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Southern Baptist pastor talks of Jewish roots, sobriety, best decision ever

PLANT CITY — First there are the tattoos.

They trail down both arms and both legs. "Keep on Truckin' " sits above his right hip.

Then there's the red Les Paul electric guitar in his office near the Moses statue and two crucifixes.

Until a couple of years ago, he arrived at some Sunday services astride a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy.

By appearance alone, First Baptist Church of Midway pastor Mitch Weissman breaks the stereotype of a Southern Baptist preacher.

But one fact stands out more than the rest: Brooklyn born and raised, Weissman, 56, grew up in a traditional Jewish household carefully observing the Sabbath and holy days.

"I loved going to temple. I loved the synagogue," he said. "I was always intrigued with the reverence and the intellectual side of it, the Scriptures, watching the men praying. There was always a pursuit of knowledge. My father instilled that in me."

To understand Weissman's journey from a Jewish kid playing stickball and idolizing Mickey Mantle to a Baptist preacher at a small country church is to delve into an odd, circuitous history.

It bounces from faith to no faith to faith again, a modern prodigal-son parable. For years, before embracing Christianity, Weissman lived a hazy, drug-filled existence.

In the end, returning to God as a Christian got him sober, but he never completely abandoned his Jewish identity, which he says adds to his understanding of Scripture today. The result for the 150-plus First Baptist Midway members: a diet of scriptural lessons often infused with historical and cultural context. Understanding the culture at the time of Christ, he says, can lend better understanding to the Bible's message and impact.

At times, he has donned a Jewish prayer shawl, or tallit, to emphasize a point to congregants. During one stretch, he grew out his hair and beard to depict a first-century Jew. And two years ago, he portrayed an elderly Holocaust survivor, wearing a green sweater with a Star of David, in a one-man production aimed at Holocaust deniers.

So far, the approach has been well received.

"He can look into a Bible story and see things from a perspective we would normally overlook," associate pastor Kevin MacKenzie said.

"He has a profound heart for preaching," said church member Ken Wofford. "When he talks he talks with knowledge. He's not afraid give his opinions."

In many ways, Weissman's journey to the pulpit didn't begin until after his family moved to Florida to help his ailing father escape the Brooklyn winters.

Two years after Weissman and his family moved to Cassleberry, a farming community 20 minutes northeast of Orlando, his father, Seymour, died of congestive heart failure.

The death hit Weissman hard. He left college after two years, joined the Navy and ended up homeless in San Francisco after his enlistment.

It was the early 1980s.

He panhandled, smoked pot — a lot of pot — and played guitar for change, sometimes sleeping in parks during the day. With a dime, he could buy an apple and an all-natural peanut butter sandwich from the Hare Krishnas. Drug dealers gave him free hits of LSD so they could gauge its potency before selling to customers. He was high most of the time.

"It's a miracle I can put two sentences together," he said.

A few months later, after saving for bus fare, he returned to Florida, and with help of the GI Bill attended the University of Central Florida to study music. On nights and weekends, he played blues guitar at local bars and continued his daily regimen of booze and pot.

He would have been content with the bar scene but for a drummer friend who introduced him to an evangelical preacher. The preacher had scheduled a revival meeting one night, and Weissman's friend coaxed him into going by offering to get him high beforehand.

The pair pulled up and nearly fell out of the car, pot smoke billowing after them.

"It was like a Cheech and Chong movie," he said, shaking his head.

They arrived late and found the only two seats up front. The preacher's words gradually sank in, and for the first time Weissman found himself thinking seriously about his life.

He started going to church, any church — Lutheran, Presbyterian, Jehovah's Witness, Mormon — but a lasting faith hadn't taken hold. He wasn't settled, and getting high and drunk was a preoccupation. After a while, he quit attending altogether.

Then his friend suggested a Baptist church in Orlando.

On a bright spring morning, Weissman pulled up, parked his motorcycle next to a Cadillac and a BMW, long hair flowing, covered in tattoos, and strode into the church.

"I felt everyone looking at me thinking, 'Who is this long-haired biker?' " he said. "But then the preacher invited everybody to turn and welcome the person next to them. I never felt so at home. Four people invited me to lunch. Everybody was so nice to me."

He started attending regularly and cut his hair. While at services, he reconnected with a young woman he had known as a teenager. The two hit it off. Within two months they married.

Weissman changed his major to education and graduated from UCF. A few months later, the couple headed to New Orleans so he could attend a Baptist seminary. He found work afterward at a church in Vineland, N.J., and 10 years after that ended up at Bethany Baptist Church in Plant City. He joined the First Baptist Church of Midway 17 years ago and is the longest-serving pastor of the 115-year-old church.

His conversion came at a heavy price. His Jewish family members rarely speak to him and when he does connect with his brother and sister, the conversations are awkward and brief. His mother lived long enough to see him convert.

"She wasn't happy about it," he said.

The loss of family ties clearly hurts. Still, he hasn't abandoned the lessons learned at temple all those years ago and has recently begun studying classical biblical Hebrew.

"It gives me a greater understanding and a more in-depth perspective of the language and the context and the meaning and application of the Scriptures," he said.

A father of two and a grandfather of two with another on the way, Weissman has a lot less hair now, but still sports many tattoos. They cover his arms and the back of his legs — Bible quotes, references to chapter and verse, and images of Christ and the cross.

"My wife won't let me get any more. If it were up to me I'd be covered in them," he says.

He doesn't miss anything about his old life, he says. He plays Christian music instead of blues, but when asked can still lay down a few blues licks. And he doesn't miss Brooklyn, preferring a simple country life without "the hustle and bustle."

"Giving my heart and life to Jesus was the best decision I've ever made," Weissman said. "I love the ministry and I love to turn people on to the word (of God). I never thought, looking back as a kid in Brooklyn, that I would become a Christian and never thought I would become a preacher. None of that. I was going to become a baseball player for the New York Yankees."

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2454.

. If you go

First Baptist Church of Midway

2902 Midway Road, Plant City, (813) 752-7209; fbcmidway.org

Services: Sunday at

10:30 a.m.

Weekly Bible study: Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.

Southern Baptist pastor talks of Jewish roots, sobriety, best decision ever 05/30/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 29, 2013 5:30pm]

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