When Trinity Lutheran Church, an ELCA renewing congregation in Kissimmee, Fla., began as a mission congregation in 1961, “the community was quite small and life centered on citrus, cattle and a few seasonal residents,” says Pete Zieg, former pastor of the congregation.
But when the Walt Disney World Resort began to dominate the area in the 1970s, Kissimmee became enveloped in the world of tourism surrounding it.
“What one might not have expected is the sizable homeless population that has come along with the growth of tourism,” Pete says. “Many small ‘mom and pop’ hotels along busy West Highway 192 that connects Kissimmee and Disney grew and prospered — until Disney began building many of their own more affordable hotels on their property.”
“Long-story-short,” Pete explains, “these older motels are now filled with more-or-less homeless families and individuals who came here looking for work and a hospitable climate.”
But Trinity’s motto had long been “In Kissimmee for good,” so when the community began to change, Trinity began to think about what it could do to change along with it.
“We welcomed thousands of tourists and seasonal residents to worship — and became an active partner in the community trying to meet the needs of the hungry, homeless and struggling,” Pete shares. “It became quite overwhelming as the economy and the demographics of Kissimmee changed.”
Though Pete retired in 2004, he returned in 2010 to begin Trinity Samaritans, a ministry dedicated to reaching out to those in need, regardless of what those needs might be.
The program, funded in part by a grant from the ELCA Florida-Bahamas Synod, follows “the model of ‘The good Samaritan’ of whom Christ spoke: to respond as individuals and as a congregation to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of persons in our community and congregation.”
And just like the good Samaritan of the Gospel, Trinity’s Samaritans view no person or group of people as inferior to any other. “Trinity Samaritans recognize and affirm that all persons are created in the image of God, regardless of beliefs, background, race, lifestyle or life circumstances,” their website states.
Since the Samaritans have formed, Pete says they have attracted around 50 people who are working to build partnerships with food pantries, homeless shelters, and safe spaces for abused or homeless women and children.
“We have lifted up needs to the congregation and have made real progress in collecting serious amounts of food for the food bank, clothing for (a local ministry center), volunteers for some of the other programs,” Pete reports.
“Conversations are currently underway among several key local human service agencies and groups, spearheaded by a church in Celebration, to establish a ‘one-stop-shop’ — a ‘care center’ — on the west side of Kissimmee, not far from Trinity, for the hundreds of folks there with unmet needs,” Pete says. “Trinity Samaritans will be carefully following developments and will hopefully be part of this community safety-net.”
The Samaritans are all about building partnerships, Pete says.
And it’s through these partnerships that the Samaritans plan to stay in Kissimmee for good.