- November 13, 2019
Anthony Hodge is used to challenges. He has faced them for most of his life, so having a front door break is a minor issue.
It will take more than an old building to stop the pastor from pursuing his mission of creating the best life possible for everyone, young and old, in the neighborhood in which he grew up.
Hodge, a former drug dealer who started his east Winter Garden street ministry about 15 years ago, has found a way to further spread God’s word in the community. He was gifted with a former church building at 784 Klondike St., and he is turning it into a community center, a place where teenagers can go when they’re bored; where children can go for structure, games and snacks; and where parents safely can leave their kids for the day.
“Kids come in and out during the day; they know they can come here,” Hodge said. “We want parents to know there’s a curriculum here that’s Biblical based. This keeps them off the street because there’s a lot going on out there.”
Hodge knows how unforgiving the streets in his community can be — in May, a 16-year-old was abducted and killed on the east side of the city, and, in a separate incident two weeks ago, a young teen was arrested on charges of murder a few blocks away. Hodge roamed those same streets decades ago as a drug dealer and drug abuser before serving time in prison and receiving what he says was a call from God in 2000.
He was facing 70 years behind bars, he said, and expected to die in prison. But then he gave his life to Jesus, he said, and his term ultimately was reduced to less than three years.
FINDING THE LOST SHEEP
“I stopped doing the things I was doing — selling drugs and using drugs — but I never stopped going to church,” Hodge said. “God started bringing back to me all the things he spoke to me in prison.”
When Hodge and his wife, Sharee, started the street ministry Finding the Lost Sheep in 2004, their goal was to share God’s word with those he felt needed it most — the drug abusers, the drug dealers, the gamblers, the lost. The program was welcomed by some in the community but not all. The couple persisted, offering a listening ear, a kind word, a prayer and a relationship with God — and people started responding.
The ministry continues to hold tent revivals twice a year in addition to the street outreach and Christmas outreach.
“I have walked into the crack houses and the gambling houses and prayed with them,” he said. “They would stop in the middle of their gambling … because I was a part of them at one time … and we would pray together and they would give an offering. They’re receptive to it; it’s not forced on them. They need the gospel. They need good news.”
Through Finding the Lost Sheep, the Hodges started a church in 2017 in Ocoee, Restored Life Church Worship Center. Both serve as pastors there.
RESTORE HOPE FOR YOUTH
Hodge said there are plenty of churches in east Winter Garden and he felt a community center was a greater need.
“That’s why I transformed this from a church into more of a community development,” he said. “Because we’ve got to reach out to the kids,” he said.
Hodge started attending True Pentecostal Church of Jesus after a member approached him in 2006 and asked if he could help with some tasks. The aging building was built in the 1940s, and the congregation was small and mostly elderly.
The church elders made the decision to close the church last year, and they gifted the building and property to Finding the Lost Sheep.
“When I opened the front door, part of the door fell off,” he said. “I looked inside and thought, ‘What am I going to do here?’ I’m thinking, ‘How did a house of God get this way?’”
The interior needed work, too. Taking it one project at a time, Hodge has slowly been restoring the center.
Before this community center can be fully operational, though, a few renovations need to be made to the building. The bathroom ceiling needs to be repaired; and one of the rooms needs paint and floor tile.
Hodge also is hoping to secure a donation of a small refrigerator for storing drinks and snacks.
“We’re going to need donors and sponsors because there’s a lot of crime in this neighborhood,” he said. “This is where I was. I knew my mother loved me. If my mother hadn’t loved me, I wouldn’t have love for anyone. … When I was on the streets and was ready to do something to someone, the first thing that came to mind was, ‘How would that make Mama feel?’ That love my mother had for me is why I’m where I’m at doing what I’m doing today.
“Even when I was strung out on crack, she loved me,” he said. “She loved me and always told me about Jesus.”
Hodge sees himself in many of the troubled people in his neighborhood, and his love of his community empowers him to make it better.
He said this building is a gift from God and will be a useful tool for reaching the young people in the neighborhood and impacting their lives.
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child, and Hodge said he is counting on members of the community to help him with the younger generation.
“We have some bad things going on in our community,” he said, referring to the two recent shootings involving teenagers. “This is for guys in that age group, as well. Every morning I come here, I go and walk all around the community looking for young guys, teenagers, to bring down here.”
Hodge wants to create programs of interest to teens, including fishing trips and campouts, and he’s looking for volunteers and people with program suggestions.
But older residents can benefit, too. There are plans to incorporate a Monday night men’s program for participants to converse openly about issues affecting them.
“I want men to build relationships so they will be held accountable,” Hodge said.
Several adults have approached Hodge about computer classes, so those will be set up, as well.
“I’m open to anything because I can’t do this by myself,” Hodge said. “Everyone has to work together. … We’re going to change the community. And to change the community is to change the mindset of the people.”