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More precious than gold, sharing moments captured at mission

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image Keeping careful records is one good way to stretch resources at The Lord’s Lighthouse mission. Photo Melody Jameson

The mission, not yet four years old, now is providing about 13,000 services and baskets each year from its current headquarters on the campus of St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Ruskin.

By Melody Jameson

RUSKIN – Hungry, in search of almost anything to eat, he got to the mission on a bicycle, his only transportation.

Fed, given spare food gladly, he also was invited to church services. He returned and soon became a welcomed regular, presented with a Bible of his own.  Then, suddenly, he was gone.

Backtracking revealed he was attacked by a loose dog while riding the bike, suffered severe dog bites on his feet and legs, landed in a hospital.  There, visitors from the mission found him, encouraged him, awaited his discharge.

He recovered, but soon had to ask if the mission could help him with medication. He needed $2.  Contrary to mission policy, the cash was given with a request for the purchase receipt.  Soon he produced the receipt.  The discounted prescription cost had been only half the amount.   Gratefully, he returned the unused dollar.

Such moments are not uncommon in the missionary field.  These fleeting reflections of unaffected human to human consideration ennoble both givers and receivers, as each gives as well as receives.  The moments can show up at any time, demonstrated gleefully on the smooth innocent face of a child invited to fill his first new backpack as he prepares for school where his native tongue is not the teaching language.   Or in the words tumbling joyfully from a young Hispanic mother who’s just learned she has an advocate who can navigate mysterious governmental systems – and is, blessedly, bi-lingual, too.  Or, in the wordless expression of gratitude offered by a grizzled homeless Anglo in need of a shower and clean clothing, more accustomed to being rousted than to humane respect.  

Actually, moments like these occur frequently at The Lord’s Lighthouse Ministry initiated in 2009 by Bill and Dora Cruz in what many would consider their retirement years.  Shifting their “golden years” to a back burner,  the Cruzes and several of their children have been endeavoring to take up some slack in South Hillsborough County since government went into recessionary contraction, reducing services formerly provided in a  neighborhood center, closing local offices, concentrating remaining efforts in Tampa, 40 miles distant.   

The stats tell part of the story, says Doreen Cruz Riviera, eldest of the six Cruz offspring and office manager handling intake Monday through Wednesday at the Lighthouse headquarters on Ruskin’s St. John the Divine Episcopal Church campus.   During its first eight months of existence in 2009, a total of 2,797 services were delivered, she notes.  That number nearly quadrupled during the first full year of operation in 2010 when 11,534 services and food baskets were provided and bumped up again in 2011 when the number of services and baskets totaled 12, 560. 

Both the figures and the daily experiences at the mission substantiate that the culturally, socially, economically diverse South County hosts both considerable wealth and hunger-inducing poverty side by side on a continuing basis.

The Lighthouse founders are most familiar with the latter.  William Cruz, Sr., grew up in Puerto Rico, one of 10 children.  “And there were many times when we were hungry, went hungry,” he recalls.  It made an early – and lasting - impression on him.

Raised in a section of PR cultivated by the Presbyterian Church, young Bill Cruz set his sights on a career in the clergy, feeling specifically called to missionary work.  He also reasoned, he relates, that his mate would have to be a special individual.  He found Dora Ayala singing in a church choir. They were married in 1952, he was ordained in ’59 and together they began ministering careers in PR that eventually would bring them to the U.S., first to New Jersey and then to Florida. 

While he served as pastor of New Jersey churches, Dora undertook the multiple roles of pastor’s wife, mother to their growing family and career employee in the vast Federal Aviation Agency.  Their focus increasingly became outreach to farm worker communities. This dedication would link them to South Hillsborough in 1983 and with a substantial Hispanic population imported for farm work , existing mostly on agricultural wages. Some were trying to put down roots as year around residents, others were still migratory, following crop harvests to the north before returning at season end, and most led subsistence lives unable to get real economic and social traction in the larger society. 

Bill and Dora Cruz established Good Samaritan Mission on a prominent corner near the Baptist Church in Balm.   Relying on faith, donations and a constant willingness to talk, spreading the word about their mission and its needs, the Cruz family built Good Samaritan into a center offering multiple layers of help to the farm worker community – physical, educational, emotional, spiritual, 

A quarter century later, with Dora in her late 70s and Bill pushing 80, they “retired,” leaving Good Samaritan in the hands of their son, Bill Cruz, Jr.

But that real slow down was not yet to be.  Looking back on 2008, the elder Cruz recalls that Sharon Van Loan, local Realtor and a member of the Episcopal church congregation, began pointing to the many needs of the Hispanic population clustered around Ruskin.  Before long, Father Tracy Wilder, St. John’s rector, was engaging in conversations on the subject.  And, on Palm Sunday, 2009, the first service in Spanish was conducted in St. John’s sanctuary under auspices of newly organized The Lord’s Lighthouse.

Today, LL is an incorporated not-for-profit as well as a designated 501 © 3 under the federal IRS code, overseen by a nine-member board of directors headed by the senior Cruz and for which Van Loan serves as vice president.  It’s day-to-day operations are kept humming by part-time  volunteer staff  including daughters, Laura , Eva and Mayda, each contributing specific skills.  Another invaluable volunteer is food finder Paul Doucette, whom the Cruzescall “a great blessing.” 

The location may have changed, but the mission is the same, the Cruzes assert, as are the needs and the constant scramble to fill them.  At the present time, the Lighthouse menu of services includes a food pantry, clothing for every member of the family, crisis intervention, advocacy on many fronts, translation help, assistance with Medicaid, food stamps or other benefits, emergency support and, of course, spiritual counseling.   It all depends – some days shakily - on donated goods and contributed time. 

This week, Dora wondered aloud about food items to fill Thanksgiving baskets as expected help from a Tampa organization had fallen through and Lighthouse pantry shelves were nearly empty.  The void also was emphasized by the mission’s “wish list” in its current newsletter.  Among the nine items: any non-perishable foods, dry pinto beans, rice, baby food, cereals, cooking oil and Maseca flour.  Any sizes of diapers and some 8.5 by 11 copier paper also would be gratefully received, it was made clear.

And then, in the next breath, she’s talking about the “miracles,” large and small, that punctuate their lives.  She cites the time absolutely nothing was left in the pantry by noon when someone called suggesting an immediate $150 grocery shopping trip and another $50 food donation was made before the day’s end.  Then there was the lady who wanted to know if she could get a bath at the mission and confessed she needed underwear. Just such a package had been donated. “Doreen reached under her desk – she’s got a small warehouse under there – and pulled out fresh underwear.” Dora remembers.

Looking ahead, the Cruzes speak mostly of expanded hours and additional services and enhanced abilities to help the poor at the Lighthouse.   At 84, Bill says he not yet thinking about dying, adding that “I’ve been instructed by my Lord to give in spite of other considerations.”   His wife of 60 years agrees, with the simple declaration that “there’s such a joy in sharing.” 

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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