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Thursday, Sep 21, 2017
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Grassroots church network may welcome RNC protesters

TAMPA - Ministering to the homeless and lost might come in handy for a local grassroots network of churches when some 15,000 protesters, many without lodging and wandering aimlessly around town, show up for the Republican National Convention in August. "They are our people," said John Dengler, co-founder of the Underground Network of Churches, based in Tampa. "I want to let them know we want to support them." About a month ago, Occupy the RNC, a protest website, said out-of-town protesters coming to Tampa should contact the network if they are in need of shelter or a meal. There would be no charge. That came as news to Dengler, but he didn't shy away from offering his home on Lake Avenue, already a commune of sorts. He said a few in the network – there are 50 microchurches that minster to the needy in the Tampa area under the network umbrella – may follow suit.
Fearing a glut of requests for housing, Dengler contacted Resist the RNC and had the suggestion removed, he said. The Occupy the RNC website said organizers are creating a housing board "for out-of-town rebels to seek and find housing during the RNC protests and for local Tampa Bay residents to offer revolutionary hospitality. Yes, sharing is revolutionary." Some of the network's microchurches are no more than a living room in a house, or a dorm lobby at a university, he said. Congregations may consist of two or three people, or a dozen or more. They are focused on social ills such as racism, homelessness and poverty, Dengler said. When the Republican National Convention comes to town Aug. 27 to 30, tens of thousands of party honchos and political junkies are expected. Hotel rooms are at a premium, and that could mean no room at the inn for the thousands of out-of-town protesters, many of whom are protesting Republican politics, corporate greed, war and other social injustices. In short: Dengler's kind of people. "I have a house," he said. "I have a yard. I have a roof. What's mine is available to other people." The network opened its doors to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers when they recently marched in the Tampa area. He said he hasn't spoken to other microchurch members about offering space for protesters but he plans to. The network began five years ago when several Hillsborough Community College and University of South Florida students graduated and wanted to continue their worship, but not in an established church. "Fifty of us were floating," he said. So the Underground Network of Churches, with seven house-based churches, was born. The network's website says: "Our name is a tribute to the underground church of history, characterized by sacrificial faith in the face of danger, oppression and even death. We honor that memory and hope to be those kinds of churches in our cities. "Our passion is for the poor and the lost." Brandon Alonso oversees Middle Ground, a microchurch in East Tampa. He said he has hosted people in need, but wasn't sure about protesters at the GOP convention. "I'd have to talk to my wife about that first," he said.

kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760

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