FLORAL CITY, Fla. (BP)–Just as the canopy of moss-covered oak trees embraces the weary traveler entering Floral City, Fla., on Highway 48, First Baptist Church has wrapped loving arms around the families of school-age children in its community.
Every day, before and after school, the rural church — just south of Inverness in central Florida — provides care for children of working parents, transporting them to and from the neighborhood school, located two blocks from the church.
About 40 youngsters, who otherwise would be home alone, gather in the church’s fellowship hall to do homework, study the Bible and learn Christian principles. In between these activities they get hugs — lots of them — from the day-care workers.
“It’s a huge commitment,” said pastor Michael Thompson, who came to the church after the child-care program started. “It’s a ministry to families. It is not a day care, it’s a ‘His care’ ministry.”
The entire congregation has embraced the ministry. Thompson drives the bus to pick up the children from school each day. The Women on Mission send birthday cards to children and notes to the families. Wednesday night supper is available for carryout — a relief for any working mom.
Many of the children come from single-parent homes that survive on minimum-wage incomes. The weekly cost of $30 for before- and after-school care covers the salaries of the workers and resources used in the nonprofit ministry.
Some of the families have become involved in the church as a result of the ministry. But Thompson estimates that for 75 percent of them, “this is the only Christian influence in their lives.”
That influence is seen quite readily. Every child enrolled in the program is given a Bible to keep at the church. For some, this is the only Bible they have ever owned. They gather with excitement for the daily Bible study and express disappointment when singing praise songs gives way to playground activities. On the playground two girls grab chalk and write, “God’s Way, My Way” and “Jesus Rocks.”
Even though he was in “time out” for misbehavior on the playground, Jeffrey Nolen, 10, said he liked the center. “Whenever we are here, we have Bible.”
Christine Carter drives out of her way to pick up her son, Anthony, 9, at the Floral City church. “I feel very safe here; the people are wonderful. My son is being brought up in the Christian religion. I don’t have to worry that he’s hearing swearing or doing something he shouldn’t.”
“We always strive to put God first and glorify his name in all we do,” said director April Caldwell. That begins with a staff devotion before the children arrive. “That bonds us together and guides our actions to be pleasing to God.
“We never raise our voices in a hostile manner. The children obey us because they know that we love them, rather than fear us. Yet they know their boundaries,” Caldwell said.
One glimpse at the center’s bulletin board conveys how important the day care has been in the lives of the families who bring their children there. Note after note thanks the workers: “Please keep in touch with us. Thanks for allowing us in your heart.”
“We see ourselves as an extension of the family,” Caldwell said. “We want a personal relationship with all families. Our goal is to not let one parent leave without asking them how their day was and sharing one positive thing about their child.”
The parents respond to such concern. “I’ve had parents come in here and tell me about their problem in tears,” Caldwell said. “I tell them the first thing they need is Jesus in their lives.”
Brenda Forlines, director of the Florida Baptist Convention’s church and community ministries department, commended the church for its vision to minister to the community. “This is a church in a rural community that saw the need for a food distribution ministry and a before- and after-school ministry for the children of single and working parents.”
Many smaller churches feel they don’t have the resources to reach out in ministry, Forlines said. “But this church demonstrates that when there is a concern for the people in the community and God gives them a vision for ministry in that community, then the resources will come.”
Ministry also will help the image of the church. Teachers at the Floral City elementary school routinely recommend the program to parents. Since beginning the after-school care, the church’s membership has increased by 50 percent. “Ministering to the needs of unchurched people is one way of building relationships with them so we can share and live out the gospel before them,” Forlines added.
More and more churches are discovering this type of program can serve their community, Forlines said. “I think there is probably a need for this ministry in most of our churches. In every community there are children who go home to empty houses. The church can be a safe haven, but it can also serve as a ministry center for families.”