Hopewell Baptist Church was the one place Martha Durrance could count on when it seemed everything was lost.
She was 10 when her brother, Forest "Doc" Glover, pulled her from a house set ablaze by a kerosene stove that exploded while warming a baby bottle.
As the children huddled outside on the grass, coughing and rubbing their eyes, the three-room pine structure owned by their employer, a farmer named Clifton McDonald, burned to the ground. Everything inside — clothing, shoes, two beds, pillows, blankets and a smattering of plates, photographs and toys — was lost.
"We had so much smoke in our eyes we couldn't see for three days," Durrance said.
But even before that night, life seemed to deal harshly with the Glovers.
A few years earlier, in 1940, Durrance's father walked out, and after that her mother died of cancer. The eldest daughter had married and moved to Atlanta with her husband. So it fell to Doc, the family's 23-year-old brother, and his wife to care for Durrance and her five siblings who lived spread out over two farmhouses on the McDonald property.
But then there was the simple country church, whose members had come generation after generation since 1870 to be baptized, married and comforted by the word of God.
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In this small farming community south of Plant City on County Road 39, the church stood as a source of constancy amid social and cultural change. Life surged and ebbed, decades rolled by, but Hopewell Baptist stayed on course saving souls and reaching out to the needy. Even today, the church's zeal to help others remains a cornerstone.
To the distressed Glover family, Hopewell Baptist and its parishioners would become benefactors. McDonald went on to build a new house — this one with electricity and indoor plumbing — and Hopewell's members filled it with possessions.
"They gave us everything you needed for a home: sheets, clothing, pots and pans, dishes, everything," said Durrance, now 79. "What an outpouring of love. They fed us. They raised us. We were just children. We were poor, but we didn't know it. Back then it seemed like everybody was poor."
When Durrance's mother was a patient at Tampa General Hospital, Hopewell members gave rides to her and her siblings.
Those memories of tragedy and finding help are among the scores imprinted on the Hopewell faithful.
Many such memories were rekindled this past Sunday as the church celebrated its 143rd anniversary, or "Homecoming."
Most parishioners dressed in early 20th century garb to exemplify the spirit the occasion, which started at 10 a.m. with a revival-style tent service. The church's new pastor, the Rev. Daniel Middlebrooks, presided, wearing a long coat. A luncheon followed in the new sanctuary. About 320 people attended.
For Middlebrooks, 46, a retired Army chaplain who spent 20 years shuttling from one base to another, including Iraq, Hopewell Baptist has become a home.
"I've moved 19 times, I'm not moving again," he said. "This is where I want to pour out my heart. My wife, Arienne, she basically told me that since your heart is here, God may have led you to be here."
Hopewell's members say the church hasn't changed much over the years. There's a new sanctuary that opened in 2006 and subdivisions have sprung up in nearby communities, but the core message heard from the pulpit each Sunday hasn't strayed from its biblical roots.
"We've been pretty consistent in how things went over the years," said Jeane Bugg, 83, who started attending services at Hopewell 68 years ago, at one point traveling to church in a Model A Ford with a rumble seat. "This was a very rural community back then. Everybody farmed. I didn't even know what a subdivision was. It was all groves and farms."
And a church.
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In summer, men opened windows while women cooled themselves with paper fans inscribed with the names of funeral homes. On special occasions, the congregation gathered outside at long tables for picnics with ham and fried chicken, okra, black-eyed peas, lima beans and sweet tea.
Sometimes they ventured to Lithia Springs about 7 miles southwest to take a dip in the refreshing waters. There was a softball team, trips to a roller skating rink at Crystal Springs and fish frys alongside the Alafia River.
On Saturdays before Easter, the parishioners met at the home of Roy and Dorothy Hull for Easter egg hunts. At Christmas, the church staged a modest Nativity play and sang carols.
"It was a more innocent time," Bugg said. "Nobody had problems with kids and drugs. Everybody took care of each other."
Almost all of the men were farmers, many of whom loaded their trucks with produce on weekend mornings for trips to the markets in Tampa and Plant City. The women helped in the fields, tended to their own vegetable gardens and raised their children. Some worked as teachers.
Each Sunday, the families gathered, lean and tanned from their work, to hear the pastor read scripture and preach.
"Some Sundays it was about sin and on others it was about love," Bugg said.
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That message isn't likely to change under Middlebrooks' stewardship, though the new pastor has energized his growing flock since joining Hopewell in January as interim pastor. He was officially named to the position three weeks ago.
Middlebrooks, who also holds the unofficial title of Plant City chaplain, is urging parishioners to expand their outreach efforts.
Already the church runs programs for youth, seniors, shut-ins and the poor. It collects food, assists a pregnancy center in downtown Plant City and has recently joined with a group to aid job seekers with resume writing and interview tips. In some cases, the group, Plant City Community Ministries, helps with job searches, offers financial assistance and shows the jobless how to apply for benefits.
Middlebrooks is also looking to start a counseling program in August for couples in their first year of marriage or looking to marry.
"The mission here is about helping the whole community," he said.
That mission has existed in one form or another for generations. Parishioners say they're happy to see Middlebrooks expand on it. Since he arrived, Sunday attendance has increased about 20 percent, to an average of about 175, said Randy Shirley, 62, who teaches Sunday school and sings in the choir.
"Most of us have a sense we could be doing more than what we're doing," he said.
For Durrance, the church's mission hasn't changed course, only evolved to meet societal needs.
"We just carry on like we always did," she said. "If we ever hear of a family that needs anything, we see that need is taken care of. We've always been a mission church."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.