BRADENTON — At first glance, it was odd that not a soul sat in the sanctuary of the Church at Bradenton on Palm Sunday.
But the bustle of activity a few blocks down from the building on 43rd Street West explained it all.
There, a gathering of 1,500 people — about 500 of them members of the church — congregated for a not-so-traditional service in the woods of G.T. Bray park off 51st Street West.
“We decided to bring the church to the people instead of bringing the people to the church,” said Church at Bradenton First Church of God member Cyndi Capps. “That’s what Jesus did.”
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Lawn chairs and wooden benches served as makeshift pews to the packed crowd that gathered to praise God and celebrate a week before Easter.
Queen Palms filled the stage where the church’s worship team led the group in upbeat contemporary hymns, including “Amazing Grace” and “I Am Free” during the hour-long worship service.
“We are trying to let people know there are churches who care about people,” said worship leader William Sallee.
This is the second year the church has hosted Palm Sunday at the park.
Last year’s service, Sallee said, drew about 700 people.
“It was incredible,” pastor Ancil Abney said following Sunday’s service.
Abney said he was elated to see so many new people and young families in attendance.
Following the service, members and their guests enjoyed fellowship and feasted on an array of food including hot dogs and hamburgers.
“We bought 900 hamburgers and 600 hot dogs and there are only six left,” Capps said, smiling.
Children also participated in an Easter egg hunt and face painting.
Sophie Coles, 8, said she scooped up about 20 eggs filled with candy, finger puppets and other toys.
By the time she left the park Sunday, most of her candy was gone.
“We had a blast,” said Sophie’s mother, Holly Coles, of Bradenton, who is a church member.
As the afternoon wound down and people started to trickle out of the park, the line for face painting remained long.
Bradenton twins Austin and Brandon Burban, 8, stood patiently in line for awhile.
When it was their turn, Austin sat down in a chair and, in honor of the upcoming holiday, requested his face be painted as an Easter bunny.