April 20, 2014

South Florida faithful approach Easter as a time for service

In the weeks leading up to Easter, church members have gone into overdrive, making goodie bags for the homeless, filling Easter baskets and distributing food to help those in need.

This Easter, congregations and charities around town are bringing the spirit of renewal to some of South Florida’s neediest communities.

At churches across the county, they’re distributing food, making goodie bags for the homeless and filling Easter baskets for those in hospitals and nursing homes. The operations could rival the military with their logistics and supply-side dynamics.

For a month, members of South Miami Lutheran Church have collected hundreds of items to fill about 40 purple bags for the Miami Rescue Mission as part of the homeless shelter’s Hope Totes project. The Rescue Mission provides the bags; the church members fill them with essential items, such as socks, soaps and shampoo. The totes will be given out following the Easter Sunday service and brunch at the shelter.

“This will give someone living on the streets some of the personal necessities we take for granted,” said Meredith Mills, the preschool chair at the church.

The congregation, with about 75 members, is small but mighty, spearheading numerous service projects, running a food pantry in the church and providing meeting space for recovery groups. Most recently, they began knitting and crocheting caps for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and premature babies.

“We love God. We love everyone. That’s God’s way,” said congregation member Elizabeth Martinson.

The Humanities Ministry at Saint Louis Catholic Church in Pinecrest launched an elaborate operation, assembling 1,800 baskets stuffed with candy and chocolate for children, and toiletries for the elderly in nursing homes.

Church members delivered hundreds of baskets to smaller churches, hospitals and nursing homes, including Perdue Medical Center Nursing Home in Old Cutler, special needs children at Jackson Memorial Hospital and churches such as Saint Ann’s Mission in Homestead and Saint John Bosco in Little Havana. The baskets will be be distributed Easter morning.

“This church is very big. Most people who come here usually don’t need help, so we give to other churches,” said Hilda Suris, who leads the ministry with her husband, Jose.

From young to old, dozens of church members volunteered on Palm Sunday, forming an assembly line across long white tables lined with crafts and candy. At the end of the line, the volunteers wrapped each basket with clear shrink wrap and tied it with a ribbon.

Danilo and Marilyn De Soto, in charge of building 600 baskets, brought their teenage son Matthew to help.

“It’s a good lesson for kids,” Marilyn said. “All the things they have they tend to take for granted. We’re first-generation Cubans. We had a hard time growing up so we teach our kids it’s important to give back.”

The Humanities Ministry also delivers food to other churches every other month and hosts a massive project during Christmas, providing food and toys for about 800 families.

In Opa-locka, residents got an early start on Palm Sunday as they gathered under a pavilion in Sherbondy Park for the city’s first public Easter worship service. Vice Mayor Joseph Kelley and Commissioner Luis Santiago hosted the event, called Easter Fellowship & Community Feeding.

“We’re all one community. We’re a diverse community,” Kelley said.

The event, which included distributing food to neighborhood families, catered to multiple Christian denominations. Santiago served as translator for Spanish-speaking residents.

“With this unique event, we started to see the peace and the harmony between every group,” he said. “This is just the beginning for a new Opa-locka in this community, together and forever.”

More than 100 people attended the service, which featured three pastors from area churches and the Opa-locka United Methodist Church choir.

After the service, Kelley encouraged everyone to take home a free food bag filled with fresh fruit and vegetables from Joseph’s Storehouse in Lauderdale Lakes. Kelley and Santiago paid for the food.

Patsy “Grandma Pat” Wimbely, a resident of Opa-locka for 68 years, took home one of the food bags. She said she enjoyed the sermons, which touched on the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his love for everyone.

Opa-locka public works employee and resident, Dwayne Lattimore, said events like this will always draw community support because of the faith element. “I feel really good about this event because people could come out to show love and have a good time.”

Kelley and Santiago said they will continue to partner for future faith-based events for the community.

“We’re elected officials but were embracing our backgrounds. Even though all of us come from different faith backgrounds and nondenominational backgrounds, what we have in common is our unity,” Kelley said.

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