SOUTH SEMINOLE HEIGHTS
Kids picked up bags of brown rice at the first stop in the sanctuary at Common Ground Christian Church from tables laden with 6,000 pounds of food.
Next stop: tea. Then cereal. Pineapples. Bagels.
"They're going to be very happy," said a grinning 11-year-old Keirnen Pipes, envisioning the recipients in Robles Park, where the group planned to distribute gift boxes.
Keirnen came from Northstar Church in Panama City, Fla., with 120 middle and high schoolers on a mission trip.
They are the latest group to travel to Tampa for service projects organized through Common Ground, a church that lead Pastor Danny Schaffner started four years ago. This year, about 400 youth have come from other parts of the state, South Carolina and beyond.
The gist of this church is to unify a diverse community by reaching out to serve the neighborhood. Members often rely on people from other cities to help communities here in what they call "urban missions."
Schaffner says churches typically are not integrated; they tend to segregate by ethnicity. But Common Ground reflects the Old Seminole Heights neighborhood, with its makeup including many Hispanics and African-Americans, he said.
This vision brought Schaffner, his wife, Kristi, and their four boys from Indianapolis to their new home, three blocks from the church.
"We had a hunger to live in a more integrated environment and raise our children with a global perspective," said Schaffner, 39.
Common Ground inherited the building at 4207 N Boulevard from Central Christian Church after its congregation dwindled, Schaffner said. To continue serving God in a new way, that church donated 3 acres and the building to Stadia: New Church Strategies and Florida Church Planters, whose leaders pegged Schaffner for a lead position. Today, Common Ground boasts 250 members.
"We try to be a church that cares and meets needs," he said. "It's just a 'love your neighbor' for us."
On Tuesday, Keirnen added peanut butter to her box, along with pumpkin, cheese crackers and dark chocolate truffles.
The group planned to take the boxes to neighbors in public housing at Robles Park. Schaffner said he knows many children there who go to school with his boys. The church bought the goods from a local food bank and arranged for the Panama City youth to help with packing and distribution.
In another outreach effort, collard greens, green peppers and basil grow in a community garden planted on the church lawn in April. Brad Barmore, church director of community impact, said the organic garden feeds hungry neighbors.
Barmore also is working on a plan to hand out backpacks with supplies at nearby Broward Elementary School on Osborne Avenue. There, he said, a majority of students get free or reduced-price lunches. "Back Pack Attack" will cost about $15,000, and donations are welcome, he said, through the church website: commongroundtampa.com. Click on Back Pack Attack.
Barmore also oversees the mission teams visiting the church from across the nation, including the two this week, from Panama City and another 60 teens from Greenville, S.C.
The Greenville group included high school students who painted walls at the church and at Broward and Graham elementary schools.
The youth from both groups set aside time for Bible studies and worship with Common Ground leaders throughout their stay. Other parts of their day included picking up trash at a nearby park, handing out free popcorn downtown, hanging fliers on doors advertising an arts and sports camp Saturday, and cleaning and drying laundry for needy people in Sulphur Springs.
Some, like 13-year-old Caleb Chaplik from Panama City, are experienced missionaries. He recently helped pour a concrete floor at a school in Kenya. He broke rocks, carried water and mixed in sand to cover a dirt floor. He served beans and corn to children who lived on that one meal a day.
"It taught me to be thankful for what I have," he said.
Leah Gaffney, 17, from Greenville was on her seventh mission. She and the other students from her group spread air mattresses over office floors at the church to sleep at night. The accommodations, she said, were "luxurious" compared to other mission trips.
Leah and Emma Stephens, also 17, helped out at the Sunday service in the church nursery. Both said the community where they live is mostly white. They noticed that a nursery class of toddlers at the church reflected the congregation: Haitian, Asian, African-American, Cuban, white.
"Their differences didn't faze them," Leah said. "They didn't even notice."
The girls said urban mission trips had opened their eyes to different races and economic groups.
Back in the sanctuary, Brandon Smith, 14, said he stocked a box with food such as bagels, canned vegetables and more, which he figured Robles Park residents would appreciate. "I can't wait to see the look on their faces," he said.
The trip, his first, changed his outlook.
"I feel like I wasn't open to God before. But now, God is leading me."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.
Editor's Note: The above story reflects the following correction since its original printing. Common Ground Christian Church will host about 400 youth on missions this year. Also, a ministry called Stadia: New Church Strategies helped establish Common Ground. The original story contained an incorrect number of youth and an incomplete name for the ministry.