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Church drops to 11 members, then rises after asking for help

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (BP)–The carpet in the sanctuary didn’t just look worn out — it smelled worn out. One section of the church building, formerly used for education, had been closed off. Only 11 active members remained in the congregation of Lake Forest Baptist Church, and they were at the point of voting to close the Fort Lauderdale-area church altogether.
But those 11 members — all of whom had been born again in the Florida church — couldn’t bring themselves to do it. Instead, in January 1997, they called Gulf Stream Baptist Association and asked for help.
“This was for all of us a valley of dry bones,” said Sylna Rego, alluding to the well-known vision of the biblical prophet Ezekiel. Rego, church and community ministries director for Gulf Stream association, and W. Stewart Pickle, church extension director, began to work with the congregation, listening and praying to see if there was a way to make the “dry bones” live.
Serving as interim pastor, Pickle led the congregation through the “Experiencing God” discipleship study. Rego began dialogue with the members about their vision for the community.
As they studied the transitional neighborhood surrounding the church, an unincorporated area adjacent to Pembroke Park, they discovered one-third of residents were Hispanic, another one-third African American. Surveying 418 people in 217 households, they discovered 63 percent did not have health insurance, and the largest number of uninsured were ages 5-17. Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed listed medical service as their highest need. Other needs discovered were job training, job placement, English classes, food and support groups.
Prayer meetings and prayerwalking accompanied the congregation’s discussions. While Rego had in mind the kind of ministry the church might be able to do, “they had to feel God was in this,” she emphasized.
It was out of those efforts that Living Water Care Center was born. The center officially will open in January, offering health care for people who have no insurance, support groups and a variety of other ministries. The center will target a low-income population of about 25,000 people within a five-mile radius.
Funds to reopen and refurbish the abandoned section of the church building came from a $46,000 grant through Broward County Grant Management Division, which provides funds for renovation of abandoned buildings to be used by nonprofit groups.
Applications for such grants require quite a bit of documentation, Rego noted. This one, among other things, required an architect’s drawing and contractor’s estimate. By the end of the week before the grant application was due on Wednesday, Rego still had found no architect who would volunteer his services, though she had combed the Yellow Pages and made numerous calls to churches asking if they knew someone who would help.
“Lord, this is it,” she remembers praying aloud. “No. 1,” she continued praying, “it’s your business, not mine. No. 2, I’m losing sleep over it.” With that, she turned it over to the Lord and went home for the weekend.
On Monday morning, she got a phone call. The caller’s words clearly were an answer to her prayer: “My name is Jeff Smith and I heard about you … . By the way, I’m an architect” — and the words Rego most wanted to hear, “I’ll draw it for free.”
Smith also offered to bring along his friend, Gary Hale, who is a contractor. Both are from First Baptist Church in Pompano Beach.
Meanwhile, God was working in another way, leading Jorge Aguayo to accept a call as pastor of the Lake Forest congregation. Bilingual and bicultural, Aguayo also had been a construction contractor. Under his leadership, the church began to reach out to the community with a food pantry and service projects such as helping people paint houses. Aguayo also started a Spanish-language congregation.
In his first year, Aguayo baptized about 30 people. The two congregations’ combined membership is now approximately 130, with an average attendance of about 110, and a Haitian congregation is being added.
The $46,000 was enough to cover construction materials for the care center. Campers on Mission from Florida and other states provided the major labor.
Other areas of the church received attention, too. Members of Pines Baptist Church in Pembroke Pines, Sheridan Hills Baptist in Hollywood and First Baptist, Fort Lauderdale, donated materials and labor, including new carpet for the sanctuary, refurbishing of the fellowship hall, tile, doors and lumber. Members of the Lake Forest congregation worked alongside the volunteers from sister churches to complete the renovation.
Living Water Care Center recently received a second grant, from Health Foundation of South Florida, which will provide $100,000 for start-up and operating funds. Judy de Rose, whose husband is an assistant pastor at Lake Forest, has been hired as the care center’s coordinator.
Care center leaders are in contact with representatives of the Christian Medical and Dental Society regarding medical volunteers to work at the care center. Nurses from several churches have expressed an interest in volunteering, Rego said, and she also anticipates working with area nursing schools.
“I’ve been praying a lot that God will send the right people,” Rego said.
Memorial Health Care System of South Broward County has agreed to work in partnership with the care center, providing charity care for emergency cases, and has donated equipment such as examining tables. A number of medical offices have donated supplies.
The 3,000-square-foot center will have four medical exam rooms, a waiting room, a reception area, a nurses’ station, one office, a counseling office and a conference room with an outside door — designed so, in part, to help protect the privacy of people attending support groups for situations such as AIDS or domestic abuse.
Rego emphasized the care center will seek to minister to the whole person, not just physical needs. She envisions having a volunteer from the church always available to talk with clients, having support groups led by strong Christians, and providing Bible stories or Christian videos for children in the care center’s waiting room.
For those Lake Forest church members who were so discouraged a year ago, Rego said, this has been a good exercise in understanding that “it’s not my kingdom, it’s his kingdom.” In order for the church to regain a viable ministry, she said, “they had to let it go; they had to let God do it.”

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  • Shari Schubert