulfilled, he anticipates a result near the upper end.
But rather than simply dole out the offering to a handful of worthy charities, the church has decided to partner with local nonprofit organizations to address a range of issues, from homeless prevention to food for impoverished elementary-school kids to transitional housing.
The housing issue is particularly critical. Researchers have repeatedly cited the region's lack of transitional programs as one of the greatest obstacles in moving the homeless from shelters to self-sufficiency. Homeless families have little trouble finding a free meal, but there are long waiting lists for free or subsidized apartments where they can get help with job training, money management and parenting skills while getting back on their feet.
"We do need to feed people in the short term, but we can't afford to feed them forever," de Armas said. "We can afford to move them toward sustainability. And we knew early on that doing so would be a lengthy, time-consuming and relatively slow process. It requires a commitment."
So far, the church has partnered with eight Orlando-based nonprofits: the Christian Service Center, Frontline Outreach, the Coalition for the Homeless, iDignity (which helps the homeless get necessary legal documents and identification), the Orlando Union Rescue Mission, Jobs Partnership, a student-mentoring program called COMPACT and the Community Food & Outreach Center.
Church officials won't say how much they've given each agency to avoid jealousy and complaints, but the total so far is about $1.3 million, with more to come.
"I believe that what happened at First Baptist is a modern-day miracle," said Robert Stuart, executive director of the Christian Service Center and an Orlando city commissioner. "Some people may have wondered why it has taken this long to distribute the money, but they've got a wonderful team of business leaders over there that are going about this very strategically. That takes time."
One of the first moves the church made was to give Stuart's nonprofit a $50,000 matching grant. To get the full amount, the Christian Service Center had to raise another $50,000 on its own, which it did in just three months.
It helped the church that, several months before the "60 Minutes" piece aired, leaders had created a First Baptist ministry focused on making a difference in the struggling neighborhoods near the church's 130-acre main campus off John Young Parkway — Ivy Lane, Richmond Heights and Washington Shores. The ministry, dubbed "Love Orlando," was an effort to balance mission trips to such places as Malaysia and South America. In February, just a few weeks before the historic offering, ministry members had created a task force of business- and charity-minded church members to figure out the most effective way to spend money it hadn't yet raised.
"This whole thing caught us by surprise, but it didn't catch God by surprise," de Armas said. "A lot of what was happening within the fellowship of the church turned out to be preparation for the offering."
Already, the money has helped pay power bills and rent to prevent families from becoming homeless, and it has covered the expense of two social workers from the Christian Service Center now stationed part-time at the church. To this day, dozens of people continue to show up on the church's doorstep, seeking help.
The church also has encouraged members to volunteer at the nonprofit agencies, and it has enlisted hundreds of members in a family-to-family mentorship project that will give homeless parents and children someone to lean on emotionally.
In the fall, First Baptist plans to fund food pantries at 13 Orange County elementary schools, where children can get groceries for themselves and their families. De Armas said details will be released in August.
Still in the discussion stage is the longer-term effort to establish transitional housing for the homeless, perhaps by buying a local motel that already houses families who rent by the week and bringing in support programs and social workers.
Allen Harden, president and CEO of the Orlando Union Rescue Mission, said he has met with church representatives to discuss supplying those services or having the church support the mission's plans for its own 52 transitional apartments on its main campus in Orlando on West Washington Street.
That project already has won approval from the city of Orlando, but Harden said construction is still at least three years away.
"We're working with First Baptist to change lives — to take people off the street and provide them with the tools to put their families back together and help them become self-sufficient," Harden said. "If you just feed people today and tomorrow, eventually the money is gone and the people are still hungry."
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