Eight years ago, several members of a Methodist congregation in northern Hillsborough County split off to form the nondenominational Keystone Community Church. They had more heart than money but found a meeting place at a community center and later a middle school.
In 2009, they finally found a place to call home, a large building in the heart of a community reeling from economic collapse. By coincidence, a bank foreclosure created a rental opportunity, and the Keystone folks didn't waste it.
Angela Hobson, one of the original members, recalls the first time she drove up from her home in New Tampa to the property on State Road 54 in Land O'Lakes, just west of U.S. 41.
"When I turned the corner and saw that big open lot, I had an immediate thought,'' she said. "We should pitch a tent.''
Not just any tent, but a big red and white one visible to the 50,000 vehicles that roll through that major intersection every day, a place where people could bring food and toys and clothing for poor and homeless people served by Metropolitan Ministries.
A tent, albeit smaller, like the one in Tampa where the nonprofit agency over decades had saved many a Thanksgiving and Christmas for families around the bay area.
Keystone Community hadn't even conducted its first service at the new location when church volunteers found themselves welcoming hundreds of well-wishers. In an area where unemployment had skyrocketed as home building hit the wall, the Keystone folks were overwhelmed by the generosity of their new neighbors. They hauled truckloads of frozen turkeys and other groceries to the main collection center.
This week, the tent is pitched for a fifth holiday season, and church members are eager to build on a record that has earned them special recognition from the mother ship. Since 2009, they have collected 50,000 pounds of nonperishable food, 5,600 new toys, 650 frozen turkeys and more than $16,000.
"Keystone Community Church provides a powerful community link on behalf of Metropolitan Ministries' Pasco County outreach,'' said Tim Marks, president of the charity that began in 1972 with 13 downtown Tampa churches. Metropolitan served more than 22,000 families last year in Pasco, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk counties.
Everything collected at Keystone these days is trucked to the charity's primary Pasco outlet at 3214 U.S. 19 in Holiday. The Rev. Dan Campbell oversees the center and last week prepared to welcome a Walmart volunteer crew to erect shelves and stock them with donated food, including more than $30,000 worth collected at Generations Christian Church in Trinity. Qualified recipients who register at the center will push grocery carts through the aisles.
"We believe they should select the food they want, not just give them a box,'' said Campbell. "Our goals are pretty simple: alleviate suffering, promote dignity and instill self-sufficiency.''
Campbell said Metropolitan coordinates with other charities, such as Toys for Tots, so there is no overlap in services.
The holiday season reveals dozens of inspirational stories of kindness. Keystone's is particularly satisfying as the church has become a beacon of hope for poor people and yet just this year managed to put together enough pennies to afford its first full-time minister, the Rev. Gary Edwards. It also recently hired a youth director, Colin Taylor, who teaches AP history and economics at Sunlake High School.
The church hopes to find a way to buy the property — and to hoist that red and white tent for many years to come.
"It's a proud church,'' offered Angela Hobson.
For good reason.