In a modern twist to the parable of the Good Samaritan, First Baptist Church of Orlando, Fla., will provide free housing for pastors, ministerial staff and missionaries attending this June's Southern Baptist Convention.
The "Good Samaritan Inn" will rely on members of the congregation willing to open their homes to qualifying messengers and their families between June 10-15.
To qualify, applicants must be current or retired ministerial staff or missionaries. They also must forward a letter from their church verifying their status and messenger credentials.
Pastors can sign up by e-mailing a message to GoodSamaritanInn@fbcorlando.org or by leaving a voice mail message at (407) 514-4411. The church plans to add on-line registration; check its Internet site - www.fbcorlando.org - for details. The deadline to apply is April 15.
This option is for housing only and does not include transportation or food. The number of spaces available has not been determined.
There is no set limit on the number of family members who will be able to visit, said J.B. Collingsworth, First Baptist's assistant pastor. That will depend on the space available in a host's home, he explained.
Visitors will not be able to bring pets.
While first discussed with the congregation last September by senior pastor Jim Henry, the project was officially unveiled via a video presentation at services in January. Sign-up forms for members were included in the Sunday bulletin and available at information booths set up at both welcome centers.
A lay coordinating committee followed up in February with visits to Sunday school classes. They targeted seniors classes, since the elderly often have larger homes and more empty bedrooms, said chairman David Reed.
"This is a great tool to do what Jesus said - to give cups of cold water to people in need," Collingsworth said. "There were times when I was younger and struggling that it would have been nice to have that option offered."
Henry's vision for the unique ministry goes back some thirty years, when he was a young pastor attending New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. En route to an annual convention he slept in his car on the way because he couldn't afford a hotel room. That week, he slept at the YMCA.
On the return trip, he stopped at a church's Wednesday night service, where a couple invited him to stay in their home, Collingsworth said.
While the Orlando Local Arrangements Committee working with the SBC Executive Committee coordinates special housing requests, Collingsworth said this is the first time a church in a host city has organized a lodging program.
Although they discussed working with other churches, First Baptist's committee decided that could be a logistical problem, he said.
In addition to housing, the 10,000-member church will host a free luncheon for visitors and host families on Sunday, June 11, before the annual Pastors' Conference begins. Lodging is extended a day after the convention to allow guests to visit area tourist attractions.
With hotel rooms in the vicinity of the Orlando Convention Center costing $60 to $150 a night, the Good Samaritan Inn will provide a valuable service, said Dan Brown, vice chairman of the coordinating committee.
"There's anticipation and excitement that's building," said Brown, also a deacon and trustee. "It comes from helping families who couldn't afford to come to the convention because it's so expensive."
The committee is setting up a database of visitors and volunteers, as well as using computer technology to track its planning for the June event. While the task requires many hours, the vice chairman said it will be time well spent.
"This is an opportunity to realize and fulfill something God has laid on your heart," Brown said. "There's joy in doing something God has His hands on. When [Henry] shared about it, it instantly touched my heart."
First Baptist understands the value of hospitality, Reed, the committee chairman, said. On past choir tours to Wales and other countries, hundreds of members stayed in the homes of local residents. Many of them are expected to volunteer as hosts, he said.
Reed said he hopes First Baptist's generosity will be duplicated.
"We're hoping this starts a trend for future host cities," he said. "We anticipate if pastors take advantage of this and come, they'll be looking forward to the next time."
"I hope it brings people together," Collingsworth added. "Our people have experienced hospitality from going into other people's homes. Some make friendships that last a lifetime."