By Matt Wiley
A view of nature isn’t something that usually comes to mind when thinking about a church sanctuary. More than likely, what comes to mind instead are long, wooden pews and a cross above an altar. However, nestled in the trees in Tampa Palms at the intersection of Tampa Palms Blvd. and Amberly Dr., Grace Episcopal Church’s sanctuary looks out at New Tampa’s natural beauty and is no ordinary house of worship.Since 1992, Grace Episcopal has been walking the line, blending several Christian worship traditions to accomplish the church’s mission statement, “a Christian community of people who live a life of worship, friendship, commitment and love by learning and sharing to develop a responsive way of living together that honors God.”
The Reverend Canon Benjamin B. Twinamaani (also known as “Father Ben”), who has been leading the worship at the church for eight years, explains that what sets Grace apart from other churches in the area is the style of worship that defines the Episcopal faith.
“If you take the Baptist, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions and blend them together, that’s us,” says Father Ben. “We are in the middle of all of those traditions. That’s our niche.”
Grace is one of just 64 Episcopal parishes and missions in the state of Florida, according to the latest numbers from the Episcopal Church’s official website, EpiscopalChurch.org. The site says that there are more than 120,000 active and baptized Episcopalians in the state.
“(Our style) is perfect for those who didn’t want to convert to their spouse’s religious tradition when they got married, like people who have married Roman Catholic/Protestant or vice versa,” says Father Ben. “They find their home here. Most of my couples are like that.”
Originally from Uganda in central Africa, Father Ben says that he traveled to the U.S. to study higher education at the University of South Florida (USF). He explains that, like him, many travel from countries in Africa to the U.S. because of the large number of universities throughout the nation. He says that, in many African countries, there sometimes only is one university in the entire country.
Since starting at Grace eight years ago, Father Ben says that he has been working toward accomplishing his vision for the church: to connect the Baby Boomers, those aged 45-60, and the “millennials” — or those aged 13-30.
“It’s tough to do,” he admits.
Being a home of blended traditions, Father Ben says that Grace does have a surprising number of young families, many of whom are still raising their kids. Whether they are in pre-K or in their high school years, he says that 25 percent of Grace’s congregation is made up of kids under the age of 18.
“We are a ‘chapel of ease,’” Father Ben explains. “We have a nursery for the little ones on Sunday during services, the older kids have youth group on Sunday or can play an instrument in the band. And, the Baby Boomers still can find their traditional service here.”
‘Growing In Grace’
To help the church grow and attract new members, Father Ben says that in 2013, Grace will focus on Bishop Robert Schnase’s “Five Practices of Growing in Grace,” which includes “radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service and extravagant generosity.”
Last year, thanks to a generous donation from a family from St. Mary’s Episcopal Day School, Grace supported three missions in Uganda, including donating $2,000 to the Church of Uganda Alternative Tunes Rukiga Hymnal Project, which works to transfer hand-written church music sheets into a published master copy; $5,000 to the Ekoko Enkulu Project, to help start a chicken coup for an orphanage in Torero, Uganda; and $1,000 to the Our Orphans Uganda Ministry for food and help develop an orphanage in Kamuli, Uganda,.
Father Ben also will actually take a team of his parishioners to Uganda later this summer, once a recent shoulder injury heals. He says that he previously took a team about five years ago and helped finish building a sanctuary in a small village. The villagers had run out of materials and needed metal frames and steel beams, so the group from Grace bought them the materials so they could finish it.
“We went to see what the money did,” Father Ben explains. “The sanctuary now holds 2,000 people in its services. We usually only have around 200 at Grace. Now, there’s a school that needs help. The building has been there since 1960, made of wood and mud. Right now, we’re raising money for that trip.”
He says that to culminate the trip, the group goes on a safari in one of Uganda’s national parks.
“We’re working on our outreach, both national and international,” says Father Ben. “We’re no longer being internal. The kids like that.”
Speaking Of ‘Kids’…
The kids also like leading worship services every fourth Sunday. Father Ben says that the youth group of parishioners under the age of 18, are in charge of the entire service. The youngsters also enjoy other activities, such as “Lock-Ins,” in which the kids stay at the church all night watching movies and playing games, and even take trips to the Holy Land Experience in Orlando via a congregation-member’s Winnebago, and Rock the Universe, the annual Christian music event at Universal Studios.
“The kids feel like it’s their church and invite their friends,” says Father Ben. “Sometimes they do skits before the services begin. They’ve even used the movie ‘Avatar’ as a model, saying ‘my avatar is at church, but I’m somewhere else.’ They showed that they have to make a choice, like maybe sending their avatar to something fun and going to church instead. It blew the congregation’s mind. The skits let me know that the kids are learning.”
Grace Episcopal Church, located at 15102 Amberly Dr. in Tampa Palms, holds services each Sunday at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., but also has a number of other ministries available.
For more information, please visit GraceNewTampa.com or call 971-8484. Visitors are always welcome to attend services at Grace.