March 14, 2011  By David Ettinger

Sometimes when hearts are broken, people bring out their best. Such was the case on March 12-13 at First Baptist Orlando when the church raised an astounding $5.6 million in donations and pledges for the needy of Central Florida.

“We’ve had a stirring in our heart and spirit that God placed the church here for this time because of foreclosures, because of this new homelessness,” Senior Pastor David Uth said. “We believe we were put here by divine choice and we have got to make a difference.”

And make a difference is what the people of First Orlando did. “I am completely overwhelmed by what our people have done,” said Danny de Armas, Senior Associate Pastor at First Orlando. “I never expected this kind of number.”

The outpouring of love and generosity was a result of a March 6 story on the CBS news program 60 Minutes. “The story was about a ‘new’ kind of homelessness in Central Florida,” said Liz Butler, First Orlando’s Marketing/Communications Manager. “Families are living in motels because they lost their jobs, their homes to foreclosure.” The news report was seen by millions of viewers across the country. One of them was prominent Christian author and teacher Bruce Wilkinson who was already scheduled to speak at First Orlando during the March 12-13 weekend.

“He saw the story while he was working on his message,” Liz said. “When he saw the interview, he said, ‘Wow. We have to do something.’ He then called Pastor Uth and said, ‘Your people are going to bring in $1 million to help these needy families.’”

First Orlando has had a history of raising large sums of money following national and international disasters. The church raised hundreds of thousands of dollars following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Haiti earthquake of 2010. But even Pastor Uth was skeptical about raising $1 million in just one weekend.

“He said, ‘I don’t know if we can raise that much.’”

He would be the first to admit that he happily underestimated the giving spirit of First Orlando.

Speaking passionately and with tearful conviction, Wilkinson clearly laid out the dire need of the people of Central Florida and urged the people of First Orlando to contribute whatever they could — no contribution would be too small. The congregation opened up their wallets and checkbooks and came through in a huge way, with individual contributions ranging from one dollar to thousands of dollars to even one as a high as $1 million.

“We’ve got to help Orlando and let them know there is help,” Pastor Uth said. “We have to say to them God placed us here for you. This church started in 1871 and we believe God started this church here for a reason. I believe He knew this day was coming and He positioned us so we could make a difference.”

That “difference” still has Danny reeling, especially because it required a major sacrifice.

“What is really shocking about how much we gave is that our people are really struggling now,” Danny said. “Our people are hurting. I thought there was no way they could give $1 million for the homeless, let alone $5.6 million.”

According to Danny, it is one thing to hear about what happened, but completely another to have been there and seen it taking place.

“Seeing a miracle happen is an amazing thing,” he said. “As the donations and pledges were coming in, I felt as if I had a grandstand seat to see God at work in the hearts and minds of the people.”

The outpouring of giving has been a converging of events.

“We have a local missions task force who has been at work for some time,” Danny explained. “Their number one initiative was for us to deal with homelessness and the ‘new’ kind of homelessness — families in transition. It was a ripe field and Bruce plowed into that field. The fruit it produced has been amazing.”

First Orlando has had a long partnership with numerous Central Florida Christian organizations, just about all of whom will be receiving funds from the money raised over the miraculous weekend.

“These ministries are equipped to help with the issue of homelessness,” Danny said. “Some of those organizations include the Coalition for the Homeless, Orlando Rescue Mission, and Christian Service Center. All of them are really trying to help people who are facing the problems the 60 Minutes story highlighted.”

Besides distributing the money to those who can best get it to those in need, Danny also wants to see the people of First Orlando getting involved.

“We’re looking to deploy our people,” he said. “We have an army of them who want to serve and we’re going to give them a way to do it.”

For Pastor Uth, the enormity of the money raised was matched only by the outpouring of love demonstrated by the congregation.

“[Our people] are willing to sacrifice so that others may be blessed,” he said. “That’s really what First Baptist Orlando is all about. That’s how we want to be known and how we should be known. Our people were absolutely amazing, unbelievable.”