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Tiny Northwest Presbyterian offers much to the poor, homeless

ST. PETERSBURG

A mural at the rear of Northwest Presbyterian Church's sanctuary gives witness to the doctrine that members are taught — salvation is by grace alone, not good works.

Nonetheless, good works appear central to this small congregation's life.

Cold nights are an opportunity to shelter the homeless. Mondays and Wednesdays are for feeding the hungry, along with giving access to hot showers and laundry service.

There's also a clothes closet with shirts, jeans and other garments, shoes and, on one particular day recently, new, colorful blankets rolled up and ready for giving. At the food pantry, the line often is long for nonperishables such as canned vegetables and pasta packed in brown paper bags that can be topped off with donated breads and pastries.

A few days before Easter, Bill Sponberg, who has struggled since his divorce and is homeless, put it simply: "This church does so much for people."

Pastor Gary Hofmeyer, 64, takes no credit for his congregation's efforts. "I'm just the cheerleader," he said.

Longtime Northwest Presbyterian members Jim Leiby and his wife, Paulette, are behind much of the church's charitable work, Hofmeyer said.

Leiby said, though, that the cold-night ministry was begun by another member more than two decades ago. Church leaders had been considering building a new sanctuary at the time, but he advised against it, Leiby, 64, said.

"God doesn't care what the building where we worship looks like," he said during an interview. "Some of my best worship experiences have been in the woods."

The church, at 6330 54th Ave. N, built Koinonia Hall, instead, using a Greek word meaning friendship to delineate its function. The hall is where the homeless now gather on nights when temperatures fall below 40 degrees and where most of the other charitable programs, begun about two years ago, are based.

Leiby talked about the genesis of the twice weekly breakfasts, laundry and showers.

"I know quite a few of the homeless in this area and I saw one of the guys during the summer and he was in worse shape than in the winter," he said. He approached church leaders about providing year-round assistance to the down and out.

"If I had the funds, I would try to do it three times a week," said Leiby, a retired building code inspector for Pinellas County Schools.

Raymond Domena, another Northwest Presbyterian member, who trained as a chef at the American Culinary Institute, volunteers to cook the Monday and Wednesday breakfasts.

"I've had up to 70 people," said Domena, the former owner of Dameno's Italian Deli and now a meat cutter at Kenneth City Meat Market.

One recent morning, men and women, many arriving on foot, were offered a menu that included pancakes, oatmeal, tater tots, salad, granola bars, cornflakes and coffee.

Robert "Cherokee" Erdmann, 85, who was once helped by the church, is a regular volunteer.

"This man has a heart," Leiby said. "He's here on Monday and Wednesday. He runs the clothes closet for me."

Erdmann was getting help from the church's food pantry when he asked for help taking care of code violations at his house. His home could not be saved and had to be demolished, but Leiby helped the World War II veteran to get an apartment and medical care through the Veterans Affairs Department.

"The need that these people have is not just housing. Some just need to sit and talk," Leiby said.

There are those who simply want to get back home. To accomplish that, Leiby turns to Daystar Life Center, a downtown St. Petersburg social services agency that also operates a Travelers Aid program.

Volunteer Joe Orsini knows what it's like to be down on his luck.

"The good Lord blessed me, so I return the favor. I used to be out there. I used to be on the breadline," said Orsini, who shows up regularly with his tools to repair bicycles; he also donates food.

On a recent Wednesday, as he stood at the door of the laundry room, where he was volunteering as an attendant, Sponberg spoke of taking care of other homeless people who live near the not-too-distant railroad tracks.

"These guys have become our friends," Hofmeyer said of the people who have been embraced by his church. "They've found a home with us."

Besides volunteering, some donate food, mow the church lawn and help with the fall pumpkin patch and Easter preparations, the pastor said.

As he spoke, Elizabeth Caverly, who is disabled, approached to say that she was "blessed by the clothes" from the clothes closet that morning.

"I'm not homeless, but everybody needs clothes," she said during an interview. "They treat people with dignity."

Hofmeyer said his church doesn't do its work alone. Assistance comes from organizations such as First Presbyterian Church in downtown St. Petersburg, Solid Rock Christian Church in Lealman, the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, Publix and Panera Bread.

"We have a lot of partners," Hofmeyer said of his church, which rents space to two smaller congregations and hosts a prison ministry and two recovery groups.

The church also accommodates college students who visit the area to work with Habitat for Humanity.

Leiby said that Northwest Presbyterian has grown from about 45 members to 110 since Hofmeyer arrived a little over four years ago. The church still struggles financially, he said.

"It's hard, but my Bible says that God will meet my needs. And he also tells me, when you do it for the least of these, you do this for me," he said. "I only do it because God first loved me."

Hofmeyer acknowledged that not everyone in his congregation approved of the church's expanded commitments.

But, he said, laughing, "Opposition was very minimal."

There's good reason for what his small congregation does for the less fortunate, Hofmeyer said.

"For those of us who are Christian, you will know them by their fruits," he said.

"We just do it, I guess. It has not brought one new member to our church. They have brought us more than we give."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

Tiny Northwest Presbyterian offers much to the poor, homeless 03/30/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 6:03pm]
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