Bridging the Gap Between the Tracks

by Allison Hurtado, staff writer
Hope Community Church

Don and Barb Winters were driving through Wildwood, Florida, to visit Barb’s parents. They live in the Villages, an upscale retirement community located just north of Orlando. As the Winters drove through Wildwood, they noticed dilapidated housing, rundown cars, and trailer parks. They sensed a lack of hope. The population of Wildwood is about 7800 and growing. A railroad divides the small town. The average income on one side of the tracks is $94,000 a year, as opposed to $15,000 across the street.

Don saw two kids riding their bicycles through the streets, and something touched him.

“I wondered what their story would be when they grew up,” he recalls. “Would they have a story of hope or would it be hopeless? I wanted to bring these kids hope by planting a church.” 

Don was a pastor of a church in Illinois, but was feeling too comfortable. He signed up for a Converge Church Planting Assessment Center. While Don felt God calling him to do more, the assessors questioned why he would want to leave an established church and start a new one.

“I told the assessors the church has 150 years of tradition, and I didn’t want to tear down what was happening there,” he recalls. “I wanted to start something new without dividing a church.” 

After seeing the kids riding the bikes and experiencing the town of Wildwood, he knew where their next move would be. They moved in August 2015. Seventy percent of the county is religiously unaffiliated. Although there are churches in the area, many remain almost empty. Don sees the divide between the people on either side of the railroad tracks. He’s trying to close this gap, so he started with the transient population.

A rotunda across from the railroad tracks on the main road is where you’ll find people like Jeff* and Adam.*Jeff talks a lot about God, but lives on the streets. Don brings him food and talks to him about Jesus. Jeff grew up with God. Adam, on the other hand, is hesitant to talk with most people, but gladly speaks with Don and takes the bread. The men never feel judged by Don. Whether they are drunk or sober, they know he’s there to talk with them, not at them. 

“Adam and Jeff will talk more about God because they know they are broken,” Barb said. “Some of the other people in the town are in the older generation, which doesn’t easily talk about God. It’s tricky.”

It’s a line the Winters are learning to navigate. While the mayor of Wildwood has been supportive of the Winters launching Hope Community Church, Don hasn’t seen a lot of engagement. The Winters hold outreach programs such as barbecues with free food in the summer and the Bible study for women that Barb hosts in their neighborhood.

“We’ve spent most of our ministry serving the served and blessing the blessed,” Don said. “To some degree we are looking at whoever God puts in front of us. And that’s who we are trying to reach.” 

A key to church planting is being present in the community. Don was a track star in college for discus throwing and has taken a job as a volunteer track coach at Wildwood High School. It also helps that he’s 6’5” and tends to stand out in a crowd. He’s picked up coverage in the local newspaper and is trying to bring purpose to teens’ lives. He volunteers at the local food pantry and even baptized a woman and her daughter he met there this past summer.

“We are all missionaries,” Don said. “And you should be one on your street and in your workplace.”

On November 13, Hope Community Church held its first preview service, with 71 people in attendance. Adam was one of them. Don has been meeting and working with him over the past year. Adam now has a job and an apartment. 

“He called me the night after the preview service and was really excited about the message I gave,” Don said. “Adam has really stabilized and is going to be part of our church.”

Once HCC starts holding weekly services in January, Don has a vision for small communities. Wildwood needs people to be the hands and feet of Christ to meet physical and spiritual needs. Don is also dreaming of owning a restaurant to help train people for jobs.

“If we are going to truly transform our community, I think we need to do other things than provide relief,” Don said. “We need to do rehabilitation and transform lives. We definitely don’t have it all figured out, but we are working on it.”

Why do we plant churches? For people like Adam. Don’s effort is a valiant one, trying to bridge the gap between the tracks. If you’d like to learn more about Hope Community Church, visit hopeinwildwood.com

*Names have been changed.

    Point - September 2018

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