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One humongous house of God

A fast-growing church is ready to make over an old Wal-Mart on U.S. 19 to create one big house of worship.

Late last week, Calvary Chapel St. Petersburg got a construction loan to remake the 118,000-square-foot property at 8900 U.S. 19 N. The congregation hopes to move into its new quarters, which are across the street from its current home, in July.

The Rev. Danny Hodges, 46, who has led Calvary Chapel through several moves _ from a bingo hall to a school to a warehouse to the former Winn-Dixie supermarket where it now meets _ hopes this relocation will be the last.

The move can't come soon enough for the 2,200 adults and 500 children who show up for Calvary Chapel's single Saturday evening and two Sunday morning services each week.

"We're busting at the seams," the pastor said of his nondenominational church.

"The last several weeks, we have just been jammed. Then parking becomes a problem. ... We just need more space, not only for the sanctuary meeting, but for the children."

Two years ago, the church bought the old Wal-Mart. On Thursday, it completed paperwork for a $4-million loan to consolidate, with one bank, its mortgage and construction costs. That will enable it to complete phase one of the building's renovations.

The pastor said that rearranging chairs in the auditorium and adding seats in an overflow room and the church's lobby have failed to ease the spillover from Sunday morning services.

"It's a great problem to have," Calvary Chapel's pastor said.

Besides increasing the seating capacity, Hodges said the new 14-acre property, which Calvary purchased for $2.4-million, will double available parking from 300 to 600 spaces.

Hodges had a straightforward answer for what has kept the congregation from moving into the cavernous Wal-Mart building it bought in late 2001, when the discounter moved to its new supercenter about a half-mile south.

"Money. We didn't want to put the church in any burden financially," he said.

"The delay was just saving money and looking to be able to not make the building the priority, but the ministry that we do the priority."

A brochure laying out plans for the church's future home reiterates his philosophy and makes an appeal for money using biblical references.

"God does not believe in high-pressure sales pitches," it says. "All we ask is that you pray, and if God moves your heart, then give as unto Him."

"That's all we've done" to raise money, Hodges said.

He said he is guided by a quote from Chuck Smith, founder of the international Calvary Chapel movement to which his church belongs: "Where God leads, he feeds. And where God guides, he provides."

At the same time, the church hopes to save money on the renovation by cutting out the middle man. Since associate pastor Frank Dehn holds a general contractor's license, Calvary Chapel will run the project. Dehn, Hodges and another associate pastor, Bob Corry, will head the construction team.

"For me, it's a special blessing," Dehn said of his new role.

He was "saved" 12 years ago, he said, and decided to leave the construction job he had then to serve God doing something worthwhile such as feeding the poor. His supervisor, who also was religious, suggested that he should pray about his decision. Dehn said God told him not to leave his job. He went on to become a construction supervisor for a company that built Wal-Mart supercenters. God was preparing him for the Calvary Chapel project, he said.

Last week, as he worked with a handful of men in the building that already had been gutted of its offices, eye care center, fast food restaurant and pharmacy, Dehn remarked that the church had bought a solid building of concrete and steel.

"Truly it's a good foundation," he said, pointing out the 12-inch-thick exterior walls.

Within those walls, Calvary Chapel will build typical amenities such as classrooms and offices, but its plans also call for more unusual features. Phase one of the project, expected to cost about $3-million, will include a lobby with a grill to serve hot foods and a cafe that will offer hot and cold beverages and cold food. Phase one also will include a kids' play area, skate park, and youth and family recreation center, as well as a temporary 956-seat auditorium. A permanent 1,500-seat, semicircular auditorium will be built during phase two of the project. No schedule has been set for that part of the project, which the church says will proceed as funds become available.

In June 1997 the church, which started 22 years ago in a St. Petersburg living room, moved into its current 42,000-square-foot quarters that it leases in the Mainlands shopping center at 9021 U.S. 19 N. Four years later, it had outgrown the space. Over the years, the church also has spawned other congregations in Oldsmar, Madeira Beach, Ocala and Wesley Chapel. A new congregation is expected to start soon in Fort Myers.

The church offers a simple service of praise music and teaching.

"We don't just teach from the Bible. We teach through the Bible. We start at Genesis and we don't stop until we get to Revelation. We do it verse by verse. Then we start over again," said Hodges, who has been head of Calvary Chapel St. Petersburg since its early years.

Dress is casual. It's not unusual to see people streaming in for Sunday morning worship _ Bibles in hand _ dressed in jeans or shorts. The church, which has a large number of young families, attracts a variety of age groups, Hodges said.

But, he added, "I wish it were more diverse in race."

He credits the Lord for his church's growth.

"I have never sat around in a meeting and tried to figure out how to get people in the church," he said.

"We worship. We teach the word of God. We fellowship as believers and we pray."

The Wal-Mart that moved into bigger digs half a mile away has a sign of things to come. The church bought the property in late 2001, borrowed $4-million last week, and hopes to move in in July.