YBOR CITY, Fla. (BP)–At a giant pre-Super Bowl party in an impoverished neighborhood between Tampa’s downtown and Raymond James Stadium, a different but no less festive atmosphere prevailed at an event organizers said has been 11 years in the making.
The local Open Arms Church invited teams from two Florida churches, First Baptist in Dunnellon and College Road in Ocala, to staff 22 stations set up around the playground and field at Booker T. Washington Elementary School on the Saturday preceding the NFL title game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals.
More than 500 fans poured in from nearby impoverished housing projects while 70 volunteers from the two churches and 70 Open Arms members met the crowd with games, face paint, cotton candy — and yes, a few footballs.
“It’s a hard community,” said Fernando Rojas, an Open Arms member who remembers what it was like when the church’s outreach began here 11 years ago. “It’s taken a lot of prayer to break this ground. The poverty in this neighborhood is a generational cycle.”
Open Arms pastor Joel Vicente said block parties were frequent during the church’s first few years in the community, but the $3,000 estimated cost has become rather prohibitive. Without the help of the volunteers who also brought canned food and clothing for giveaways, it would have been “very, very challenging” to carry out the event.
Rojas said the people living in the projects recognize and trust the organizers who required everyone to register so that there is follow-up. “This is 11 years of prayer,” he said. “A lot of these young adults, we’ve known them since they were kids, and now they are young adults with their kids.
“We’ve seen a lot of faces we have known here for a long time,” Rojas continued. “Some of them might have just come out of prison. There’s a lot of rough situations. We are still here for them.”
Rob Loy Jr., minister to students and education at College Road in Ocala, acknowledged that the young people he brought could have been at the stadium in Tampa taking part in a number of glitzy activities related to the Super Bowl, but instead they opted to “be the hands and feet that Jesus told us to be.”
“They’re the forgotten, usually, they’re the overlooked,” Loy said, referring to those at the block party. “My students are here for several hours and touching a life that may be used in a phenomenal way.”
Doug Phillips, associate pastor of youth and media at First Baptist in Dunnellon, said his team had gone door-to-door to invite the community to the block party. He said he hoped the outreach would help his church learn more about being on mission and have more of “a heart for missions.”
Maxine Smith, a grandmother with 6-, 4- and 2-year-olds in tow, said the children had made the rounds of the block party activities several times in the nearly three-hour time span they were there.
“It’s good for the neighborhood,” Smith said of the event. Noting it was sponsored by the church, she said, “The church can’t do anything but help, nothing but good.”
Pointing to one young mom sitting with her child, Smith said “she wouldn’t be outside today. She brought the baby out. The kids need that.”
And off to the side, where the music wasn’t so loud, a prayer tent beckoned those who, as Vicente put it, claimed the ultimate prize.
The white-canopied tent was where five people gave their hearts to the Lord. One was an elementary student at the school, Vicente said. His teacher, a member of Open Arms, was in the prayer tent when he approached and asked questions which led to his commitment.
“The five salvations for us is worth all the investments,” Vicente said.
ON NEARBY SIDEWALKS
The block party sparked another outreach that day. A team from First Baptist Church in Brandon, Fla., led by the pastor of evangelism, Ron Smith, left their bus at the school and walked a few blocks to spread the Good News to people on the streets in downtown Ybor City.
Venturing to a busy historic shopping district where Steelers and Cardinals fans mingled on the sidewalks, about a dozen people stayed for several hours to hand out tracts, strike up witnessing conversations and pray with people.
Two Super Bowl fans sitting on a bench asked one team member for Super Bowl trivia cards — one of the tracts distributed the day before on Channelside Drive in Tampa by another group involved in street witnessing.
“They were easy,” one fan said to the other about the questions on the cards.
Trivia cards eventually did show up when other teams hit the same area. But evangelical Christians weren’t the only ones in Ybor — Scientologists, whose headquarters are in nearby Clearwater, Fla., handed out boxes of attractive booklets with the word “Happiness” printed on the front.
Sharing the same sidewalk with Scientologists didn’t bother him, First Baptist member Daniel Hancock said. Paired with Jennifer Tapley, Hancock tried to engage people in conversation as he handed out huge $20 bill look-a-likes with a Gospel message.
“This is a way to spread God’s Word,” Hancock said. “I want to be able to stop and talk to people, but if they don’t stop, then that’s OK, too.”
Hancock said people can either stop and talk and eventually pray to receive Christ, they can simply walk off, or they can get angry. “No way you can lose,” he said.
Smiling gently, Hancock said he doesn’t argue religion but does ask people probing questions out of humility and love. Though no one had prayed to receive Christ that day, Hancock said he recently had an experience on an airplane with a 47-year-old man who prayed and cried at the same time.
On the other side of the square, Edwina Spangler, in Ybor with her daughter and four grandchildren, said she and one of her granddaughters ran into “Scatter,” a young black man on a bike who at first gave only his nickname.
After appearing relatively unconcerned about where he would go when he died, Edwina said she told him point-blank: “Well, we don’t want you to go to hell.”
Callie, her 17-year-old granddaughter, said the young man eventually prayed to receive Christ and they bought him a cup of coffee and even a Bible.
“It’s been an interesting day,” Edwina said.
Back at First Baptist in Brandon on Sunday as people prepared for the game just miles away, Hancock stopped by a truck collecting food and other items for the church’s ministry to the homeless. He said he was encouraged by The Hope Project — and by all those reaching out to the lost.
The Hope Project tied into an evangelistic Super Bowl rally Jan. 28 where people filled a truck with goods that will stock the church’s homeless ministry for at least a year, senior pastor Tommy Green said.
“People couldn’t get their things on the truck fast enough,” Green said. “It was absolutely amazing.”
The second collection point was on Super Bowl Sunday after the truck had been emptied and brought back again. Families dressed in matching football jerseys and Sunday School classes took children as young as 2 to donate their gifts as a way of learning about giving to the least of these. Some carried paper bags they had decorated themselves.
“It is an opportunity at a time when everybody’s focused on all of the glamorous and the successful things,” Green said. “It’s a time when our church can be reminded that there’s a whole group in our community who do not have, who do not share any of these successes.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness (www.floridabaptistwitness.com) who was part of Baptist Press’ coverage of the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla.