Still-spry Seffner pastor, 84, has no retirement plans
SEFFNER - J. W. Carr bounds up the stairs, 37 steps in all, spry and purposeful. He does this every day, 35 times a day, at his church's fellowship hall. It's a routine he's had for decades. "Keeps me in shape," he says. "I think the secret is pretty simple: When you get of a certain age, keep moving. Stop and you may never get it going again." Carr, 84, is the pastor of Faith Baptist, the church he founded in 1959 when Seffner was nothing more than a spit on a map with cow pastures and dirt-covered roads. Like his daily exercise, the church is his lifeline. Even after losing his bride, Gloria, just a few months short of their 60th anniversary, he could not quit.Most Americans start plotting their retirement years before they're able to actually do it. Not Carr. He considers his good health a gift, and he intends to use it for God as long as he can. I'm not going anywhere, he assures his small but loyal congregation. They don't have to go far to find him: He lives on Faithway Drive, the same street as the church, just two blocks down the road. Carr's calling didn't come until he was well into adulthood. He wasn't even a church-going man. But after providence led him to devote his life to ministry, he has been a faithful servant, using his personal experience to teach the Bible in plain-speak. "I've been coming here since I was 8 years old," says Rita Godfrey, 56, of Riverview. "Brother Carr is always there for you, no questions asked. And everything I've learned about the Lord, I've learned from him. He's a special man." In a world driven by technology, Carr does it without a church website, without Facebook, without sermons accentuated by Power Point presentations. He's old-school and proud of it. "Aw, I wouldn't even know how to turn on a computer," he says with a laugh. Jesse William Carr – he's called everything from J.W. to Jesse to Bill -- never thought he'd be a minister, much less a pastor. He's one of those rare native sons, born and raised in Tampa. When he was 5, his parents split up. He bounced around, living with assorted relatives. Church wasn't part of the equation. Although he doesn't recommend it, Carr left school at age 16 ("Yes, I know, I was underage.") to join the Merchant Marines. The war was under way, and he wanted to see the world and serve his country. After making two trips in a tanker across the Pacific, he came home on leave and married his sweetheart, Gloria. He was 17; she was 19. "Something else I wouldn't recommend," he says. "But then again, it worked out pretty good for us." He signed up for the Navy, a stint that ended less than two years after the war was over. He and Gloria settled into building a life together. Early on, doctors told them she wasn't able to have children because she was born with a hole in her heart. They adopted their son and, three years later, experienced their first miracle, Carr says, when Gloria got pregnant and gave birth to a healthy daughter. With his good people skills, Carr landed two jobs in sales. These were the golden years, with Americans enjoying World War II prosperity. The Carrs moved into a three-bedroom, two-bath ranch house on the Temple Terrace Golf Course. He had a car allowance, healthy commission checks and a standing weekend golf date with friends. Then he went to a see a man about settling some property issues. At the end of their business meeting, he looked at Carr and asked: "Are you a Christian?" When Carr told him no, the man pressed on: "Aren't you concerned about where you will spend eternity?" Carr hadn't thought much about it. He wasn't even interested in their conversation. He was just being polite with the fellow. As he left their meeting, though, something was different. Another one of those miracles that Carr has come to know. "I was never the same again," he says. "Being born again is like the wind. You can't see it. You can just tell it's happened by the effect it has on you. And that's what happened to me." He couldn't get enough of the Bible. He read it voraciously, soaking up Scriptures like a sponge. He went to Tampa's Skid Row on his day off to preach to alcoholics and addicts living on the streets. On Sundays he went to the jails, bringing a message of hope to the incarcerated. In 12 years of marriage, he and Gloria had never gone to church. Now it was their Sunday ritual. Carr began feeling he wasn't doing enough. He started talking about trusting in the Lord and quitting his job, so he would be free to serve on a fulltime basis. Gloria wasn't too pleased about the whole thing. She even left him for a while, saying maybe it was time to get a divorce. In the 11th hour, she reconsidered. She had made a commitment, even if her man had gone plumb crazy. "God wasn't dealing with her like he was dealing with me," he recalls. "Sometimes these things happen on a different timetable." He thought of the apostles and the faith they had to do the Lord's work without any guarantee of food or shelter. Heeding a call takes sacrifice. He quit his job and became a modern-day disciple. He needed new territory that didn't have places of worship. A fellow evangelist took him over to Apollo Beach, an up-and-coming place where new homes were being built along the water. Too highfalutin for me, Carr thought. On their way back to Temple Terrace, his friend took another route, winding down Highway 60 through Brandon, with its one filling station, an IGA market, a family café, a Scroggins clothing store and not much else. They turned left on a narrow thoroughfare called Parsons Road, and that's when Carr saw the handmade sign: 1-acre Lots for Sale. $250 down, $25 a month. "There wasn't but 10 houses between here and 60," he recalls. "I knew this was the place. It felt like the Lord led me right to this spot." Carr bought two acres. Then he did what disciples do: He walked the dusty country roads, knocked on doors, introduced himself to folks. To reach longer distances, a friend gave him an old Ford sedan with 135,000 miles on it. Carr rented space to hold services at the Brandon Civic Club. Then he took another step in faith, putting down $6 on an announcement in the local newspaper inviting people to come to the "Organizational Services of Faith Baptist Church." On June 7, 1959, 29 people showed up for the first service. Seventeen came forward when he asked them to accept the Lord as their savior. "That's when I knew I had made the right decision," Carr says. "This is how Jesus intended to use me." Tampa tire king Olin Mott first saw Carr with his sleeves hiked up, working on a concrete building in the early 1960s that would become Faith Baptist's first sanctuary. The building was next door to a friend's home. Mott stopped his car and ambled over to introduce himself. The two men chatted and immediately hit it off. That was the beginning of a long friendship that continues to this day. "He didn't preach to me. I'm not a Baptist and I wouldn't have cared for that," recalls Mott, 91. "I found him to be an interesting fellow, very likeable. It was clear he didn't have much, but was willing to work hard to take care of his family." Mott, a Pearl Harbor survivor, lives by words from a speech he heard Winston Churchill give during the dark days of war: We make our lives by what we give. He felt compelled to help out Carr, so he told him if he ever needed tires or some work done on his vehicle, stop by the shop. Carr was overwhelmed by Mott's kindness. "He tried to pay at first, because he didn't want any handout. That was important to me," Mott says. What Mott didn't know was just how important that gesture was to the newly established pastor. He didn't take a salary for many years, nor did he preach about tithing. He just left a wooden box with a lock on it at the front of the church, and trusted that members would give what they could. Some weeks the coins and singles totaled $8; others, maybe $50. Only twice in those early years was the box empty. "The Lord always provided," Carr says. He found an old wooden two-bedroom farmhouse down the road for $1,100 and paid $600 to have it moved nearby. It was creaky and drafty, and made the Carrs' home in Temple Terrace look like a palace. To supplement the family income, he ran a meat market for a few years on the side, raised calves for food and tended vegetables in a garden. Gloria sewed clothes for the children and shopped at thrift stores. A local doctor took care of the family for free. There's a Scripture in 2 Timothy that Carr took to heart: Do the work of an evangelist. He hung a wall-sized map of Seffner and Brandon, dividing neighborhoods and farmlands by segments. He and a few church volunteers personally visited every home in the area, and then marked the outcome of that visit with a color-coded push pin. White for members. Yellow for members of other churches. Red for prospects not yet visited. Green for prospects visited once. Black for future homes to visit. Purple for those who came in on their own. Every pin corresponded with a handwritten note card, detailing the person's name, address and personal information. They grew the church that way, with shoe leather and patience. The first sanctuary, built by their own hands, served the congregation until they outgrew it. In 1971, they added on another one, to accommodate their expanding numbers. At its peak, Faith Baptist had as many as 150 members on its rolls. Iola Modlin of Brandon was there from the beginning. She and her late husband, along with their 3-year-old daughter, were at the first organizational meeting. "What we were looking for was a Bible-teaching church," Modlin says. "Brother Carr didn't have a lot of credentials, but he preached right down the line with sound doctrine. That's why we stayed. There's not a lot of frou-frou here. But it's solid and it's dependable and it's family." It's true, Carr says. "The only education I got was the school of hard knocks," he says, chuckling. Today, maybe 70 people are on the rolls at Faith Baptist. In the summer, attendance is sparse. The choir is made up of five or six people, singing along to a pianist. It's hard to attract young families, because they don't have a children's program or a youth ministry. One deacon jokes that some days, "we could meet in a phone booth." The members who remain are fiercely loyal and supportive. They're proud they don't have a mortgage, can pay their pastor a small salary and support several missionaries in the field. When congregants run into trouble through no fault of their own, they find the funds to help ease the burden. Dave Cerney and his wife, Annette, members since 1971, pass a lot of churches driving in from their Plant City home. Here, they feel right at home as soon as they walk through the doors. They love the Fourth of July fish fry, the Bible study gatherings and the fellowship found in small congregations. They know their pastor will always answer his cell phone and drop everything to make a hospital visit if they need him. "He's a good man. He's been able to incorporate his own life lessons in his preaching and make them real to us," Cerney says. And when Carr realizes he's made a mistake, he will own up to it. "He tells us, 'I realize in my previous preaching I was very sincere … but I was sincerely wrong.' That honesty means a lot, in my opinion." Gloria's damaged heart finally gave out seven years ago. Carr sorely misses the woman who reluctantly joined his journey, then embraced it as the church's spiritual mother and Sunday school teacher. Instead of dwelling on the sadness, though, he counts his blessings for what remains of their love: their two grown children, two grandchildren and six great-grandkids. He is grateful for his steadfast associate pastor, for his congregation and friends like Mott. It has been a good life. Not the one that he had imagined, but so much better. "From a human standpoint, it just did not make sense what I did. It was impossible. It was foolish," Carr says. "But it shows plainly what the power of God can do, if only you listen."
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