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Church won't wait for next house fire

In just a few weeks, renovations would have been completed on two Ybor City area homes intended to house families displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Then last week, both houses, owned by Deeper Life Christian Church, burned within 24 hours. Fire officials said it could be arson.

Church members are outraged yet still determined to make a place for the hurricane victims.

"We won't stand for cowardly acts," said Sean Howard, an administrator at Deeper Life. "We just want this rash of violence to end in our community."

Several hundred Deeper Life church members joined their pastor, Bishop Melvin B. Jefferson, on Sunday in canvassing the neighborhood with fliers that urged the community to be on alert. They tried to knock on every door within a 2-mile radius of the church at 3300 N Nebraska Ave., and passed out 1,000 fliers.

"We just want to help," said Jefferson. "I believe it's time to take a stand in this community."

Besides the two homes owned by Deeper Life, a tire shop across the street from the church also was damaged by fire.

Neal's Tire Shop, 3301 N Nebraska Ave., caught fire Feb. 19, the same day as the home two blocks away at 3311 N Taliaferro Ave. The home at 3114 N Nebraska Ave. caught fire on Feb. 20.

Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade said the tire shop blaze started because of a trash fire.

"All of these fires are listed as being either suspicious in nature or being arsons," Wade said.

The Tampa Fire Marshal's Office and Tampa police are working together to determine if there is any connection.

"Community involvement is appreciated to prevent further arson fires from occurring," Wade said.

People in the neighborhood were given fliers that said, "Urgent!" and "Local Arsonist Warning!"

"I like that the church is doing something about it," said Raul Bernardo, 18, who lives a few blocks from Deeper Life but is not a member. "I'm surprised that it's been going on because this is a safe community and it's quiet."

Cheryl Miller, 53, a church member for at least 10 years, said she also lives in the neighborhood. Getting the word out to the community about being aware of their surroundings was important, she said.

"It's not just about reaching out spiritually, but reaching out naturally," she said.

Howard said that the church began a "Watch Patrol" two weeks ago in which men take shifts walking the neighborhood at night. They carry cell phones to call police if they notice suspicious activities.

Church members say they will find housing for the families displaced by Hurricane Katrina despite the fires.

The families still will come to Tampa from Texas, and the church will put them in a hotel or lease an apartment until they find their own place.

"The pastor made a commitment to them," Howard said. "He plans on keeping it."

Kevin Graham can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com.

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