Six years ago Jomo Cousins, a former professional football player and ordained minister, founded a start-up church in Riverview.
About 15 people attended the first service of Love First Christian Center.
This month the church, that now counts more than 1,500 members, was named one of four finalists in the Best Church category for the 2014 Ford Neighborhood Awards, an annual event presented by comedian and nationally syndicated radio host Steve Harvey.
The awards, scheduled for Aug. 9 in Atlanta, honor the best of businesses, organizations and programs in local communities throughout the United States.
Nominations come from people within the communities, who call into the Steve Harvey morning show, broadcast locally on WBTP-95.7 FM, and vote for their favorites.
This year, Love First received enough call-ins to earn its spot among America's top churches.
"It's pretty cool, no doubt about it," Cousins said. "To make it happen, people had to vote and they did. It's amazing to me. And in the church category, there has never been a winner from Florida, so it's nice to represent Tampa."
On Monday, the public voted online to determine the winner for Best Church.
Each day a new category is open to voters at steveharvey.com.
Voting is also closed in the Best Church Choir category, in which Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg is a nominee.
Cousins said nominees will not learn the results until the televised awards ceremony, which will happen during the 2014 Ford Neighborhood Awards weekend Aug. 7 through 10 in Atlanta. Other weekend events include a comedy night, a Family Feud night, a Greek step show and a church choir competition.
"They are flying me up there and putting me up in a hotel," Cousins said.
Cousins, who will bring his wife, Charmaine, to the event, said he thinks people voted for Love First because the church works to serve the community. Outreach efforts include a food pantry, a grief ministry and work with the Tampa Boys and Girls Club.
"As long as you continue to make a difference in people's lives, they are going to take notice," Cousins said.
Cousins, who was once selected in the seventh round of the NFL draft, said the more a pastor is open and connects with his people on a real level, the more people he will reach.
"I think in today's society people want transparency," he said. "Whatever I am going through in life, I teach through it. I share my challenges. I tell my congregation that we all go through the different seasons of life. What matters is in challenging times, we lean on God."
Love First Christian Center meets Sundays for an express service at 7:15 a.m. and a traditional service 9:45 a.m. at Riverview High School, 11311 Boyette Road. There is also a service at 11:45 a.m. Sundays at Spoto High School, 8538 Eagle Palm Drive. For more information, visit lfcc.tv.
For more information on Steve Harvey's 2014 Ford Neighborhood Awards, visit steveharvey.com.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at [email protected]