Eric R. Hausler
“When he saw the crowds, [Jesus] had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’” (Matt. 9:36–38).
Crowds? Crowds, we have here in Naples, Florida. But laborers? Laborers, we need.
For about four months every year, the population of our fair city triples—or even quadruples. Snowbirds from the north, vacationers from around the world, seasonal workers to staff the hospitality industry, and hopeful investors descend on Naples for winter and part of the spring. The influx is obvious everywhere you turn: in the traffic, parking lots, restaurants, checkout lines, and even churches. This past Sunday (as I pen this article), Christ the King Presbyterian Church saw nearly a fourfold increase in our attendance from just a few months ago.
On a gorgeous midwestern summer day in 2013, Donna and I said goodbye, after fifteen years, to a wonderful church, a sweet life, and a charming old farm house in Ada, Michigan, to head south to plant an Orthodox Presbyterian church in Naples, along the west coast of Florida and about as far south as one can go in Florida along the Gulf of Mexico. We arrived with no “core group” to welcome us, just a few local contacts and the white fields (and white sandy beaches) of Naples.
With generous support from the Presbytery of the South and the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, along with the presbytery’s call to serve as an evangelist in this growing city, we set our hand to the plow and began spreading the word about a new church beginning in southeast Naples, a part of town where there was no Reformed church.
This target zone was not what typically comes to mind when people think of Naples. Our area has a diverse blend of neighborhoods, from low-income apartment complexes, mobile home parks, and Habitat for Humanity projects, to lovely gated communities of homes and condominiums. East Naples also has a wide variety of businesses and services, including the county jail and courthouse, a tarmac full of Lear jets at the Naples Airport, several exotic car dealerships, and even a homeless shelter and an addiction recovery program headquarters.
People have moved to Naples from literally all over the world. Most have come from the midwestern and northeastern states, but in our neighborhood alone I’ve met people from Australia, Bahamas, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Cuba, Germany, Haiti, Holland, India, Jamaica, Poland, Russia, and the United Kingdom. On any given evening out on the famous Naples Pier, you can hear more than a half dozen languages being spoken by tourists. Once they come for a visit and leave with sand in their shoes, many decide they want to return and make Naples their home.
Four months after our arrival in Naples, with faith in the promises of God, we signed a contract on a small conference room in the local Holiday Inn Express to serve as our first meeting place. Just before our first worship service, the hotel informed us that they had double-booked the room and it would not be available. To accommodate us, they offered the hotel’s pool deck for two Sundays! When the conference room became available, it served as our meeting place for over a year. In early 2015, the Lord provided a 3,000-square-foot facility on a busy corner in a plaza that includes a Honduran restaurant, a Cuban salon, a Dominican-Puerto Rican barber shop, a Caribbean money transfer office, a Haitian used car dealer, and Jet’s Pizza.
The location has turned out to be a wonderful place for us as we continue to proclaim the gospel and establish a growing church in this fascinating city. One young mother visiting recently from Atlanta marveled with tears in her eyes at the beautiful diversity found in our gathering that morning—all glory to God for bringing the nations to us!
By the grace of God, the Lord Jesus gradually built this church, and, in April 2018, it was organized as a new Orthodox Presbyterian congregation with two ruling elders and one deacon to serve alongside me as the organizing pastor in this unique and exciting ministry setting that we now call home.
In the coming year, we hope to break ground on the first phase of a building project on a five-acre parcel strategically located along a traffic corridor booming with the growth of new housing developments. Our prayer is that from the midst of a growing year-round population and numerous seasonal visitors, the Lord would be pleased to use us to reap a plentiful harvest for the kingdom of God from amongst the crowds of Naples.
From a purely secular viewpoint, Naples is very attractive. It is famous for its beautiful white sandy beaches, boasting seventeen miles of shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico in Collier County. This past summer, WalletHub ranked Naples as the top beach town out of 146 cities in America along an oceanfront.
Another reason Naples attracts so many people is that it has a very low crime rate, especially compared to the large urban cities in the state of Florida. Naples ranks safer than 80 percent of cities located in Florida. Because tourism is the flagship of our economy, local law enforcement agencies diligently work day and night to keep our residents and tourists safe.
The crowds also flock here for a full range of outdoor activities that can be enjoyed year-round: bike trails, golf courses, boating, fishing, and exploring nature preserves filled with tropical birds and wildlife. And Naples has been named “Pickleball Capital of the World,” with its “statehouse” as the East Naples Community Park.
Finally, our sunsets are some of the most stunning in the world. Every evening, crowds gather at the iconic Naples Pier and all along our coastline to watch the sun as it seems to fall into the Gulf of Mexico.
This combination of climate, beauty, and safety caused Naples residents’ sense of well-being to rank number one for the fourth year in a row in the 2019 Gallup National Health Index. “Residents have the lowest levels of stress in the country and eat healthy on a daily basis,” the report read.
With all these material blessings, however, there is a great spiritual poverty among the diverse crowds who visit this tropical paradise or who call Southwest Florida home. From the Word of God and from conversations with people from all walks of life, we know that all of the things that make Naples an attractive place can also easily become idols of the heart. When a family falls apart, tragedy strikes close to home, or a cherished idol is seen to be powerless to bring comfort in the valley of the shadow of death, the Lord provides an open door for the hope of the gospel. When people recognize the spiritual poverty around them and begin to hunger and thirst for a better way, then the true value of Christ can be seen. How we pray that he might make known through us the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus! (See Ephesians 2:7.)
The Lord has placed before us an opportunity, like the fields white for harvest in John 4:35. John Calvin wrote about the promises of the Lord Jesus concerning a field of souls and fruitful harvests, saying:
In order to stimulate his disciples the more powerfully to apply with diligence to their work, he declares that the harvest is abundant: and hence it follows, that their labor will not be fruitless, but that they will find, in abundance, opportunities of employment, and means of usefulness.
Amen! May it be so here!
As the crowds come here to Naples from all over the world, and as our population continues to grow, please join us in praying that the Lord of the harvest would strengthen our church and raise up more laborers to come to live among us—not just to enjoy our white sandy beaches, but to join us in reaping in the midst of the white fields of souls who need to hear the gospel.
The author is an OPC pastor. New Horizons, March 2020.