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"THIS IS A NEW BEGINNING' // Roaming church to build a home

Published Jun. 20, 2006

(ran PW edition of PASCO TIMES)

It was a year ago this month that Gail Hawkins and six other Christians from Spring Hill came together and began an at-home Bible study.

Most of the participants had relocated from New York or New Jersey. Each had visited other churches without finding one where they felt at home.

They took turns holding Bible study at their homes. By fall, they had grown to a dozen. And, with the encouragement of a Baptist missionary, they decided to form their own church. Now, at 20 members, they are making plans to buy land for a church building.

Perhaps most significantly, at its first anniversary Antioch Fellowship Baptist Church could lay claim to the title of being Spring Hill's only black church.

Yet, such a title is not one that the members of Antioch Fellowship embrace eagerly. They never intended to be a black church. They just wanted to be a church.

"We're not professing that, because we certainly want to open membership to anyone," said Hawkins, 55. "We are an African-American Baptist church. But we certainly welcome everyone."

In fact, Hawkins and others in the church are already inviting white friends, neighbors and associates to come worship in a congregation they hope will build bridges of faith between people of all backgrounds and colors.

"Whoever comes through the door, we are going to treat them as Jesus would treat them. You look to the need they have," said the Rev. LaVaughn E. McNary, Antioch's pastor.

Antioch is being supported in its efforts to get off the ground by three local Southern Baptist churches _ Highlands Baptist Church in Weeki Wachee, First Baptist Church of Hernando Beach and First Baptist Church of Weeki Wachee Acres.

Each is part of the Alachua Baptist Association, which is making its first effort to establish a church made up primarily of black members.

"This is unusual. This is a new beginning," McNary said. "They are excited about it. We are too. Our mission is to reach out to all men."

Antioch Fellowship members are a band of nomads.

They hold Wednesday night Bible study at the homes of various members. They meet on Sundays at the Regency Oaks Civic Association Clubhouse. They held a service to commission their new church at Northcliffe Baptist Church, a Christian concert at First Baptist Church of Brooksville, and a just-for-fun fashion show at the Palace Grand.

Despite the roving nature of things, however, permanence is on the horizon.

The church has a contract to buy 8 acres in the heart of Spring Hill, where its members intend to build a hall where they can hold worship services and Bible study classes.

The property is just a block removed from Spring Hill Drive, not far from First United Methodist Church of Spring Hill. But the church's efforts to get a special change needed to put a church on land originally zoned for agriculture met substantial opposition _ a surprising amount of opposition as far as some were concerned.

Residents from nearby Santoro Street, Noah Street and the Amidon Woods subdivision raised several issues. Most suggested that putting a church in the neighborhood of mostly single-family homes would bring increased traffic and noise.

But some who worried about traffic went so far as to say that they would prefer a residential subdivision to a church. And they continued to object even when an official suggested that the existing agricultural zoning distinction might one day allow a pig farm in their neighborhood.

When the issue came before county government, the staff at the Planning Department recommended that Antioch not be granted the zoning change. And the Planning and Zoning Commission followed the recommendation.

Linda Prescott, who has been involved in trying to stop the rezoning of environmentally sensitive lands along U.S. 19, met some of Antioch's members at a political fundraiser and took an interest in their case. She says Antioch got a "raw deal."

"The county didn't really have any traffic statistics to support their claim that this church would pose a hardship," Prescott said.

At that point Pinellas County lawyer Larry Crow, a former state legislator who is a friend of McNary, got involved in the case. He looked at the property, its proximity to busy Spring Hill Drive and the large Methodist church and was vexed.

"I couldn't see why the opposition was so strong," Crow said.

He suspected the neighbors were objecting to something more than increased traffic and the noise. He feared the objections were a result of racial bias.

"It was just my general perception having done this kind of work for more than 20 years," said Crow, who donated his time for Antioch's case.

In the end, the Hernando County Commission overturned the earlier ruling and granted Antioch Fellowship the permission it needed to build a church _ albeit with two primary conditions.

The church sanctuary must be built for no more than 200 people _ not the 300 Antioch wanted _ and once attendance reaches 100 people the church must hire an officer to manage traffic on Sundays.

Crow said his concerns about race being an issue dissipated before the County Commission. And McNary said one of the neighbors who objected to the church location came over afterward and cordially offered his good wishes.

Still, Hawkins wasn't thrilled at the reduction in the size of the sanctuary. She equates it to putting a limit on the evangelical reach of the church.

"When you are building a church, you shouldn't put a limit on the number that can seek salvation," Hawkins said. "I think the roof should be off, and there should be no cap."

But McNary says the church should be able to cope with the adjustment. When it grows to fill its smaller sanctuary, he said, it could hold two services each Sunday instead of one.

"I'm one that feels that all things work together for good," McNary said.

_ Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com.

The Rev. LaVaughn McNary, left, and Gail Hawkins start a Wednesday meeting of Antioch Fellowship Baptist Church with prayer. Members hold Wednesday night Bible study at members' homes and meet on Sundays at the Regency Oaks Civic Association Clubhouse.

Roseabell Smith, left, and Milton Farley search for a Bible verse during the Wednesday meeting. Church members hope to build bridges of faith between people of all backgrounds and colors.