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Building church takes warmth, determination

Before starting his own church, the Rev. Anthony Ballestero sat in the back of many others, quietly and anonymously listening, trying to pinpoint what drew people in the doors and kept them coming back.

"I found it to be very intimidating. Here I am a preacher and I'm intimidated by that," said Ballestero, 29. "I can imagine how people feel walking into a church with no connection."

He kept those impressions in mind when he opened the doors of his church, the Pentecostals of Clearwater, on May 12.

Ballestero and his wife, Kimberly, formed one of at least a half-dozen new congregations in middle and northern Pinellas County in the past year. In an area with more than 300 churches and a transient population, carving out a new congregation is not easy.

"It's a matter of getting the word out there and people coming in and knowing we're friendly and them finding a home," said the Rev. Joanne Smith, pastor of the new Sanctuary of Light Healing and Spiritual Center in Crystal Beach.

The congregation meets once a month at the town's community center.

"Summer's a good time to break it in," said Smith, who was pastor of Spiritualist churches in New York, Delaware and New Jersey. The church emphasizes metaphysical beliefs and performs the laying on of hands for healing.

Smith and the Ballesteros say projecting a church personality early is important. Both emphasize friendliness and warmth.

"Where I came from, I loved all my life and people knew me and my integrity," Smith said. "Down here I'm a total stranger."

The Ballesteros have canvassed a variety of neighborhoods to draw a racial and ethnic mix to the charismatic services. Between direct mail, fliers and knocking on doors, the couple have made 15,000 contacts. From those, they may get a few visitors at church.

The couple believe God led them to this area from Albion, Mich., a short time after Ballestero graduated from the seminary. The couple knew starting a new church in a strange city would be difficult _ even though Mrs. Ballestero's parents live nearby.

"You need a vision or a purpose for the church," Ballestero said. "There's a huge investment you have to make, not only with your personal finances but also spiritually and emotionally."

Starting Congregation Beth Tikvah also was an emotional and spiritual experience for a north county Jewish group. It is content with a lay leadership and does not want to expand except by attraction. Members meet for services in one another's homes, mostly in Tarpon Springs.

All were ardent followers of the late Rabbi Jan Bresky, dubbed "the Jewish Billy Graham," who died in 1991. He founded the Reform Congregation B'nai Emmunah in Tarpon Springs, but some of his followers drifted away. Saul and Hilda Schier were among those who founded the new, independent congregation based on Bresky's principles of "love, tolerance and non-harm."

"We haven't given it a drive to gain new members because we know people would like to have a rabbi and a synagogue and we don't offer any of that," Hilda Schier said. "At this time, we're really just a group of people who get together on Friday nights in a spiritual sense."

Each of the people interviewed for this article agrees anyone who starts a new congregation needs determination.

"You need the faith to do it," Smith said. "Fear can cripple you. You have to know you're doing good work and God will take care of you."

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