The Miracle of the Portico
For seven years, Jerome Clemons was homeless on the streets of downtown Tampa. Whether it was shivering cold, searing heat, or not knowing about his next meal or the threat of danger, Clemons was driven by one thought. “I kept my faith in God,’’ Clemons said. “I felt like something better was going to happen.’’
Something better did happen. Clemons used to sleep outside of the former First United Methodist Church of Tampa, which was discontinued in 2011. The buildings have been renovated and transformed into The Portico, a church campus that is now operated by nearby Hyde Park United Methodist Church.
In May, the Portico celebrated its one-year anniversary.
The Portico holds a non-traditional worship service with Rev. Justin LaRosa on Sunday nights, but also serves as a social venue, a lifeline for the homeless, an event space for nonprofit organizations and a gathering place for artists, theatre groups and yoga classes. It also has an upbeat coffee shop, The Portico Cafe, where the downtown crowd might grab some lunch. It employs five formerly homeless people who are achieving self-sufficiency. Clemons is one of the baristas.
“Everybody has a story,’’ Clemons said. “It’s not always a bad story. I was unemployed. I had too much pride to ask for help. My only option was the streets. It’s a hard, hard life out there. I know these streets well. But now, I’ve got a job. It’s stable and secure. I’ve got benefits and everything. This place has helped me turn it around. It’s nothing but blessings.’’
The blessings emerged from what looked like a sad situation. The First United Methodist Church was actually Tampa’s first formal church of any kind. It was established in 1846, before Tampa was even a city. The driftwood building was leveled two years later by a hurricane, but was quickly rebuilt, then relocated in 1890, where it lasted until another renovation in 1968.
Once, it was thriving. There were three packed worship services every Sunday. As more churches opened in the suburbs, the number of worshipers shrank until, with only a few dozen worshipers around for its final days, the doors were finally closed in 2011.
But not for good. It’s different now. Bob Douglass, The Portico’s chief administrator, calls it “an event venue that happens to have a church service on Sunday night.’’ The main sanctuary’s traditional pews are gone, replaced by round tables and an open, welcoming feel. There’s a call for conversation, meditation, reading through Bible verses and even the debate prompted from a question of the day. Every month, there’s a pot-luck dinner.