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Week of help: more show than tell

The Rev. Debbie Nelson and about 55 members of Ridge Manor Community United Methodist Church are excited about their leap of faith to show God's love for his people.

Beginning Sunday, Nelson and her congregation will hold a weeklong celebration to reach out to the community.

Nelson, 31, moved to Spring Hill in 1988 from the New Jersey shore. She was amazed when she was appointed pastor of Ridge Manor Community church after graduating from seminary in May 2001.

She is a licensed minister but will not be ordained for a couple of years.

When Nelson arrived, average church attendance was down to about 18.

"We've grown considerably," she said. "We average in the 50s in the summer and in winter in the 80s and 90s (each weekend)."

Nelson calls the congregation fantastic and said the people work especially hard with her to reach young families. She said the church is gearing up for a Sunday school program in September called Koinonia Cafi.

Nelson wants the church "to be a beacon of God's love, hope and healing in our community. We have a mission statement titled SHINE: Show God's love in practical ways; help others encounter a relationship with Jesus Christ; instruct people in God's word; nurture people in fellowship and in Christian study; and equip all believers to use their spiritual gifts. That's our vision statement and mission statement."

Eleven missionaries from all parts of Florida, children and adults, will help in the outreach. The volunteers have taken time from their lives to help reach the community. They pay their own expenses, eat at the church, and sleep and shower at members' homes.

During the week of evangelism, the missionaries and church members will go door to door, offering residents homemade cookies or a prayer plant.

Volunteers will clean bathrooms of local businesses and offer platters of cookies, offer cold drinks to shoppers at Winn-Dixie, host an ice cream social, and bless pets.

Jim Early, 86, has donated 500 plants to be given to members of the Ridge Manor community during the celebration.

Early grew "ferns, coleus and lots I don't know the names of. I just grow them because they're pretty. Most are colorful leaves with no flowers." Church members donated the pots.

The octogenarian was born in West Virginia and has lived in seven states. He moved to Lakeland in 1938, when the minimum wage was 32 cents an hour. He was raised on a farm, where he learned to shoe horses. He has attended Ridge Manor Community United Methodist Church since 1978.

Early hopes the celebration will help the community and the church.

Louise Gerheauser is another church member who has dedicated time to the upcoming celebration. She has attended the church sporadically since 1992, and after meeting and hearing Nelson, she "loved her outlook and excitement and I've been going every month, a year last month."

Gerheauser has coordinated the door prizes and food, the distribution of plants, cookies and cold drinks, and the volunteer work. She has been helping the visiting missionaries.

"It's one of the biggest things this church has taken on in some time, if ever," said Gerheauser. "Things are coming together quite nicely. We have a lot of caring people in the community and we're grateful for their volunteerism and are excited about this mission."

Nelson said the weeklong celebration will culminate with a huge community block party with free food, a hot dog dinner with chips, soft drinks, snow cones, games, horseback riding, live music and entertainment. Door prizes will include dinner for two at Papa Joe's Restaurant and Beanie Babies donated by local businesses.

"It's a massive undertaking," Nelson said, "and we're so excited. These people really want to welcome the young families, especially the single parents. It's a hard job raising families today and we want to welcome these families and hope as a church we can help with single parents raising a family."