HOLIDAY — A tall man with a bald head and unbridled enthusiasm, youth pastor Drew Nawoichik has turned Calvary Baptist Church of Anclote into a safe haven for troubled teens.
Many of the kids admit to smoking pot, he said. Some are "cutters" who slice themselves to deal with their emotional pain. Some are struggling with abuse or suicidal thoughts. Some live with their grandparents because a parent is in rehab.
"We've buried two moms that were lost to drugs," said Nawoichik.
At the weekly youth group meetings, however, the teens find home-cooked meals, Bible study, games, companionship and hope for a better life.
"I like the fact I can be comfortable around here and no one is judged," Sean Hobbs, 14, said Wednesday evening as the group formed a lively circle around the food table before eating.
His brother and father also attend the group.
"It's made such a profound impact," said Carl Hobbs Jr., 16. He had been struggling with his parents' separation and the temptation of drugs and alcohol. Now he serves as a mentor and considers becoming a pastor someday. "Wherever God leads me," he said.
Nawoichik — a 46-year-old known to everybody as Pastor Drew — has been ministering to youth groups for about 15 years. He's been at Calvary Baptist, a tiny white church on the Pasco-Pinellas county line, since August.
About 30 teens regularly attend youth group meetings on Wednesdays. About 100 kids attend the church's various youth events, including car washes, volunteer programs and teen nights. And their interest has enlarged the flock, as they spread the word to friends and family.
"We're drawing in the parents now," said Ron Zimmerman of Holiday, chairman of the deacons.
Nawoichik grew up near Boston in a devout Catholic home. He remembers crucifixes hanging everywhere, including the kitchen. But looking back, he didn't consider himself spiritual.
"No one ever connected the dots … I just went through the motions," he said.
Everything changed in college, when he met his sister's husband, who was active in a non-denominational, Bible-based congregation. His brother-in-law explained the Gospel in a way that connected with Nawoichik.
"God had a path for me after that, a calling," Nawoichik said. "I was trying to figure out, God, what do you want from me?"
Nawoichik had a marketing job in Boston in the 1990s, writing business plans for computer companies, when he was laid off. He decided to leave the corporate world and become more involved with a ministry.
He was ordained through the non-denominational Moody Bible Institute and then through Liberty University, a Baptist ordination, in 2002. He followed his snowbird parents to Clearwater and made connections at different small churches. They usually needed a youth minister, so that became his thing. A Craigslist ad led him to Calvary Baptist.
He also works with the evangelistic Sunset Ministries in Clearwater Beach, and a summer camp ministry called FEMI, Focus Evangelistic Ministries. He does handyman work on the side.
Nawoichik makes the drive up Alt. U.S. 19 to Holiday from his Clearwater Beach home every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. His commute eats up much of his $150 weekly stipend from the Calvary Baptist, Zimmerman said.
"For what we're paying him, we are blessed beyond compare," Zimmerman said.
Sometimes the teens start out quietly, observing. They'll keep their headphones on during the group activities, for example, but Nawoichik will try to talk to them one-on-one.
"These kids are lost," he said.
Sometimes he'll just listen, showing compassion.
"A lot of these kids just need good old-fashioned love. Just show there's hope," he said.
Cecilia Mueller, 18, had lost interest in church until she discovered Calvary Baptist. Now she comes regularly to the youth group meetings.
"It helped me get through so much," she said. "We're all friends here."
On Wednesday night after dinner, Nawoichik stood at the back of the powder blue room, leading a multimedia presentation as the teens sat in metal folding chairs. He showed messages from Christian rock stars, including Toby Mac, who spoke about choosing friends wisely.
Nawoichik spoke about the lyrics to one of his songs: "Devil go on, get your junk outta here." He explained, "We all have something that is hindering us … from worshiping God."
Through the rock music, he spoke about becoming more holy. He asked the teens to raise their hands if they liked the song. Most did, enthusiastically. Then more music played. He went on to explain that "your body is a vessel," and quizzed them on Bible passages such as "Draw close to God and God will draw close to you" from James 4:8.
"Where they used to walk the street at night looking for something to do, now they have direction," said church volunteer Becky Pagitt. "We're so proud of these kids."
But Nawoichik won't take credit for any of it. He sees himself as a vessel, too.
"I'm just facilitating. It's them … The glory all goes to God."
Faith In Motion is a series of features about an individual or group doing something inspiring in the course of a spiritual journey. Ideas are welcome via e-mail. Send them to [email protected]