The Saturday get-together appears to be just another festive gathering in a Florida community notorious for its party atmosphere. But this event is different. It isn't a cause for revelry but a tool to share the gospel.
Welcome to the Tampa Bay Dream Center's (TBDC) block party--located this day on an empty lot at the corner of 11th Avenue and 26th Street in Ybor City, an area of Tampa often likened to the French Quarter of New Orleans. The inner-city ministry is the first satellite outpost of The Dream Center, a Los Angeles-based urban ministry.
In a big tent, many homeless people and neighborhood residents are taking advantage of a free pasta lunch and complimentary clothes. Nearby, a sandlot football game is going full tilt with adults and children, and a dozen youngsters are all smiles as they face-paint under another tent. Christian rap music booms from big speakers while young disc jockeys exhort on a makeshift stage.
"It's not about the hip-hop, the food or the games. We're here because it's about the Lord," Lindsey Kistner, 18, tells the mostly African American crowd from the stage.
Started by a handful of white youths, TBDC is gaining influence with the predominantly black neighborhood renowned for drug activity and prostitution. David Craver, now 19, and five other young people launched the ministry when they moved into a former crack house in September of last year.
"You don't have to travel around the world to find a needy person," said Craver, who says he, as well as his family, were called to be missionaries to Ybor City. Craver's parents pastored a charismatic church in nearby rural Riverview for nine years.
"America's inner cities are one of the largest unreached people groups in the world," Craver said.
In addition to throwing block parties that normally draw about 200 people, Craver and others with TBDC--who now number more than a dozen--deliver meals daily to shut-ins, feed the homeless, renovate houses in their neighborhood and conduct a Tuesday night Bible study at a well-known area coffee shop. They support themselves with jobs at night, including cleaning local businesses.
"This is more than just random acts of kindness," said John Lloyd, pastor of Countryside Christian Center in Clearwater, which supports the TBDC with money and volunteer help. "There's a real force and presence through the Dream Center and these young people."
Bill Craver, David's 42-year-old father, oversees the ministry with his wife, Kathy. "These young people have really started a revolution because wherever they go, the spiritual climate of that block starts to change," he said.
David Craver said a few drug users and prostitutes have committed to Christ because they befriended them and gave them hope. Ernie Carpenter, 62, ended up at the missionaries' house earlier this year, primarily because he wanted a hot meal. He received food, but also a warm welcome from the youths.
Carpenter was homeless for many years because he said he was "mad at the world and God" after his wife and two daughters died in a car accident in 1968. He is now part of the Dream Center team. He lives in a camper next to the missionaries' house.
"We believe we can change one heart at a time, which leads to 100, and then the whole community changes" said David Craver.
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