1. Archive

Chapel expands to north county

Members of Calvary Chapel who live in North Pinellas are helping to establish a new church in Oldsmar.

For three years, Kevin Van Pelt, a Clearwater hairdresser who grew up in a family of atheists in the turbulent 1960s, loaded his wife and two sons in the car and drove 30 minutes south to his "spiritual hospital."

That "hospital" is Calvary Chapel, a church in an unlikely place: an old Winn-Dixie grocery store on U.S. 19, across from Wal-Mart in Pinellas Park. The space fits about 500 people who seek a nondenominational path to spiritual health and their healer, Jesus Christ.

Now, Van Pelt, 49, is helping establish a Calvary Chapel in the Oldsmar area, much closer to his home in Countryside, where he lives with his wife Caroline and sons Andrew, 13, and Benjamin, 15.

Until a permanent location can be established, services will be held Sundays in the cafeteria of Forest Lakes Elementary School, beginning at 10 a.m. Jan. 7.

To rent the cafeteria, Calvary Chapel will pay $100 each week; it will cost $30 each to rent the four classrooms the church will use. It will pay a supervisor of maintenance $25 an hour to help set up and break down the equipment before and after every service.

"We're the third church they've had in the last three years," said Van Pelt, adding that the other churches found their own locations quickly.

The school principal can use the funds raised from the rental fees to benefit the school in any manner he sees fit, Van Pelt said.

Although only about 100 people are expected to attend the first service, the cafeteria has a capacity of 250. If more people show up, a back wall can be removed to accommodate them.

"There is a need for a Calvary Chapel" in the northern portion of the county, said Van Pelt, a manager at Northwood Oaks Salon and Day Spa.

Like Van Pelt, at least 100 people make the half-hour drive from that area to attend services in Pinellas Park.

He said divorced women who feel like they don't have a place in church because they don't have a husband often feel welcome at Calvary Chapel, as do people with AIDS.

"They don't feel like lepers (here)," Van Pelt said. "In Jesus' day, AIDS was leprosy."

Calvary Chapel adheres to a simple biblical philosophy of ministry: teach the Bible in fundamental terms, book by book, verse by verse, and feature contemporary praise and worship music. It also offers home fellowships, adult education and outreach ministries.

It's casual: you can come to church "in a bathing suit or in a three-piece suit," Van Pelt said.

He was first attracted to Calvary Chapel because it is bathed in basics. He stayed because when he first walked through the door, he felt "at home."

"What attracted me was its focus wasn't about (cathedrals); they don't go about building large structures," Van Pelt said. "They put their money into other places, like missions."

Van Pelt is not alone in helping establish the Oldsmar fellowship. Jeff Clayton, who along with Van Pelt will be an elder in the Oldsmar church, and Danny Hodges, pastor of the Pinellas Park Church, have offered support along the way. Brett Robinson will be the pastor for the new church.

With a clear sense that the church was meant to be, the next issue was finding a location. Letters were sent asking for permission to locate in a school.

"We sent a letter of inquiry to 20 schools in the area. We know that schools open themselves up on their off hours," Van Pelt said.

Fourteen schools responded.

Calvary Chapel has come a long way since pastor Hodges started the small fellowship in St. Petersburg in 1984. Three years later, it became affiliated with Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, and is now one of about 900 international Calvary Chapel fellowships.

From it sprung Calvary Chapel South St. Petersburg. Calvary Chapel St. Petersburg moved to Pinellas Park three years ago.

Although Robinson said "we're not big," at least 1,500 people attend three services offered on weekends. A few hundred also attend regular Wednesday evening service.

"It's just a different ministry," said Robinson. "People feel comfortable."