Preacher with a past inspires Lacoochee

In Lacoochee, the Rev. Philip Williams' message carries more weight because of his background.

Published November 1 2013
Updated November 1 2013


The Rev. Philip Williams turned onto a narrow dirt trail in Pasco's poorest community, searching for his new assignment. He passed a few tiny houses and came to another unpaved road. The dust settled and he got out of his car.

He stared at the 1940s church with its rusted tin roof and peeling paint. He knew the congregation had dwindled to only five brave souls. When he walked inside, he winced at the odor of worn-out carpet. He ran his hands across rotting pews. Two noisy window air-conditioners rattled away but failed to cool most of the 1,600 square feet of space.

"We've got to fix that,'' he said. "Nobody's coming to church if they're going to sweat.''

The new preacher faced an enormous challenge, but he couldn't conceal his excitement. This community needed a man like him, a minister who could relate to the everyday danger that lurks at darkened street corners, the evil influences. He brought with him a personal history of survival that would make him uniquely qualified to reach young people, perhaps help them avoid his mistakes.

But first things first. He would start preaching at the Glorious Church of God in Christ on May 26. A day earlier, he picked up 800 pounds of produce from the Suncoast Harvest food bank in Land O'Lakes and began knocking on doors. The neighbors welcomed the fresh vegetables and Williams invited them to show up on Sunday.

"After that,'' he said, "it was full steam ahead.''

He heard about Kevin Bahr, who has owned an air-conditioning business in Zephyrhills for 26 years and volunteers to provide free food to poor kids at the Boys and Girls Club and the elementary school in Lacoochee. Bahr remembers their first meeting: "When I started talking to him, my skin tingled. He got me excited with his vision and enthusiasm.''

Bahr had a rebuilt central air-conditioning system that normally would fetch about $7,000. He sold it to Williams for $3,500 and agreed to let him pay for it when he could find the money. That included all the labor, vents, ducts and thermostat control.

Word spread about the renovations going on at the old church and workers just started showing up. Lionel Harpe walked by shortly after a crew had stuccoed the exterior.

He took over the duty of supervising everything else, from painting to staining the wood ceiling, knocking out walls, installing ceiling fans and fresh cement walkways.

Williams, 42, had spent the last 13 years at another Pentecostal church near Zephyrhills, where he was ordained as an elder in 2012. He was in charge of the church's food mission and had developed a relationship with Suncoast Harvest. He knew that in Lacoochee, some residents didn't know where they might find their next meal.

He started a Friday ritual, stopping at the food bank and delivering 30 to 35 boxes to the Boys and Girls Club and Healthy Families.

He set up a pantry in a side building at the church and started delivering boxes full of groceries to 50 to 60 families on the third Saturday of each month. He estimates he picks up about 4,000 pounds of food each month from Suncoast, surplus from farmers and grocers.

At Lacoochee Elementary, where 96 percent of the 400 students are so poor they qualify for free meals, Williams partnered with the Thomas Promise program that provides packaged food for children who might otherwise go without over the weekend. Just last week, Feeding America Tampa Bay visited Williams to work out the details of a one-year grant by Morgan Stanley to provide more of these "backpacks.''

Starting on Friday, trucks will deliver the "kid friendly'' food to the church, and Williams' volunteers will package and deliver it to the school.

Just five months into his new ministry, Williams has refurbished the run-down church, set his sights on buying adjacent property that someday could hold a new sanctuary and expanded his congregation to more than 50. He's planning a kickball league and a youth mentoring program. He will serve a free Thanksgiving dinner at Stanley Park.

Not bad for a former gang banger.

Williams speaks freely about his past. He'd prefer it never happened but says the experience gives him credibility when talking to youngsters who might fall into a similar trap.

"I should be dead,'' he said. "God delivered me.''

As a teenager in Tampa, Williams fell into a lifestyle of drugs and alcohol. He was expelled from Leto High School in the 10th grade for fighting and joined a gang. "By dumb luck,'' he said, he managed to avoid a criminal record and at age 23 left the gang after a severe beating. Fellow gang members threatened his life for leaving, he said, "but I knew it was time.''

He held down various low-paying jobs and continued to drink and spend nights at bars. But one night while driving home he felt "touched.''

"That's the best way I can describe it,'' he said. "I just felt like God was with me. I had a drink in my hand and threw it out. I had a street mentality, and now I was ready to change, replace it with a spiritual thing.''

At 32, he earned a high school diploma. He attended a community college for two years, hoping to be an architect someday.

"But I wasn't so good at college algebra,'' he confided.

Eleven years ago, he married Stephanie, an insurance broker.

Williams expects to remain in Lacoochee for many years to come.

"You have to understand,'' he said. "I truly believe God brought me here. And my job is to reach out and connect to the people here.

"There is so much need, so much poverty. But look around and you see hope and goodness. I intend to build on that.''