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A church built on beliefs

Four years ago, it rattled the core of Brooksville society, a loud, public rift within the city's leading establishment church. A majority of members of First Presbyterian Church, founded more than 100 years ago, had decided that their parent church was too liberal.

So the congregation, which included Hernando County patriarch Alfred McKethan and most of his family, put the matter to a vote.

The first vote to switch to a more conservative denomination passed the necessary two-thirds majority. But it was ruled ineligible by the church's parent organization.

A second vote fell four votes shy.

So the disenchanted members simply left, worshiping at Pasco-Hernando Community College in Brooksville.

"It was a little on the crowded side," said the Rev. Jacob Eige, the former minister of Brooksville's First Presbyterian Church who was defrocked after he led the secession movement.

At 10 a.m. today, after years without their own place of worship, the 206 members of Faith Presbyterian Church will dedicate a new, spacious building at 200 Mt. Fair Avenue. The church's new pastor, the Rev. Ronald DiNunzio, will be installed at 4 p.m.

"The name of the new church is a reflection of the confidence in the new building," said James H. Kimbrough, SunBank and Trust Co. president and McKethan's son-in-law.

"The faith we had then has materialized in the land and the building," he said.

The elder McKethan was the only member of his family to stay at First Presbyterian Church.

Although the scars left by the split, as it is now referred to, have outwardly healed, the memories remain bitter.

"It has been a very tender subject which I don't want to discuss," Kimbrough said.

Last week workers were laying the final squares of sod on the 5-acre site, donated by two families in the congregation. A week earlier, dozens of congregants worked a full day planting shrubs.

The church, a traditional-looking building with a large, sloping roof and wooden steeple, features a stained-glass window at one end designed by artist Louanna Richards, who is also a congregant.

"It's a disastrous week," DiNunzio said, smiling during a pause in the moving last Wednesday. "We need three extra Wednesdays."

The 46-year-old preacher was reared as an Italian Catholic in Detroit, and owned his own computer programing company before he "found a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

"I became a Presbyterian in March 1981," he said.

He joined the newly founded Evangelical Presbyterian Church, an offshoot of the established and less conservative Presbyterian Church (USA).

A self-effacing, serious man with a quick sense of humor, DiNunzio thinks the Bible holds the answer to some of life's most difficult questions.

"In today's society, there's a real hurting going on. People are searching for something and trying to discover it with drugs, sex, booze and material possessions. What they're searching for is what we Christians already have."

Unlike their brethren in the Presbyterian Church (USA), Evangelical Presbyterians believe in a largely literal interpretation of the Bible, which excludes an evolutionary concept of life.

"There was literally a Garden of Eden, and the world was created in seven days (although there doesn't necessarily have to be 24 hours in a day)," DiNunzio said. "And some things in the Scripture are culturally bound."

For example, Psalms 103:12 states, "As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us." Says DiNunzio: "Only in a flat world does that make sense."

DiNunzio, a graduate of the Reform Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss., in 1986, is working on a doctorate in medical ethics there.

According to University of Florida religion professor Dennis Owen, the split-off of the Evangelical Christians in 1981 was part of the latest conservative movement in the Christian faith _ this one beginning in the mid-1950s.

Conservative Christian denominations, be they Presbyterians or Baptists, can have far more in common with one another than with their liberal counterparts of the same churches.

In general, Owen said, conservative Christian denominations include a great deal of God's guidance, the most common being biblical revelations.

Liberalism is much less confident about supernatural guidance, he said, adding that for those Christian denominations, the Bible represents a mixture of recollections about what Jesus said, but also much of what his followers wanted him to have said.

"Fundamentalists, on the other hand, read the Bible literally whenever possible," he said.

Evangelical Presbyterians number just over 50,000, compared with the 3-million members of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The split, conservatives say, was an attempt to distance themselves from the parent church's increasingly liberal attitudes towards, in particular, abortion and homosexuality.

"We take a considerably stronger pro-life posture . . . and hold very much to the infallible word of God," said Edward Davis, the stated clerk of the Evangelical Presbyterian church's general assembly.

"What we worry about is absolute pro-life," said Marj Carpenter, the news director of the Presbyterian Church (USA). "Then people sneak around and have coat-hanger abortions."

At First Presbyterian, which lost more than half its membership in the 1987 split, the Rev. Jack Alwood said the congregational schism is now history.

"It's behind us and we're moving on," he said, adding that membership has grown about 30 percent since the split to 160.

"I wish them well on their new church."