Florida church’s ongoing carnival ministry reaching thousands

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PLANT CITY, Fla. (BP) – Liberty Southern Baptist Church has become a light and staple for the workers of Florida’s biggest event you’ve never heard of.

From Feb. 29-March 10, Plant City welcomed 634,779 attendees to the Florida Strawberry Festival. They took in all the rides and attractions typical of a fair alongside musical acts including The Commodores, Cody Johnson, Foreigner, ZZ Top, Jo De Messina and, of course, Flo Rida. Mark Lowry even had a night.

Volunteers with Liberty Southern Baptist Church in Plant City, Fla. distribute items for those working at the Strawberry Festival. LSBC/Facebook

As for food, strawberries appear in a plethora of items. There’s the standard shortcake and milkshakes, as well as pie, cheesecake, cobbler and even strawberry pizza.

The Strawberry Festival, which began in 1930, is a mighty big deal for those who live in central Florida. That’s also the case for those who don’t.

Liberty Southern Baptist Church’s location beside the fairgrounds has led to its becoming an oasis for the carnival workers whose lives are transient by nature. The church provides mainly food but also other items that aren’t readily available on the road.

“You can consider them the ‘working homeless,’” said Mike Fredette, Liberty’s pastor. “They live out of the bunk houses provided by the carnival, but never have an address. There’s no refrigerator, pretty much nothing but a bed.”

Each bunkhouse is actually a camper that holds around 16 individuals, with eight on each side in bunk beds. Fredette estimates that 64,000 meals were given out during the three-week period of serving the workers that just ended. Some of those were as simple as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but were no less appreciated.

Liberty SBC is by no means a large church. When he was 45, Fredette sold his chain of Massachusetts gas stations and retired to the Tampa area so he and his wife, Gina, could be near their parents. He became Liberty’s youth pastor about 16 years ago before becoming pastor.

For several years now the church has played a large role in feeding the community through providing food boxes. It began when Fredette noticed kids in his youth group who were hungry. The church started feeding them. Those kids began taking food home to their parents.

The food pantry soon became a food bank. During COVID, the church was feeding up to 600 families each week.

For the carnival workers, the need was not only for food, but food prepared to eat.

“Every year, during the first week of March, we shut down the pantry and start cooking food for the carnival workers,” Fredette said. “Some have a checkered past. Others are down on their luck. All are under-employed.”

Drug and alcohol use is rampant. Fredette and his team of 30 volunteers, though, noticed something about the workers getting food that didn’t come from a drive-through.

“It delivers nutrition, but also hope,” Fredette said. “It also opens a door to introduce them to Christ. We did the traditional witnessing, handing out tracts and things like that.

“People had started showing up with no clothes as well as no food. So we started with some crock pot meals.”

Their first year, he said, the church prepared 5,000 meals. That number doubled the next year, and the year after that. When the festival starts, Liberty SBC turns into a restaurant, campground and parking garage.

“We noticed that when we started feeding them there was a lessening of the alcohol and drug use,” Fredette said. “Less trash was being left around. The workers appreciated the church and that someone cared about them.”

Workers are typically unavailable to attend Sunday worship services. Nevertheless, Fredette reported 22 conversions during the festival and one baptism.

“This program is geared toward discipleship,” he said. “They come to get food and groceries. They see our volunteers and want to be a part of it. Most of our volunteers are retirement age. They just want to serve and do the Lord’s work.”

Scott Barkley is national correspondent for Baptist Press.

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