Hope Episcopal Commemorates 25 Years In Community

By  //  August 20, 2012

Historical Milestone For Suntree

BREVARD COUNTY • SUNTREE, FLORIDA – When Hope Episcopal Church celebrates its 25th anniversary next month, it also marks a milestone in the history of the community in which it is located, the Suntree area of Melbourne, adjacent to Viera. A block party is planned for 7 p.m. Sept. 14 to mark the milestone.

One of the cornerstones of the Suntree community is Hope Episcopal Church, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next month. (Image by Linda Wiggins)

Art Griffin is one of the four surviving members who pioneered the church, and one of the first families to arrive in BrevardCounty, save for true pioneer families in the farming, fishing or shipping trade that pre-dated theU.S.space program.

Art and Arlene Griffin arrived in 1957, just months before the Soviet Union sent its Sputnik satellite into orbit, launching the space race that would put Brevard on the map.

Gas was 29 cents a gallon, but mosquitoes were thicker than gas was cheap, and air conditioning was still a thing of the future. As with most new arrivals, the couple lived in a tiny beachside home around Satellite Beachwhere the only sufficient housing stock existed, and the only real way to “the Cape” was up State Road A1A, save for an even more sluggish State Road 3 up Merritt Island.

Families later graduated from the one-car, 1,200-square-foot block homes built in the 1950s to more luxurious homes along the beach, Indian and Banana rivers, and Tortoise and later Lansing islands.

The construction of the Interstate system in the 1970s, including I-95, would push “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” residential development over the causeways. This is the beginning of the story of Hope Episcopal Church in Suntree.

Go west, young families

Families spring-boarded over from the beachside as soon as residential development and shopping centers began to spring up closer to the interstates, for easy travel to the Cape and what would later become Kennedy Space Center.

The migration of families to Suntree and later Viera from even the most upscale beachside communities continues today, for ease in travel and also to escape the dated streetscapes along A1A and South Patrick Boulevard required to access their beautiful neighborhoods.

Newer, upscale roadways, underground utilities and sleek frontage design demanded by Suntree, Baytree and Viera planned-development communities, options in deed-restricted senior and military communities, and high standards posed by resident-governed associations would attract upscale construction.

Griffin and his wife, Arlene, were among a handful of area worshippers who saw the need for churches in the growing Suntree community, long before Viera was anything more than celery and sod farms.

Founding members Frank Bradley (with wife Nancy, left, a retired deacon who served at another church) and Art and Arlene Griffin are three of the four surviving members who started Hope Episcopal Church in 1987. (Image by Linda Wiggins)

More families mean more churches

Thirty-one Hope pioneers met on July 29, 1987, at the then-Suntree United Methodist Church, formerly at the location now held by St. Paul’s Anglican Church. They discussed the need for a church and the Diocese of Central Florida agreed.

On Sept. 13, 1987, they had their first worship service in a building on the grounds they bought on U.S. 1, now home to Friendship Fellowship Unitarian Universalist Church.

“We cleaned it up, put up a table with some candles on it for an altar, and went from there,”Griffin said. Ironically, the old building had been a makeshift home to “transients” and “squatters,” the then-terms for the hungry and homeless, a population in which the church would deeply invested, and inspire others to do the same.

Making history as well as a new start

Hope’s first pastor was also the first Episcopalian female clergy ordained to serve in the Diocese of Central Florida, Rev. Marion Thullbery. That original altar “table” was also her desk on loan.

“It was exciting to be able to make history along with the excitement of being approved by the Diocese to start a new church.” Julia Belton, one of the original founding members of Hope Episcopal Church.

“It was exciting to be able to make history along with the excitement of being approved by the Diocese to start a new church,” said Julia Belton, another of the original founding members.

Membership grew quickly, and worship services moved to the Suntree Elementary School cafeteria and auditorium for three years. While administrative offices remained on the original property, a budding Baptist church used the tiny facility for Sunday worship.

It was then time to trade up, and 35 members bought bonds in 1994 to purchase the existing 8.27 acres on what is now Interlachen Road. A capital campaign followed the next year, with members raising $250,000 to build the first of two phases that now include a popular community room overlooking towering pines and a pristine lake.

Arlene and Art Griffin show off the current Hope campus they helped build beginning in 1994. (Image by Linda Wiggins)

From cow pastures to strip malls, and a lawsuit in between

The main road off which the church is positioned –North Wickham Road– was much less a main road, and more a rutted two-lane dirt road, with more ruts than road. Cows, rather than strip malls and housing developments, dotted either side. The church’s side street off Wickham to the south was called Turtle Mound Road.

Members of the congregation and surrounding neighbors who lived in Suntree didn’t think much about the name of the road, until residents south of the community in today’s Turtle Mound Road area came to them with a plan to forge an alliance.

Brevard County’s Department of Transportation wanted to carry out plans to four-lane Turtle Mound straight through from Wickham to Post Road, cutting through the then-future Pineda Causeway extension to Interstate 95.

“There are many people in our area who may already have their physical needs met, but have a spiritual hunger that is also important to feed.” Hope Episcopal Pastor Rev. Debbie Vann

It was to be a critically needed north-south artery alternative to Wickham as it curves to the south two miles east of I-95 and turns into Minton Road past State Road192/New Haven Road. The purpose was to lift transportation trips from the now car-clogged Wickham Road.

“They said to Suntree residents, ‘Why do you think they also call it Turtle Mound Road up your way?’ Then it dawned on them,”Griffin said.

While it might have been beneficial exposure for Hope as the only church along what would have become a busy four-lane highway, Suntree residents flatly refused the dissection of their community, taking the county to court.

Residents won the fight and pushed for a name change to the current Interlachen Road, in keeping with the theme of naming roads in the golfing community after famous courses. To this day it remains two lanes, with a lake since dug into the path of the formerly planned extension south of the community and the area declared a wildlife sanctuary, as insurance against any county plans to revive the issue.

The only remaining evidence of history is an overlooked street sign on the north side of Wickham Road at the corner of the Walgreens drugstore, which still reads Turtle Mound Road.

Hope Episcopal Pastor Debbie Vann shows off the Hope lakefront grounds and the entrance to the pristine pine and oak used for prayer and meditation. (Image by Linda Wiggins)

The passing of the torch

In 1990, Thullbery took a position at a rural church in Enterprise and Rev. Wally Schilling took the pulpit at Hope. Affectionately known as “Father Wally,” Schilling was a fixture in the community and a role model for members to do outreach to help those less fortunate.

His missionary heart won out in late 2007 when he followed the call to minister in the Middle East. His associate rector, Rev. Terry Highland, responded to the call to serve elsewhere at the same time. A search committee launched a year-long task of finding a replacement, sifting through visiting pastors to find just the right fit.

Hope again called a female pastor to the pulpit with the hiring of Rev. Debbie Vann in 2009.

Vann extended the church’s focus on meeting physical needs to those of a spiritual and emotional nature. The lush lakeside grounds, which include a native stand of oak and pine forest split by trails and a wooden-bridge spanned stream, are open to the community for quiet meditation and reflection.

Feeding spiritual needs

“There are many people in our area who may already have their physical needs met, but have a spiritual hunger that is also important to feed,” Vann said. “People who wouldn’t darken the door of a church can come here and just ‘be,’ turn from a busy ‘human doing’ back into a ‘human being,’ by having a rare place to relax and get quiet,” Vann said.

Deepening the investment in the peace mission, church volunteers recently started growing what will eventually be a full-size labyrinth, with tall, winding hedges where one can walk around in and pray.

“Many people routinely take the time to pray, but they don’t often take the time to get quiet, and that is when we hear the answers from God to the questions we have asked in prayer, trying to discern God’s will for us,” Vann said. “That is when we achieve a level of peace and serenity that the cares of the world cannot rob from us, allowing us to stay connected to God and His wisdom throughout the day.”

Attaining and maintaining peace in the gardens benefits members when they enter the church’s four walls, according to Deacon Pam Garten, who assists the pastor with worship and other activities.

“It’s amazing the difference it makes when you are at peace in a worship service,” Garten said. “Rather than your mind going nonstop, begrudging the past or fearing the future, you can really be present and focus on the message, and how to apply it in your life.”

Art Griffin, the most active Suntree/Viera Area Association of Churches volunteer, carts a load of food donated by Hope members to the Advent Lutheran Church food pantry for distribution 6 p.m. Thursdays. (Image by Linda Wiggins)

Basic needs precede the spiritual

Shortly after helping to establish the church, Frank Bradley, the fourth and final surviving Hope founding member, saw the need to form an association of area churches whose members do community outreach.

This would increase the faithful’s ability and efficiency to serve families and individuals at risk of going hungry and homeless in the immediate area and across Brevard County.

“Rather than an association of pastors for networking and support to help them in their duties, I felt the need was greater to have the association made up of the volunteers who were active in community outreach,” Bradley said. “Of course, we have a great number of pastors in that category who attend.”

So named the Suntree/Viera Area Association of Churches, the group was initially tied to the nonprofit Resurrection Ranch, a Christ-based residential facility for individuals battling addiction, alcoholism and homelessness, along with single-parent and intact families with children.

The passing of a saint

Pastor Arlene Coulter, a once wealthy socialite who donated all her money, possessions and property to purchase the former motel on Old Dixie Road, running it as the shelter for nearly 20 years, was an S/VAAC member. She died last year, surrounded by longtime supporters.

When the shelter closed some years ago, S/VAAC decided to remain active, moving its distribution point for emergency community financial resources from the ranch to member church Advent Lutheran’s food distribution ministry at 6 p.m. Thursdays. Prepackaged bags of food are given out along with – as available – S/VAAC’s  emergency resources for rent, utilities, car repairs, gas cards and anything else to keep a roof over the heads of individuals and families, and keep their heads of household employed.

Members begin to fill the parking lot for Hope Episcopal Church’s 10:15 a.m. Sunday service. (Image by Linda Wiggins)

Association church members volunteer to assemble bags containing food, diapers and other supplies, helping to carry the bags curbside and along the way offering to pray with individuals who desire it.

Though there is some need in the area, relatively prosperous association churches are peopled and monied compared to those in the rest of the county.

While the S/VAAC direct mission is basic needs, monthly business meetings always feature one or more presentations by a faith-based or secular missions on the particular needs of disadvantaged populations, with information brought back by representatives to congregations whose members might consider supporting those missions.

“It’s important for everyone to know where the needs are, and how to come along the agencies and area churches that are doing good work,” said Griffin, the most active S/VAAC volunteer Thursday nights.

It’s a party and everyone’s invited

On Friday, Sept. 14 at 7 p.m., Hope will host a free music festival called Rockin’ on Interlachen to mark the church’s 25 years of loving God and helping others.

“We wanted to do something to lift up and include the entire community,” said Heather Barlow, chair of the event. It will feature local praise bands, including the Hope Praise Band, Advent Lutheran’s Disciple 13, Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy’s Honors Music Society and Melbourne Church of Christ’s Chorus, as well as The DOCK Kids African Drum Circle and Gospel Band, made up of children from the Booker T. Washington neighborhood in Melbourne that many churches in the Suntree/Viera have informally adopted.

While the concert and refreshments are free, donations will be accepted for S/VAAC emergency giving and nonperishable food donations will be collected for the Advent Lutheran food pantry.

The event kicks off a weekend of celebration, capped off with a special commemorative service, combining the regular 8 and 10:15 a.m. services into one large one at 10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 16. Hope founding pastor Rev. Marion Thullbery will be the special guest.

For more information, call 321-259-5810 or go to http://www.hopeepiscopalchurch.org/.