On The Ground: Exploring faith, diversity and unity in Wimauma

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There is a lot of church-going on Sunday mornings in Wimauma. A quick Google-search shows about 13 churches in the less-than-nine square mile town with a population of approximately 6,500. Some are too small to appear on Google.

While the diversity of Wimauma is represented across these churches, the individual churches tend to be predominantly homogenous to a single ethnic group -- Hispanic, African-American or white. Many of the church leaders, however, are hoping to change this and encourage a collaboration of ethnicities and races to build unity in a town that needs a breadth of support and whose interests in helping the people of Wimauma, are largely aligned. Small steps in that direction are already underway.

Here is a glimpse inside four Wimauma churches and their predominant cultures. The congregations range in size from about 30 to over 1,500 attendees. Their leaders’ comments say more about their common threads than any differences they may have.

First Prospect

A simple white-and-blue church sits on a quiet and somewhat dusty corner of Edina Street off of State Road 674, in a neighborhood where the properties are modest and demarcated by chain-linked fences and often dogs lounging about. Adjacent is a quiet, flat, flower-dotted cemetery that the church tends, with an American flag flying high, oak trees at the edges of the property. 

The quiet exterior belies the heartfelt gospel singing, audible from well outside the entrance doors. 

First Prospect Baptist, a predominantly African-American church, is one of the oldest in Wimauma, dating back about 100 years, according to its elder, Deacon Robert Berrien. He says the original building was put together by the black community a century ago with wood from the sawmill. It has since been rebuilt. 

Like much of the Wimauma community, the sense of pride, dignity, warmth and belonging is evident in this church and among its congregation of about 30. The church boasts a men’s choir and a mass choir, an ample sanctuary and a kitchen where they “feed the children breakfast and meals during the summer at church.”  

First Prospect is currently searching for a new “shepherd” as the congregation is presently without a preacher. “Now we are looking for God to send a leader to this community,” says Deacon Berrien about his church, though he reflects that this extends to Wimauma in general. We are “concerned about the total welfare of the community.”

Deacon Berrien, ordained by First Prospect in 1975, and the church leadership are reviewing resumes and inviting various candidates to preach on Sundays so the congregation can make this important decision. The church has also invited guest pastors such as Pastor Carlos from Wholesome Community Ministries and worships with other churches on the fifth Sunday of the month. 

Deacon Berrien says among their top concerns is the community’s youth and he hopes that the new spiritual leader will be able to reach the younger generation and get them into church. 

“The whole community has changed because years back everybody was your parent,” recalls Berrien. He tells of his childhood when his generation of peers were sent by their parents to clear Bethune Park, “our parents made us go out there and pick up roots, grubbing holes; we cleared that land.” The park is on the same street as the church, but “now the kids don’t have access to the park,” he says. “If there is nothing for the older kids to do, they are going to get into mischief.” 

Our Lady of Guadalupe

One of the largest churches in the community is Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Catholic church, bustlin with congregants speaking Spanish or English depending on the given mass. 

A native of Nicaragua, Father Gilberto Quintero has been the priest here for about a year and half and says that there are approximately 1,500 Spanish-speaking parishioners at the church and he is anticipating growth as residential development increases in the area, and that they will need more parking. He says the Spanish-speaking congregation is a mix of Mexican, Puerto Rican and Colombian and describes the English-speaking parishioners as mainly white and older, “a happy community” hailing mostly from Sun City.

The Spanish mass opens with music from the region – guitars, drums, sometimes maracas. Quintero says that ministering the young is “a great challenge to keep them from temptations,” especially as the population grows. He says gangs, crime and drugs are ongoing problems. “We want to prevent this,” comments Quintero. He says he wants to provide youth the forum and “the time to formulate their values, ones that serve society in a healthy way – to give them a vision of evangelical values, of service, generosity, compassion and respect for others, the family.”  

Currently, in addition to catechism classes for children, the church offers traditional Mexican dance programs, especially leading up to the Christmas holidays. He says that they need more programs for youth -- he would like to incorporate sports, for instance. However, he recognizes that the church can’t do this alone and he would like to see Wimauma developed as a city with its own services for youth, for families, and businesses, a transportation system. He wants to see a more secure city, where people have opportunities to work, “so that people feel very content to live in this city.” Nearby Sun City is very secure, he notes. “I want this for Wimauma, too.” 

Wholesome Church

Pastor Carlos Irizarry of Wholesome Community Ministries, part of the Assemblies of God, says diversity is important to them and they strive for a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-generational congregation. “Our leadership is very diverse – this is what’s unique. We preach in English and Spanish, everything we do is bilingual,” comments Irizarry, noting that he is Hispanic, the church youth leader is black and their assistant pastor is Caucasian.  

“Unity around the community” is one of the biggest concerns of the congregration, Irizarry says, and “the new generation, taking care of the young, the vulnerable,” is a priority.  

To that end, his team is actively involved in engaging children and families in nearby low-income apartments. At Christmas, the church was able to provide more than 100 families with groceries and 300 children’s gifts. Wholesome is building Royal Rangers for boys and a Girls Ministry as well as a children’s choir and eventually an art program. Longer term there are opportunities for summer camps and conventions.

“By March 1st, we will have 100 new children participating in these programs,” Irizarry predicts for programs’ launch date, though he has concerns about transportation -- the simple act of getting the children there is a major challenge for them.

In addition to the spiritual, Irizarry says an emphasis on keeping the physical being healthy is part of their philosophy and the church sponsors an annual 5K run, health fairs and discussion on health issues. 

“I believe this will be a life change to some of these kids -- they need a mentor.  For us, creating that balance of mind and body, will prepare them for the future.”

He says he would like to rally the pastors around the area, “united, we can get together and take care of issues.”

Church of God

The Church of God in Wimauma, also established in town for over a century, enjoys some fame beyond Wimauma because of its parent ministry, the International Church of God’s State Convention Center and Campgrounds located down the street, run separately from the local church.

Pastor Tom Durrance has been leading the Wimauma Church of God for four and a half years and says that he, too, is very concerned with diversity, multiculturalism and bringing religious leaders of Wimauma together to solve problems. “I would like to see a fellowship where we can come together for the common good of the community,” says Durrance who has tried a couple of times to create a ministerial alliance but so far the response has been lukewarm. 

His congregation is largely made up of white seniors, including many retired Church of God pastors residing in the cabins at the campgrounds. “We are concerned about families and want to be a well-rounded ministry that helps families as a whole,” he says. The church also is actively reaching out to parents and children, offering to pick up them up and drop them off on Sundays, along with a healthy breakfast and has sponsored initiatives such as putting together backpacks and school supplies at the start of the school year.  

He is hopeful that his congregation can help, that he needs to compile the resources, “we have retired teachers,” for example, he notes, as well as a recently remodeled building, complete with Wi-Fi, on their property called The Connection Ministry Center. He envisions this building being used as a resource for local pastors -- a place for educational seminars, leadership training on everything from budgeting to “how to minister better, helping ministers be better leaders, pastors and educators.”

“There is a lot of poverty in the main town [of Wimauma]. I’d like to see how we could help those people with better education, better jobs, better lifestyle. I’d like to see our community come together - leaders and business leaders, start dialoguing together on what is important in Wimauma and what can we do to help this community be a better community.”

To read more stories from the 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project, follow these links for English and for Spanish.

The 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project is supported by Allegany Franciscan Ministries.

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Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a freelance writer and communications consultant for regional and global businesses. Though she has always been passionate about arts and culture, she spent many years in the tech and B2B corporate worlds both in the U.S. and abroad. With a degree in Economics and International Relations from The American University in Washington, DC, she considers politics her favorite sport and follows it avidly with as much humor as she can muster. Based in the Carrollwood neighborhood of Tampa, Kendra is a mother and wife, a news junkie, and lover of all things creative.