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Wimauma church desperately holding on to sanctuary

WIMAUMA — It was seven years ago that Pastor Carlos Irizarry helped gather a community to form Wholesome Church in Wimauma.

Now, Irrizary has only days before he and his church members are forced to vacate the rented property before it's sold.

A registered nurse and paramedic by trade, Irizarry brought the Wholesome Church community together with the belief that physical health and wellness go hand-in-hand with spiritual wellness.

"Our church teaches about health to be a better follower of Jesus," Irizarry said. "It all goes together and so we try to help lots of people in every aspect of their lives."

He saw a desperate need for basic healthcare for the residents, many of whom are low-income migrant farmworkers.

What started as public service for the rural area eventually grew to a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, bilingual group of volunteers hosting community health fairs with more than 30 medical, dental and pediatric providers as well as English and computer classes.

The 10-acre property, on which most of those events took place, is owned by River of Life Christian Center and was being rented for $3,000 monthly on a month-to-month basis.

"When we moved to the property three years after we started the church we knew that we would be able to do so much to serve the community because we had the space," said Irizarry. "But the owners were given a good offer by a builder who wants to buy and build homes on the property."

Earlier this year, Irizarry says plans were in the works for a preschool. Now, he isn't quite sure if he'll be able to provide such a service for his community.

In a letter from River of Life, Pastor Johnny Honaker of River of Life says the church's plan to eventually sell the property was "expressed at the inception of the very first lease agreement."

Honaker believes they "waited patiently for you to seek out funding from different sources when the initial funding did not materialize."

"We felt that we had gone over and beyond to ensure that Wholesome Church would not be displaced in the transition," Honaker says, and has offered to sell the property — valued at $1 million — to Wholesome Church for $750,000.

With a ticking clock looming on his 30-day extension, Irizarry is determined to reach their $198,000 goal through their GoFundMe page.

As of press time, they remained more than $195,000 short of the total.

"We are praying and we are doing everything we can," said Irizarry. "If we can save this one piece of property that helps the community, I'm not going down without a fight."

Contact Kelsey Sunderland at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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