ST. PETERSBURG — The first time she heard her husband pray in public, Cynthia Chance did something you're not supposed to.
Something in the voice of then-deacon John Chance leading the Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church congregation in prayer made stealing a glance irresistible.
"I saw a radiant joy," she said. After church, other worshipers told Chance, 50, that her husband was destined to preach.
Chance went on to start a nondenominational church in an apartment complex's clubhouse. In four years, the congregation grew from 5 to 150. Today, WINGS Fellowship Church seats 300 on the site of a former nightclub and holds two services on Sunday.
The Rev. John Chance, a straight arrow who led a ministry for at-risk men that urged them to become better fathers, died May 5 of cancer. He was 57.
"I believe God's hand was on him to do what he was doing, and that's why he was such a success at it," said Ellis Hodge, a friend of 24 years and the pastor of Word of Life Fellowship Church.
Chance grew up in Georgia and embraced Christianity early in life. He moved to St. Petersburg in 1974 and worked for yacht builders as a carpenter foreman. In his free time, he fished and played city-league basketball.
He could have died in May 1977 when a teenager fired a shotgun in his direction. Chance, then 24 and known to family and friends as Johnny, was trying to help his brother-in-law, who had been in a fight earlier that evening. They went to meet the other boy, who fired as they approached.
Though his own criminal record was spotless, he maintained a strong interest throughout life in reaching troubled young men.
"He would tell parents, 'We are our kids' role models,' " said Cynthia Chance, 50. "It's not who they see on TV. It's who they see in the morning."
Late on Dec. 31, 1997, the Rev. Chance led a group of five to bring in the new year and a new church. Their site: the clubhouse of Lynn Lake Arms, an apartment complex. They sang gospel songs and prayed. Walking In Newness of God's Spirit (WINGS) was born.
By 2002, WINGS had 150 members. Leaders looked for a building and found themselves drawn to 1801 34th St. S.
The property had undergone several incarnations as a bar, including Ike's 3, the Renaissance Club and Club 727. Over the years, police had been called to the address many times. On a walk-through in 2002, a handful of members took note of the building's black walls and ceiling, and asked themselves if this was the right place to build their church.
Chance and others held hands in the parking lot and prayed about it. "We looked up, and there were two eagles circling the building," said Jason Nicholas, a member from the first year. Church members considered the eagle the symbol of WINGS after a Bible verse about God bearing Moses and his followers out of Egypt on eagles' wings.
"We used that as a sign that this was the place God wanted us to be," Nicholas said. "It was a strategic point for God, for the community and the problems that that community has. We believe we were placed there as a light, as a beacon to change the community one block at a time."
Members removed the green swivel chairs and the disco ball. They painted the black walls with two coats of white paint, plus a sealer. The reverend preached matter-of-fact sermons on Sundays.
"It wasn't so above your head that you were left wondering, 'What was he talking about?' " his wife said.
The couple offset his busy schedule with time alone whenever they could, which they called either a date night or "indoor picnic." He lit candles and spread a red-and-white tablecloth on the floor. They ate fruit, crackers, chicken.
In his absence, Cynthia Chance recalls the advice her husband gave to his parishioners as they faced job loss, divorce and other crises. Two words he would always say: Trust God.
It feels like he is talking to her now, she said, giving that same message.
"I hear him more now than I did when he would tell me every day," she said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.