Keeping the faith: Sinkhole invades North Naples church but not parishioners' spirits

David Albers/Staff
Congregants pray together during services for Faith Community Church of the Nazarene as they are held in the office space of another church in North Naples on Sunday, June 10, 2012. The church was forced to hold services outdoors and afterwards in another church's office space nearby after suspected sinkholes caused extensive structural damage to the church building. Church officials are now battling their insurance company to repair the damage and return to their building.

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David Albers/Staff Congregants pray together during services for Faith Community Church of the Nazarene as they are held in the office space of another church in North Naples on Sunday, June 10, 2012. The church was forced to hold services outdoors and afterwards in another church's office space nearby after suspected sinkholes caused extensive structural damage to the church building. Church officials are now battling their insurance company to repair the damage and return to their building.

— NORTH NAPLES — Facing 30 churchgoers inside a strip mall storefront, Roy Shuck asked the people sitting before him to bow their heads and join hands.

The Faith Community Church of the Nazarene pastor prayed Sunday as he always did to his eclectic flock — the founding members, a Hispanic family, a woman accompanied by her Chihuahua. Shuck praised them for their strength, for their Christian foundation, even as their empty church down the street crumbled.

"I'm glad you came today," Shuck said, his comforting Missouri accent echoing through the small room. "You're doing the right thing coming here. The best days of our church are ahead of us."

These are trying times for Faith Community Church's 70-plus members. The congregation's building, a 12-year-old structure off Immokalee Road near Oakes Boulevard, is falling apart. Cracks snake up the sanctuary's back walls. Tile floors are slanted and chipped. Doors no longer close with ease.

Shuck chalks it up to a sinkhole, but the insurance company, State Farm, disagrees and has denied the claim. The two sides are locked in a legal battle.

On May 31, county building officials inspected the place — the cracks snaking up sanctuary walls, the chipped tile floors, the shifted walls and slanted floors — and deemed it unsafe for use.

"It was something I knew was inevitable, but I didn't think it would happen that soon," Shuck said.

Yet in the church's most uncertain days, the congregation and community has risen up. Five clergymen called in recent weeks after hearing of the church's predicament, each offering space in their church. Shuck chose an arrangement with Destiny Church Naples, agreeing to use their meeting room off Immokalee Road, sandwiched between a beauty academy and pool supply shop, for the next six months.

On Sunday, a small crew showed up there for 10 a.m. services. They shuttled sound and projection equipment, opening the morning with a string of four songs. Shuck held court at the front of the room, a yellow microphone in his hand. When Shuck sermonized from the Gospel of Luke, members responded with "amens."

"We've had to find this new place, and it's been a challenge, but everyone's been enthusiastic and united," churchgoer Craig Sohn said.

A faulty building couldn't dampen the spirits of Betty McGill, who sat beside fellow founding member Marie Sapp on Sunday. The two longtime Naples residents, ever optimistic, joked before the service about moving to Naples "before the gators and dirt got here."

"We're just happy campers," McGill said. "Usually it's a little bigger crowd, but with all the moving it's been a bit smaller."

With a temporary home secured, Shuck's attention returns to the lawsuit with State Farm. The church sued the insurer in November after its sinkhole claim was denied. A State Farm spokeswoman declined to discuss the specifics of the case, but she noted in a statement that the insurer uses a certified engineer "to perform a full and thorough subsurface investigation to determine if sinkhole activity is impacting the structure."

Unless the case is settled, Shuck expects the legal wrangling to continue for at least a year. A loss in court would leave the church with a useless building and $540,000 in remaining debt. A new structure is virtually out of the question.

"To come up with that kind of cash would be very, very difficult," Shuck said. "It'd be a miracle of God."

But until the court process wraps up, the congregation will continue to meet every Sunday, sharing their faith.

As McGill said: "It means the world to me that we're even here."

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