HAINES CITY – Pastor Mike Thompson could barely move through the hallway of the Lake Eva Banquet Facility – and it wasn’t because of the small size of the hallways in that huge building.
It was the enormous crowd that Thompson’s church, Still Water Christian Life Center, had attracted to the hall on Thursday, Aug. 16.
The pastor smiled as he glanced around at the turnout, which he said was great news for the church.
“We have 650 to 700 people here tonight,” Pastor Thompson said. “So yes, we’re very happy.”
A meal awaited the people who had shown up for the Haines City church’s annual fund-raising event, held to raise money for humanitarian causes, educational programs, and organizations that work to promote international justice.
“The church gets zero from this,” Pastor Thompson told the people seated inside the banquet hall, just moments before they began serving the meals. “All the proceeds from this tonight go to different missions and charities.”
The event completely sold out, said Paula Dodd, Still Water Christian Center’s administrative assistant.
“This is our fourth year holding this event,” she said. “Still Water does not make any money off this. We just pay for expenses and help out with the prizes.”
But the event was about more than just raising money to contribute to groups that help to combat hunger, poverty and disease. As Dodd noted, it’s also something else: the ability to spread God’s message to those who may not regularly attend church.
They bring in speakers, she said, to talk about their own spiritual growth.
“What we do is share about their salvation experience,” Dodd said, adding that it works.
“Last year we had 51 people saved,” she said.
All throughout the hallways of the Lake Eva Baquet Facility were booths and tables that had been set up, with vendors offering a host of books, clothing, sports gears and other items for hunters and people who love the outdoors.
Jared Cloud, who works for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, attracted quite a bit of interest, particularly from the kids in the crowd, because he had brought along a cage.
It was what was inside the cage that fascinated so many: two baby alligators.
With their mouths safely taped shut, children were given an opportunity to hold the alligators in their hands while Cloud talked about the world of gators.
“They’re not hard to catch,” he said. “We just catch them from a lake.”
Asked if the gators typically fight back when they’re being caught, Cloud said their disposition alters a bit once they’re been captured.
“When they’re fresh out of the water, they’re not so good,” he said. “When they’re in a cage for a while, they’re okay.”
Asked how difficult it is to tape their mouths, he added, “Not hard at all. You cover their eyes up. Once you grab them behind the head, you can tape their mouths pretty easily.”
The fund-raiser became a celebration of three things, then: the great outdoors, Central Florida-style; a good home cooked meal; and, of course, spiritual growth, said Robin Hughes, a member of the church.
“We’ve been going to this now for three years, and it is just awesome,” she said. “We literally sell out to people months in advance. My husband helps cook, and we made fried gator and wild turkey.”
With a setting like this, Hughes said, it’s also a great introduction for people who don’t usually attend church – perhaps because they have misconceptions about what church is like, she said.
“The whole idea is when people go to church, they invite other people to come along – people who don’t normally come along, who don’t want to go, who are scared of church,” Hughes said. “I was like that.”
Being a part of Still Water, she said, completely changed her outlook, as did the opportunity to meet “Pastor Mike.”
“He says he has a different bait to get them to be introduced to God, so they put on this event and it’s really cool and gets the non-churchgoer to attend,” Hughes said.
That may be why the event also offered an auction with items that people could bid on – including, not surprisingly, an all-expenses paid quail hunt in North Florida.
“We’re going to get ready to eat shortly, and we want to remind you of the bucket prizes,” Pastor Thompson said at the start of the program. “We’ve got a couple of prizes that are going pretty cheap right now.”
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