If you have ever driven down Lee Boulevard heading to Leeland Heights Boulevard, you have passed by the Harvest Ministries Church. It is on a large campus and also houses a child daycare center.
But today, the church, known as Harvest International Ministries, has moved to the Village of Lehigh just off Taylor Lane Extended and its new pastor, Tony Holley is looking for more growth.
The church and adjacent property on Lee Boulevard is for sale.
"We've started services in the new building at the Villages of Lehigh already, now we are in our third week. We still have some moving of things, but we are situated well and our members are coming on Sundays and on Wednesdays," Holley said. His wife is Starla Holley, who is also associated with the women's activities of the church.
In association with the move to the building that was built a dozen years or so ago as a movie theater, the church is celebrating its 50th anniversary and over the years, it has hosted several different pastors and a few name changes along the way, but its mission, Pastor Holley says, has always been growing forward a to fulfill the purposes that God has prepared for this church in the 21st century.
The new building that the church is now located in was most recently a charter school, but was closed last year.
"It's an ideal site for a church. Our main sanctuary is very large, seats 250 or more in seats that were for the movies. We have a very large screen in the sanctuary and a smaller on in there, too," he said.
A former church also occupied the building and it remodeled some things in the building, mainly removing walls to a couple of the movie theaters.
"We use those screens for images for hymns and other things," Holley said. It is just suited for a church preaching the Word of God," he said.
The board of deacons, the staff, members and the pastor are working this week on signs for the church. Although there are banners on the church they plan to make it easier to distinguish with a larger sign with its new name of Harvest International Ministries.
The reason for the change in name is because the missions of the church, which is a member of the Church of God. The church helps out in different area of the world, helping to bring people to Christ.
It was in 1963 when the church first opened its doors in Lehigh Acres under the direction of Rev. Lewis Cross, who was the pastor of the Palm Beach Blvd. Church of God. Revs. Floyd and Julia O'Bannon pioneered a new congregation with just 10 members in the home of Mr. and Mrs. David Flint and in 1965, under Rev. O'Bannon's direction, a sanctuary was built on land that was donated by the Lehigh Corp.
A parsonage at 900 Lee Blvd. was purchased in 1969. Later in 1972, Rev. Ray and Pat Johns along with sons, Lonnie and Brian, began pastoring at Lehigh. During their tenure, the church doubled in size and their third son, John Mark was born.
Over the years there have been several pastors at the church who were chosen by the board of deacons and the congregation.
And with each pastor's tenure the church changed somewhat with new members and new missions.
Rev. Ralph Halbrook in September 1976 took over their tenure and under his ministry, the Lehigh Christian Academy was started with an enrollment of 63.
In 1980 construction of the fellowship hall was begun and during construction, Pastor Holley said God provided in many wondrous ways. When finished, "Miracle Hall" became the new home of Lehigh Christian Academy and in February of 1982, Halbrook and his family left and began a new ministry in New Port Richey.
As the years moved forward, a daycare, which is still in operation, was established in March of 1982. Sunday School attendance grew from the 30s and 40s to a record breaking 197 in April of 1988 and tithes grew, too.
A short history of the church was presented to worshipers a few weeks ago when it held its first service at the new site at the Villages of Lehigh.
Some will remember a church that was located there that provided inexpensive food to the area before it was stopped nationally. The left front of the building was once a bar, then a room where food was stored for those buying the inexpensive food. Later the room became the cafeteria for the charter school and that is what it is used for today.
"It's a place where worshipers can stop by and get a cup of coffee and meet," Holley said.
A name change came in 1987 when it was the Harvest Temple Church of God church and it was then that six additional lots were purchased along Connecticut Rd. and new plans were begun for the preparation of erecting a new sanctuary, In 1992 a new sanctuary was built with a seating capacity of about 250 people. The grounds and facilities were upgraded and the VPK Program was started in the daycare center in 2009. Catherine Daboini was hired in 2011 as the director of Harvest Learning Center and under her direction, the daycare grew from 46 children to 120.
Now with Pastor Holley at the helm, after being selected by the church's deacons and recommended to the congregation which voted to bring him on as the new church pastor, plans continue to be made.
Meanwhile, the church on Joel Blvd. has been listed for sale at $800,000. Those adjacent residential building lots have also been listed for sale on Connecticut Rd.
Holley said the Harvest Learning Center would be kept which includes two buildings. Presently he said there are 150 students who are enrolled there.
"It is open year-round and is non-profit and has a paid staff licensed staff," Holley said.
Director Catherine Daboin now teaches to children from infants to age 12, he said.
Pastor Holley said that today, the church, while continuing its missions in the Church of God movement, is concentrating on the diversity of Lehigh Acres.
'We have several diverse people and diversity can be our strength," Holley said. "We plan soon to provide our sermons and classes in both English and Spanish,
Lehigh has a large population of Hispanic Spanish-speaking people and Harvest Ministries is fast becoming a church of choice for many of them, Holley said.
Workshops are a good way to blend the cultures and Holley estimated that in addition to white and African Americans, there may be as many as 20 to 25 percent membership of Hispanics.
He said his wife, Starla, is heavily involved with the Ladies Ministry.
"She doesn't know a stranger," he said. "She loves to meet new people and she becomes a friend instantly."
Services at the new church are Sunday at 10:30 a.m. and at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Colunteer pastor Dr. Randy Moore helps Wednesday with praise and worship.
Today at the new church site, Holley says membership has grown to a little more than 400 people.
The church provides a food ministry for 500 to 600 people every week and has been for a number of years now," Holley said.
The denomination of the Church of God is based in Cleveland, Tenn. There are some 177 countries worldwide that the churches have involved their ministries.
Holley said the largest is probably in Indonesia.
With the move, Harvest International Ministries, is one of the largest churches in Lehigh.
"We plan a final move in here by the end of this year and we have developing plans for some renovation but not a whole lot because the way it was built is ideal for a church," Holley said.
New carpeting and painting has freshened up the church which is attractive inside with a large welcoming lobby.
"The remodeling will be for classrooms in the new church which the board of elders supports," Holley said.
To everyone's surprise, there is a second floor to the building.
Upstairs, there is space for a large conference room or another class room. And adjacent to it, there is a room with a wall which can be removed to provide a balcony overlooking the main worship area.
"We are very excited about the future of our church and bringing in many more members who are Hispanics who will make our church stronger for the Lord. That is what we are doing now, bringing the two communities together," he said.