SARASOTA, Fla. (BP) — Wearing bright blue T-shirts proclaiming “I love Sarasota,” nearly 500 members of Sarasota Baptist Church — from children to octogenarians — fanned out across the area to show the love of Christ during the first week of February.
“We challenged our people to take a one-week mission trip to Sarasota,” pastor Mike Landry said. “We are on mission to our community, and to just love on our city.”
In all, volunteers participated in 30 projects across the city — visiting nursing homes, where they sang and read to residents; delivering homemade treats to police stations and sheriffs’ offices; and handing out gift bags for mothers at a pregnancy center.
At local schools, church members rocked babies of teen moms attending classes, stocked books in a media center and installed a garden wall.
They built homes with Habitat for Humanity; provided food at The Salvation Army homeless shelter; and donated clothes and hygiene products and distributed them to the homeless in downtown Sarasota.
At the Sarasota National Cemetery, families with children of all ages took out their scrub brushes to clean the white, marbled markers and gravesites of veterans. The church sponsored a luncheon for veterans and a second one for widows in the community to shower them with love, compassion and dignity.
And free babysitting was provided at the church’s preschool on Friday night for parents, many who are unchurched.
“Behind what we are doing is to lead people to Christ,” Landry said. But first: “We have to love them and meet practical needs, loving them unconditionally and not expecting anything in return. When they ask why we are doing this, we will tell them it’s because of Jesus.”
Additionally, church members made commitments for personal ministries such as distributing tracts at their places of business and schools, performing random acts of kindness and donating to Sarasota-area ministries.
“We want to mobilize our people to use their gifts to help others,” Landry said. “As a result, we hope people will find their own ministry and it will spur them on to do more.”
Carol Wheeler said she had often considered taking a mission trip but could never manage to find the funds for travel. But being on mission in her own hometown gave her a special opportunity.
Handing out hot meals, clothes and Bibles to the homeless in downtown Sarasota allowed her to pray with and talk to the men and women there. “This was my first mission trip and I didn’t know I could do it. It softened my heart,” Wheeler said. “I had tears streaming down my face the whole time.”
She prayed with a middle-aged man who said he had AIDS. “He asked why I was there,” she recounted. “I told him, ‘Because Jesus loves you and we do too. It is my honor to help you.'”
She assured the man that he can experience God’s presence, even in his darkest moments.
Minister of youth Jared Windham shared Christ with a group of men who play basketball at the church each Monday night. That week, the church grilled hot dogs for the “mostly unchurched” men, he said. After presenting the Gospel and walking them through the plan of salvation, eight of the 40 men in attendance made professions of faith. One of the players, who is a church member, will begin a ministry to follow up with the new believers.
On Tuesday morning Windham shared the Gospel with students in a club meeting at a local middle school. “Two gave their lives to Christ,” he reported. Another meeting at a local arts school resulted in 12 students praying to receive Christ.
Volunteer Rose Pelot coordinated the activities of the week-long outreach. She began contacting schools and groups where church members previously have had ministries. “I had no idea where this was all going. God just kept putting people and needs in front of us.
“We have had such positive feedback from our volunteers, many who want to keep doing the ministries. And others who said it has given them a new sense of belonging.”
“This week has been tremendous,” said Rod Boatwright, the church’s mission pastor. “Our own people are getting excited about ministering to others. It’s amazing.”
Landry said he had hoped and prayed that the community mission trip “would mobilize a very large portion of our church body to participate. My prayers were answered and over 50 percent of our average weekly attendance participated.
“I believe the effectiveness of a church ministry is based more on how many people are on mission in a given week,” he said, “than are in attendance at a worship service on a given Sunday.”