Churches connect through sharing

The Rev. Oleksiy Nebesnyk spreads incense for prayer at the Byzantine Catholic Mission in The Villages at St. Alban’s Anglican Church. St. Alban’s is among churches that share their sanctuaries.

Connection Point Church will be celebrating its first in-person Easter service on April 4, and it will be doing so at its new home. “Moving from a school to an actual church sanctuary is pretty exciting,” said Jerry Roames, lead pastor and founder of Connection Point. “To celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus at our new home is a wonderful experience.” Connection Point’s new worship place as of Sunday is the campus of New Life Church in Fruitland Park. This is just the latest example of area houses of worship opening their doors to congregations in need of space. Roames, a former executive pastor at Village View Community Church in Summerfield, said he got a call in 2019 to plant a church in the tri-county area. The first Connection Point service took place in October 2019 at Villages Elementary of Lady Lake.

“We got off to a great start,” Roames said. “The church launched with around 100 people. A number of them were Villagers, but we also had a growing children’s ministry and a strong multigenerational spirit.”

Like many houses of worship in the area, Connection Point put a halt to in-person services nearly a year ago due to COVID-19, moving worship and activities to the virtual realm. Today, the church offers a mix of in-person and online worship and events, and Roames said Connection Point has seen growing interest in the church as a result.

“Since we resumed indoor worship, we’ve seen about 75% of our pre-pandemic congregation return,” he said. “But we’re also seeing up to 300 people watching Sunday worship online from the comfort of their homes.”

But while Roames and Connection Point appreciated having a home at Villages Elementary, having services there required the church to set up and break down its equipment every Sunday. There was not a sense of permanency. Then Roames learned about New Life, a Presbyterian denomination located just off Highway 441.

“We have a large property consisting of three buildings,” said the Rev. Jim Keegan, pastor of New Life. “We have opened our buildings to congregations in need of space before. Freedom Community Church held services on the property for a time, but moved to Leesburg last December.”

That left an opening for a church in need of a home, and Keegan and Roames began talking and praying. In February, the two churches reached a lease agreement where Connection Point would hold services in the largest of New Life’s three buildings, while New Life would move its worship to a smaller building.

“Unfortunately, we have seen New Life’s congregation dwindle over the years, particularly during COVID, and we took a hard look at how to best utilize the resources we have,” Keegan said. “We are happy to be able to help Connection Point find a sense of permanency with a home.”

Both churches hold worship at 10 a.m. Sundays. Keegan and Roames said that signs, banners and flags will be planted to direct congregants and others to the church they will be attending.

“Pastor Jim is a fantastic man,” Roames said. “He and New Life offered to help when we needed the assistance, and Connection Point will never forget that.”

Both pastors agree that even though two churches will be holding services on the same property at the same time, they will not fight for congregants. Instead, they will be in cooperation with one another.

“New Life and Connection Point are in the same business — reaching people for Christ,” Roames said. “We are working together to make this a reality.”

“Church is not a competition,” Keegan said. “We are committed to helping the most people experience God’s love through our love.”

COVID-19 also left the Byzantine Catholic Mission in The Villages without a place to worship around this time last year.

“We were meeting in the chapel of St. Mark the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Summerfield,” said Village of Pine Hills resident Barbara Lutz, who serves as spokesperson for the Byzantine Catholic Mission. “COVID-19 shut down the church last spring, leaving us without a home. Even when St. Mark reopened, it was not able to offer use of the chapel for safety reasons. We understood St. Mark’s predicament, so we went looking for new worship space.”

Weeks of searching turned to months. Then Lutz heard from a friend, who regularly visited the American Legion in Lady Lake.

“She called me and asked if I should reach out to ‘the little white church by the Legion’,” she said. “I told her I would think about it, as I didn’t know what to do.”

After considerable prayer, Lutz made the call to that “little white church,” better known as St. Alban’s Anglican Church. The church’s rector, the Rev. Gregory Koon, was quick to answer.

“I told the Rev. Koon who I was and why I was calling,” Lutz said. “I told him we were looking for a home for Jesus, and he said we came to the right place.”

For Koon, it’s important to make St. Alban’s a welcoming sanctuary for all, because it was not that long ago that his congregation was in the same boat as the Byzantine Catholic Mission.

“For our first eight years or so, we were known as the ‘traveling church’ because we met anywhere and everywhere that would welcome us,” he said. “When St. Alban’s moved into its permanent home a little over four years ago, we made a commitment to open our doors to congregations who needed a temporary place to call home.”

Lutz would soon head to  St. Alban’s to meet face-to-face with Koon, as well as talk via Zoom with Archbishop John Upham of the Anglican Province of Christ the King, of which St. Alban’s is a member church.

“The archbishop was so welcoming,” Lutz said. “He said he wanted us to feel comfortable and welcome here. It’s a dream come true.”

The Byzantine Catholic Mission gathered for the first time for a liturgy at St. Alban’s on Nov. 8. Today, it’s holding weekly Divine Liturgies at 2 p.m. Sundays. The services occur just a few hours after St. Alban’s wraps up its worship, meaning a quick turnaround to get the sanctuary ready.

“The Rev. Koon and the St. Alban’s family have been amazing in helping us temporarily transform its sanctuary into a Byzantine Catholic church,” Lutz said. “They are very encouraging and want us to do well.”

“As long as the Byzantine Catholic Mission needs a temporary place to worship, we hope we can provide them such a sanctuary,” Koon added. “They are a friendly, wonderful group who are committed to their faith.”

While many houses of worship meet for services Sunday, there are some denominations that do not. This allows them to lease out sanctuary space to churches in need of a place to gather on Sundays.

For instance, Lady Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church holds services on Saturday mornings. As a result, Lady Lake SDA opens its doors on Sunday mornings for Freedom Fellowship of The Villages, which is meeting there until its permanent sanctuary is built in Wildwood.

Temple Shalom of Central Family generally uses its sanctuary for Shabbat, or services, on Friday nights. This has allowed the Oxford synagogue to lease out its space to congregations in need.

For a time, Grace African Methodist Episcopal Church held services at Temple Shalom before moving to the Christian Life Center at Lady Lake United Methodist Church last year. Then last August, Temple Shalom welcomed Calvary Chapel Villages, which had been looking for a new site to worship.

“We have a good relationship with Temple Shalom, and we appreciate them being very receptive to us,” said Pastor Steve Turner of Calvary Chapel Villages. “Temple Shalom has a larger sanctuary than we are used to, but that has helped us with social distancing during services.”

Before coming to Temple Shalom, Calvary Chapel Villages met at Wildwood Country Resort in the South Villages. Turner admits that moving from south to north was quite the change for some, but the transition worked out.

“We moved from what’s essentially the south end of The Villages to the northern end, but our congregants from the South Villages are making the trek to Oxford every Sunday,” Turner said. “We​‘re still not functioning at a full level yet due to COVID-19, but we are seeing our numbers slowly returning to normal.”

Calvary Chapel Villages generally meets at 10 a.m. Sundays at Temple Shalom of Central Florida. Those wishing to attend a service are asked to arrive at 9:40 a.m. and enter through the front doors. Attendees also are asked to wear masks and maintain a social distance of 6 feet. Services also are streamed at ccvillages.org.

Senior Writer James Dinan can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5302, or james.dinan@thevillagesmedia.com.