MANATEE — New Beginnings is a Palmetto church whose members are a hard working 125. Most make their living working trades, like homemaking, house cleaning, plumbing, electricity, masonry and carpentry.
It’s not a rich or poor church, just one of the many in-between type churches, members say.
“We’re average Palmetto folks,” said nine-year church attendee Tim Brussee, who owns Brussee Electrical Service.
So, Brussee and most of his fellow congregation members were amazed recently when the church’s leadership, The Rev. Mark Cotignola and his wife, Judi, shared their dream for the church to pay $6 million for the long vacant Winn-Dixie supermarket on the north side of U.S. Highway 301 in Palmetto, across the road from the G.E. Transformer Plant.
Cotignola told the congregation that his dream was to turn the building into the Hope Center, a 48,000 square-foot location for life skill training for the needy, a permanent food and clothing bank, classrooms, a book store, a coffeehouse and more.
The building, owned by Bergeron Properties out of Fort Lauderdale, also includes eight acres. The Cotignolas estimate it will require another $3 million to $4 million to renovate.
“Our goal is to raise $10 million in 10 years!” Cotignola told the congregation.
Brussee couldn’t believe it.
“I think it is way beyond our ability,” Brussee said.
But then, in the next breath, he says: “God has been in this from step one.”
Piece by piece, things have fallen together, Brussee said.
Faith Based Solutions, a Nevada-based organization which helps churches develop a national donor base, an effective board of directors and a grant-writing program, is on board to help with the fund-raising, the Cotignolas said.
Volunteers of America Food Bank in New Port Richey is offering technical know-how.
Manatee Technical Institute, whose migrant clients may be helped by the Hope Center, has contributed advice, the Cotignolas said.
Although the price of the supermarket is pretty much market value, the terms are “very generous” said the pastor and his wife, who expect to close on the supermarket deal in about a month and hope to have the facility open by Christmas 2009.
“The terms are very generous as far as pay back,” Mark Cotignola said.
Although Brussee’s logic tells him a church of New Beginning’s size can’t do this, his faith is an entirely different story. And part of that faith is in Cotignola, whom he calls a “visionary.”
“Mark and Judi have brought a vision of wanting to impact the community,” Brussee said. “They want to reach out to people who have been missed, who need a little help. But it’s not just a hand-out. We want to educate them to be able to be self-sufficient. In the process, maybe we’ll also share the love of Jesus.”
Sharing the love
In the 1960s, New Beginnings was Palmetto Assembly of God. Under the Cotignolas, it is still an Assembly of God church, but an independent one.
“We’re Pentecostal Christians,” the pastor said.
Although Mark Cotignola was a licensed pastor with Assemblies of God, he was working for a government contractor in 2002. He and his wife were lay members of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky.
But when Judi’s father, The T.R. Barriss of Palmetto Assembly of God, took ill that year, the couple moved to Palmetto to help out.
The janitor’s job at the church was open and the couple filled it.
“We became the custodians of the church in 2003,” Cotignola said.
In October, 2006, Cotignola was voted in as lead pastor of the church.
Almost immediately, Mark and Judi went to work on out-reach.
When it was discovered that many children of migrant workers couldn’t talk to their teachers due to the language barrier, the church started a program to provide English lessons. It ran for a full year. In the course of that, contacts were made with MTI’s Esperanza Gamboa, the pastor said.
“That’s when we began to realize the needs were much greater,” Cotignola said.
In October, 2006, Gamboa took the pastor and his wife to migrant camps in Manatee County.
The church started a food program late that year and handed out blankets and beans and rice.
“MTI escorted us,” Judi Cotignola said. “There was no way to find these places on our own. MTI has representatives who go out every week and find what they need.”
Judi was emotionally altered on these visits.
“The farther out in Myakka City we got, the more desolate the situation,” Judi Cotignola said of the camps she saw in 2006.
“Most can’t be seen from the road. You drive down a dirt road and get back into open areas. There are old mobile homes from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s and dozens of children and families. They are living in single-wide mobiles.
“There is often no grass, just dirt. I got out of our van and the children just surrounded us and started asking questions. I have girls the same age. I was blown away. I had no idea.”
Those visits led to the idea of creating the Hope Center.
Although they are not in the old supermarket yet, the church members feed about 100 families a week from 10:30 a.m . to 2 p.m. every Tuesday at the temporary Hope Center, an old garage converted into a warehouse, at 1708 9th St. W., Palmetto.
Each family gets about 15 pounds of food, including can goods, beans and rice, and other items. Roughly 1,500 pounds of food are distributed weekly.
The weekly food donation comes in equal parts from the partnership with Volunteers of America Food Bank and from the generosity of church members, the pastor said.
“On Tuesdays, the grounds are filled with cars and there’s a line out to the road,” Mark Cotignola said.
“It’s not just one group that’s in trouble,” Cotignola added. “More and more are losing homes. You see moms with kids. You see a couple in a panic because one or both just lost jobs and they have a mortgage payment due and don’t know whether to make the payment or buy food.”
The pastor’s wife said the goal is to make sure everyone has something to make a meal.
“We get tons of Ramen noodles, Tuna Helper, cereal, things like that,” Judi Cotignola said.
A heart for people
Judi Cotignola said her husband is very evangelistic.
“Everything that Mark talks about is to help people understand how God loves them and has a plan for their lives,” she said. “He’s not a yeller. He doesn’t jump around. He paces when he preaches because of his attention deficit disorder. He tries to interact with the congregation.”
A few weeks ago, the pastor brought a father and son up on stage and tied them together with a rope to make a point.
“He’s had youngsters playing video games on stage while he preached.”
Judi, who will also be ordained in a month, said the church’s strength has been its ability to reach out to those passed over, like the poor and youth.
“You no longer can have a church with someone speaking up front for an hour,” Cotignola said.
“You will lose the kids. They want to see something practical. They want to know how this all fits in. That’s why having them see the Hope Center has made a tremendous impact.”
When Brussee thinks about his church, he often thinks of the Old Testament story of Gideon.
“When Gideon went to battle he had 300 soldiers fight a multitude,” Brussee said.
“It was an impossible task. What we end up learning is that God set it up that way so no one could take credit for Gideon’s victory except God. I feel that is what God is doing here.”