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Basking in warmth of a family of neighbors

Under a cloudless blue sky, the flock gathered to seek a special blessing for their new home.

Dedicating a building may have seemed like an ironic event for a new congregation billing itself as the Church Without Walls. But those who attended the service last Sunday knew that it isn't the blocks and mortar that make up a church, it is the people.

On this day, those people told a marvelous story of Citrus County, many without saying a word at all.

In a community not known for its diversity, the folding metal chairs inside the modest building were filled with a vibrant cross-section of color, age and social standing rarely seen in one place around here.

Teens and young adults tuned their electronic musical instruments in one corner of the room while nearly two dozen silver-haired members of a visiting Baptist choir looked on. Retirees from northern states settled in next to black families whose Citrus County roots run several generations deep.

Ministers from various denominations, accustomed to being the center of attention during services, cheerfully passed the microphone to each other. A couple of politicians even managed to share a row of seats and a few laughs with a member of the local press.

Although he would be the last to acknowledge it, one man is the reason why so many people traveled from around the county to the small building in the shadow of the Inverness Highlands fire station.

Senior Pastor Doug Alexander has impacted hundreds of lives during his many years as a sheriff's deputy and a school resource officer. He has traded in his forest green uniform for the basic black of a minister, but all that means is that he is serving his community in a different way.

Judging by the look of pure joy on his face as he clapped, swayed and sang along with his church's energetic choir, led by his wife, First Lady Teresa Alexander, the change is suiting him just fine.

Guest speakers struggled to keep their praise within the one-minute limit for remarks as they stood to wish Alexander and his church all the best that God has to offer.

Elected officials, such as County Commissioner Jim Fowler and School Board member Sandra "Sam" Himmel, spoke of their professional and personal respect for the pastor. Ministers from around the county quoted Scripture and asked the Lord to bless this new mission.

Having known Alexander for so many years, I still have to remind myself not to call him Deputy Doug anymore. After getting to know him well when we helped chaperone several busloads of fifth-graders during a weeklong trip to Washington, D.C., several years ago, I was honored to be asked to participate in this special occasion.

Two of the most respected men of the cloth in Citrus County trampled the one-minute limit in their remarks, and not a soul minded.

The Rev. Leroy Bellamy was truly feeling the spirit as he all but danced across the small stage, a little whoop and kick here, a flash of smile and charm there. At 88 years young, the longtime pastor of Grace Temple Church of the Living God erased the notion that services have to be stuffy, even making good-natured references to his recent marriage.

The Rev. Babb Adams of First Baptist Church of Inverness fired up the audience so much that you half expected them to jump from their seats and rush outside, looking for evil to conquer.

Just before the service broke up, Alida Langley took the microphone to honor two people who were not there in person, but who no doubt were watching proudly from above. She praised Alexander's late parents as well as the members of his family, including sheriff's Capt. Wyndell Alexander, reminding everyone of the family's strong stock.

Calling out greetings to familiar faces, I headed out the door thinking how inspiring the previous two hours had been. That's when I noticed the commotion across the parking lot.

A fire truck was about to pull out, and a young boy was running toward it, yelling. "Billy, you be careful at that fire," he shouted. "You do your thang!"

Squinting, I recognized the firefighter. Years ago, he was a Cub Scout with my son. Now, Billy Cannella is following in his father George's bootsteps as a firefighter. He looked up from snapping on his bunker gear and gave the young fellow a smile and a wave as the truck full of volunteers roared off to help a neighbor.

A few weeks ago, during a lengthy conversation, a good friend of mine asked me: What is it that you like about Citrus County?

Standing in the parking lot that afternoon, I had my answer.