When the Rev. Bill Cruz and his wife, Dora, moved to South Hillsborough more than two dozen years ago, they found farm workers living in the backs of pickup trucks.
Near this outpost surrounded by citrus and vegetable fields, the Puerto Rican couple saw need and heard their calling.
They started the Good Samaritan Mission and, through the years, helped thousands of laborers and their families with food, clothing and spiritual counsel.
But these days, the couple can be found across town in Ruskin, where they recently launched a Spanish-language ministry at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church.
The couple's son, also named Bill Cruz, now directs the mission they founded 25 years ago in Wimauma.
"I was thinking of retiring, but I understood it wasn't the time," the elder Cruz, now 80, said recently. "I felt an urging, a calling from the Lord to continue the ministry."
The pastor grew concerned that the mission's board wanted to move it in a new direction, away from grass roots evangelism. He changed his mind about retiring and decided to stay on. But he felt sidelined as the board turned to his son as interim director late last year. A rift grew in the family. That's when he chose to start all over again someplace else.
But two missions already existed in Wimauma — Good Samaritan and Beth-El Mission.
"We felt no need for another ministry right there," he said. "We prayed and asked the Lord for guidance."
Ruskin, by contrast, had no mission serving its large farm worker population apart from outreach centers run by Catholic Charities and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association. When Cruz and his wife decided to leave Good Samaritan, they approached a friend and board member at St. John.
By April, they formed a proposal for a Hispanic ministry and held their first Spanish-language service at St. John on Palm Sunday.
Now their nonprofit, Lord's Lighthouse Ministry, operates out of St. John's annex with the assistance of the Cruzes' four daughters and two sons-in-law. They are searching for new donors to help them with a food and clothing pantry, early childhood programs for preschoolers, after-school tutoring and community advocacy.
Much of the congregation from the mission's Sunday services followed the pastor to Ruskin.
"They've been my pastor(s) all my adult life," Loretta Sanchez, 56, said after a recent Spanish-language Sunday service at St. John. She echoed other congregants who called the Cruzes their "spiritual mother and father."
Back at the mission, the younger Bill Cruz, appointed executive director at the start of this year, said evangelism remains its backbone, even as he guides the mission in a new direction.
An ordained minister and licensed marriage and family therapist, Cruz continues the Sunday services. He leads Bible readings and group discussions on Tuesday mornings before the open pantry.
But a major change rests in the mission's shift toward continued education and requests to patrons of the mission for volunteer service.
"We're moving away from a hand out to a hand up," said Cruz, 48.
Under the younger Cruz, the mission launched a new program called "Seeds of Change," which his wife, Theresa Cruz, directs.
It includes new computer and sewing classes, GED tutoring and driver's education instruction. All the classes are free and taught by volunteers.
Tapping the talent of retirees in nearby Sun City Center, Cruz soon expects to offer woodworking classes.
Cruz also met with the Hillsborough County School District about holding adult eduction classes at the mission. Those classes could range from cosmetology to English, nursing and auto mechanics.
"We're still bandaging wounds, we're still feeding them and clothing them, but we're moving them from where they are through education to a better place," he said.
After he took over, Cruz also started registering the hundreds of families who visit the food and clothing pantry on Tuesdays in order to more efficiently distribute the mission's goods.
Last year, the mission came close to shutting its doors until it received an infusion of last-minute donations to replenish its shelves.
With the latest changes, visitors now receive help that's consistent with the size of their families. Single men get smaller food baskets than a family of seven.
"We're not hoarding," he said after revealing two pantries stocked with canned goods, bags of rice and diapers. "How can we best use what we have and be better stewards of it?"
Cruz also asks some families to donate their time through volunteering. By doing so, he hopes to instill a sense of community.
In that regard, Cruz also recently partnered with Beth-El Mission to bring food to labor camps. He jumped on the chance to take part in a donation drive led by the U.S. Postal Service in May that helped stock his shelves.
Minding the budget, he found money to buy books and materials for the state-backed prekindergarten program. The mission sports new doors and a fresh coat of paint, while teachers in the mission's day care decorated their rooms in themes of monkeys, bears and bumblebees.
"We're respecting what we've been doing for 25 years, but with a new shift," he said.
The emphasis on job training and continued education, he said, matches the area's changing families, from migrant workers to working class.
"We're dealing with a different population now than 25 years ago," Cruz said. "Before it was a great need for food and clothing. Now with the second and third generation, we've become aware of other needs."
Lucia Bardalaz of Dover learns how to make little shirts and pants for her seven grandchildren during the Monday sewing classes.
But someday, she hopes to offer sewing services to supplement her husband's income as the owner of a bodega, or small grocery store.
"With God's help, I can do alterations in the future," she said.
Meanwhile, the Cruzes on both sides of the rift are looking forward with their respective projects, hoping one day the wounds will heal.
"We need to bury the past," said the elder Bill Cruz.
Saundra Amrhein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2441.