EAST COUNTY — Every Monday, the morning after they worshipped in a Realtors’ association office, Jim and Sherry Robinson returned to do janitorial duties.
They would leave the place tidier than they found it, sweeping the floors and cleaning the toilets.
On Sundays, before services, they shifted 180 chairs into an arrangement that could serve the audience.
They opened two sets of bi-fold doors, turning three rooms into one, to make it look and feel like a congregation and not an ordinary workplace.
Elizabeth Deibert, the organizing pastor for Peace Presbyterian Church, hoped people would come to the services, even though the church could only advertise with signage outside the building during weekends.
Now, after eight years of uncertainty, the Robinsons and Deibert finally feel at home.
At its land-use meeting Nov. 7, the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved the church’s general development plan to take over an unoccupied 15,054-square-foot office building at 12705 State Road 64 E.
The Peace Presbyterian Church’s Board of Elders closed on the church’s new home, which it purchased for $975,000, later that day.
The plan, which covers 24 acres in total, also calls for the church to build a new 210-seat sanctuary.
Since 2010, Peace has met in a wing of the Manatee Association of Realtors’ building, in Lakewood Ranch.
When it opened in 2005, the church held its services at Living Lord Lutheran Church. In 2006, church members worshipped at State College of Florida’s Lakewood Ranch campus.
The congregation, which has grown from 35 people on Sundays when the church first started to 250 today, will continue to worship in the Realtors’ building until Dec. 1.
“I love watching a church’s DNA develop and become a part of people,” Deibert said. “It’s rewarding to be able to dream what a church can be and say, ‘Let’s try to live it out.’ We have a home now.”
The church’s new home, peaceful with hawks and ibis sauntering in the green space outside the building, previously housed the Aurora Ministries, which provides audio Bibles to blind people. It has classrooms and a small chapel that will allow Peace’s church-goers to participate in services there until the sanctuary is ready.
The chapel can hold about 100 people. To start, Peace will have two services 8:30 and 11 a.m., Sundays, but it might add a third service.
The pinkish building is plain, although Deibert says it will soon be renovated. The green space behind it has a pond with a fountain.
“You look at it, and it’s beautiful and you feel a sense of belonging,” Sherry Robinson said.
Deibert expects design and permitting for the sanctuary to begin in 2015.
Deibert, who moved in summer 2005 to Lakewood Ranch from North Carolina to start a Presbyterian church, envisions a pavilion outside the sanctuary, and she hopes to host a soccer camp on the grounds.
The space will also play host to the church’s popular Peace in the Park event, formerly held at Summerfield Park, at which children in kindergarten through fifth grade learn about peacemaking.
Deibert has been making peace for years.
In the 1990s, she started a Presbyterian church in Montgomery, Ala., where she developed a multi-racial congregation.
“I like going into a community and being an alternative,” Deibert said.
She says Presbyterianism, a denomination of Christianity that originated in Scotland, is especially known to be open to all religions. She counts Hindus, Protestants, Methodists and Jews among the people who participate in events and activities Peace Presbyterian holds.
“We’re a diverse group of people with lots of different perspectives,” she said.
Deibert said she always knew it would take this long to find permanency, but she couldn’t have anticipated the twists and turns.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), on behalf of Peace, still owns five acres on Lorraine Road, an old orange grove it bought from Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch for $450,000. It had expected to build a church there.
The contract with SMR says if Peace were to sell the property, it must sell it to another church. The church plans to list it within a month.
Deibert said the vacant land never felt like home.
“The community can know we are here to stay,” Deibert said of the new location. “We are not a fly-by-night church that is gone tomorrow.”
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