Normally, stories about faith and religion appear here on Sundays. The following story about one church's response to the recent CBS News program 60 Minutes' report on homelessness is exceptional, to say the least.
After you read it, I'd love to hear your reactions.
Spontaneous offering at First Baptist Orlando
raises $5.6 million for homeless
Mar 15, 2011
By DAVID ETTINGER
ORLANDO (FBW) – Responding to the homeless from "a stirring" deep in their hearts, the congregation of First Baptist Church in Orlando raised $5.6 million in donations and pledges for the needy of Central Florida with an impromptu offering March 12-13.
“We’ve had a stirring in our heartand spirit that God placed the church here for this time because of foreclosures, because of this new homelessness,” Senior Pastor David Uth said. “We believe we were put here by divine choice and we have got to make a difference.”
And make a difference is what the people of First Baptist Orlando did.
Danny de Armas, senior associate pastor said he was surprised by the unprecedented response.
“I am completely overwhelmed by what our people have done,” de Armas said.“I never expected this kind of number.”
The outpouring of love and generosity was a result of a March 6 story on the CBS news program 60 Minutes which Liz Butler, the marketing/communications manager at the church, described as a "new" kind of homelessness in Central Florida.
Families are living in motels because they lost their jobs, their homes to foreclosure, Butler said.
The news report was seen by millions of viewers across the country.
One of the viewers was Christian author and teacher Bruce Wilkinson who was already scheduled to speak at First Baptist Orlando during the March 12-13 weekend.
“He saw the story while he was working on his message,” Butler said. “When he saw the interview, he said, ‘Wow. We have to do something.’ He called Pastor Uth and said, ‘Your people are going to bring in $1 million to help these needy families.’”
First Baptist Orlando has had a history of raising large sums of money following national and international disasters. The church raised hundreds of thousands of dollars following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Haiti earthquake of 2010. But even Pastor Uth was skeptical about raising $1 million in just one weekend.
Uth told Wilkinson, “I don’t know if we can raise that much,” adding he would be the first to admit that he happily underestimated the giving spirit of the church.
Wilkinson laid out the dire need of the people of Central Florida and urged the congregation to contribute whatever they could. The results were individual contributions ranging from one dollar to thousands of dollars and one as a high as $1 million.
“We’ve got to help Orlando and let them know there is help,” Uth said. “We have to say to them, 'God placed us here for you.' This church started in 1871 and we believe God started this church here for a reason. I believe He knew this day was coming and He positioned us so we could make a difference.”
The offering impressed De Armas, noting it required a major sacrifice for many members.
“What is really shocking about how much we gave is that our people are really struggling now,” de Armas said. “Our people are hurting. I thought there was no way they could give $1 million for the homeless, let alone $5.6 million.”
According to de Armas, it is one thing to hear about what happened, but completely another to have been there and seen it taking place.
“Seeing a miracle happen is an amazing thing,” he said. “As the donations and pledges were coming in, I felt as if I had a grandstand seat to see God at work in the hearts and minds of the people.”
The outpouring of giving has been a converging of events.
“We have a local missions task force [which] has been at work for some time,” de Armas explained. “Their number one initiative was for us to deal with homelessness and the ‘new’ kind of homelessness — families in transition. It was a ripe field and Bruce plowed into that field. The fruit it produced has been amazing.”
First Baptist Orlando has had a long partnership with numerous Central Florida Christian organizations, just about all of whom will be receiving funds from the money raised over the miraculous weekend.
“These ministries are equipped to help with the issue of homelessness,” de Armas said. “Some of those organizations include the Coalition for the Homeless, Orlando Rescue Mission, and Christian Service Center. All of them are really trying to help people who are facing the problems the 60 Minutes story highlighted.”
Besides distributing the money to those who can best get it to those in need, de Armas also wants to see members of the congregation getting involved.
“We’re looking to deploy our people,” he said. “We have an army of them who want to serve and we’re going to give them a way to do it.”
For Uth, current president of the Florida Baptist State Convention, the enormity of the money raised was matched only by the outpouring of love demonstrated by the congregation.
“[Our people] are willing to sacrifice so that others may be blessed,” Uth said. “That’s really what First Baptist Orlando is all about. That’s how we want to be known and how we should be known. Our people were absolutely amazing, unbelievable.”
David Ettinger is a writer for First Baptist Church in Orlando.
Copyright © 2011 Florida Baptist Witness