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Healing comes from two ministers

Pastors Bert Swearingen and Brad Ridenour did not have to step into the middle of all this bitterness infecting Tarpon Springs.

Their congregations expect them to study the Bible, not hospital bylaws.

They are expected to minister to sick and troubled parishioners, not angry politicians.

They are required to write sermons, not frameworks for negotiating the governance of a $50-million hospital.

Yet Ridenour and Swearingen offered, as officers of the Tarpon Springs Ministerial Association, to mediate the conflict over Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital. Already, Tarpon Springs is better off for it.

But this took guts.

Politics in Tarpon Springs has long had a tendency to get dirty and personal.

I suspect it happens in any long-settled community. When people's roots run deep, the tendrils of love and hate grow thick and tangled.

The hospital dispute created a monster thicket of hurt feelings that won't go away even though the source of the controversy, a proposed hospital deal, did.

Swearingen, Ridenour and the city's other pastors watched it evolve. They grimaced and talked about the sadness of good people trashing other good people.

"It was really tough to see them ripping at each other's throats," Ridenour said last week.

Such nastiness, an excellent reason not to get involved, drew them into the fray.

"There was a huge communications breakdown that had taken place," he said. "And what better group than the Christian church to speak to issues of reconciliation and peace?"

Said Swearingen: "If we get some mud slung at us, fine. We'll take it with a grain of salt and let it go in one ear and out the other."

A little mud already has been slung. But the ministers have achieved a minor miracle that they attribute to communitywide prayer and the hand of God: They have gotten the hospital board and the City Commission to agree to a series of discussions with one another.

Why didn't somebody think of this sooner? By the time the Ministerial Association intervened, nearly every other civic group in town was polarized by the dispute.

I keep thinking of Dunedin and its police controversy. Like Tarpon Springs, the animosity of the conflict seems to have eclipsed the substance of it. Why couldn't the clergy in Dunedin bring some reconciliation?

Yet we don't expect this of ministers. As a society, we are conflicted and confused about churches getting into government.

The law says only this: Government can't promote any religion and government can't suppress any religion.

It doesn't say that government can't benefit a lot from people like Brad Ridenour and Burt Swearingen, men of peace.