Baptist churches learn to coexist with neighbor Seminole Hard Rock casino - Monday 21st of May 2007

When Hurricane Wilma knocked out power at the First Seminole Indian Baptist Church, help came from a neighbor that never rests, even on Sunday.

Services were moved next door, to the 24-hour casino at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, near Hollywood. Song and prayer in Creek and English emanated from a private ballroom, just out of earshot of the whirring slot machines.

"They welcomed us," said the Rev. Paul Buster, the Seminole Baptist minister known as Pastor Paul. "Some people, maybe out of curiosity, worshiped with us or sat with us. "

On shady acreage lined by oak trees, surrounded by the Seminole Indian reservation, two small Baptist churches are the closest neighbors to the glitzy resort hotel and casino that opened four years ago. The churches have learned to live with their neighbor.

The Florida Baptist Convention, the churches umbrella organization, disapproves of gambling and vowed before the Hard Rock was built that it would not sell its property to build a casino. (It later sold and gifted 25 acres to the Seminole Baptist church, provided the gifted land was used for religious purposes.)

Today, the churches preach a tolerant attitude toward the Hard Rock, where they say gamblers and drinkers should know they are welcome at Sunday services anytime.

"We dont look down on anybody," Buster said. "Our doors are open to anyone."

Next door, at Iglesia Bautista, the Rev. Antonio Arango agrees.

"People are looking for a church to receive them as they are," said Arango, the pastor at the Spanish-language church where many Hispanic members are former Catholics. "Everybody is welcome to pray with us."

With fewer young people coming to church, some worry that a casino in their midst is a temptation and another distraction.

"I dont believe in casinos; I dont support the casinos," Arango said, adding that he would not turn away a gambler. "If they asked me if what they were doing were right, I would tell them, think about it. When you love money more than you love God, when you trust more in money than you trust in God, thats a sin. Youre betting your eternity."

The Seminole church wants to open a chapel at the casino.

"If they can spare a little room, every now and then, we could possibly hold services there," Buster said. "Regardless of where we go, or what we do, everybody needs to hear Gods words, regardless of what their lifestyle may be. God loves everybody. Thats the way we look at it."

The churches were established long before the rock-star hotel and 24-hour casino were built in their backyard.

Iglesia Bautista opened about 20 years ago as an outreach to Spanish-speaking congregants. Today, prayer services are still in Spanish, but some ministries are in English because of more bilingual members. About 200 people regularly attend church.

The First Seminole Indian Baptist Church opened in 1936, founded by Baptist missionaries who worked with the Creek and Seminole tribes in Oklahoma. It is independent of the Seminole tribe.

The Rev. Genus Crenshaw and his wife, Carolyn, were regional missionaries who arrived in 1951 to "bring the gospel" to the Seminoles, and raised four daughters there.

Buster, 57, born and raised on the Big Cypress reservation in Hendry County, was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1980. He led Big Cypress First Baptist Church before moving to the First Seminole church, where he has served as pastor intermittently for 20 years.

"At Big Cypress, church was about the only activity. Here, were in the city and there are lots of distractions. Were losing some of our youth," said Buster, who includes traditional hymns sung in Creek during his services and delivers part of his sermons in Miccosukee.

Today, the historical church has about 100 active members; 90 percent are Seminoles. Genus Crenshaw is buried behind the church in a Seminole cemetery, now bordered by Floridas Turnpike, and beneath a billboard for the Hard Rock.

Patrons using an exit road to Stirling Road drive past the churches, where an occasional traffic jam is the only impact from the Hard Rock, known for rock-star memorabilia, concerts, nightclubs, celebrities and, of course, the death of Anna Nicole Smith in February.

Smiths drug-related demise, inside a sixth-floor hotel room, threatened to disturb the peace when convoys of television trucks and worldwide media arrived in the neighborhood. Church members said a prayer.

"It didnt really affect us," Buster said. "We are uniquely set in here, a little country setting on our own. I think God made it that way. Were not really affected by the traffic or what surrounds us, other than the noise. And were OK with that. We just close our windows."

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