The Bunnell pastor provides free resources for those in need with the aid of the community and volunteers
James Bellino could still be making six figures.
The pastor of Church on the Rock, at 2200 N. State St., Bunnell, spent 20 years in the corporate world and never thought he would have a full-time ministry.
“It’s real easy to write a check,” Bellino said. “It’s different to have a one-on-one interactions with people you’d never interact with in your life. I never thought I’d be a pastor.”
Those people being, primarily, the homeless.
Church on the Rock, with no paid staff and fewer than 100 congregants, has been offering air conditioning, cold drinks, hot showers and laundry machines to the homeless from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Wednesday and Saturday and a hot meal every Thursday evening. There are cots inside for people who have nowhere safe to go.
“The purpose is to show value to a human being,” Bellino said. “Jesus always met the needs of those that were dispossessed. He touched the lepers. We have a responsibility to help them. Not just to give them things, but to help them where they are.”
He found he had a heart for this kind of help when, after the housing market crash, he and his brother Tom bought and renovated around 40 housing units — 15 or so in Florida, between Palm Coast and Daytona — and made them low-income rentals.
“I was probably the worst landlord ever,” Bellino said. “I don’t know how many thousands of dollars I wrote off.”
A conduit for aid
The church does not act as a soup kitchen on Thursdays; the volunteers sit down and eat with the people who show up. Unlike some churches, they do not require people to listen to preaching before they can eat. Those who want to stay for the Gospels after they have eaten can do so.
"He has a heart for helping people, even in the midst of threats of being shut down."
-- JEARLYN DENNIE, pastor of Jearlyn Ministries and Reverse Church
“It’s not about shoving religion down people’s throats,” Bellino said. “That’s not what Jesus did.”
Everyone who comes to Church on the Rock, he said, feels this spirit of giving and community solidarity. People from “six or eight” other churches — Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-Day Saints — help serve at those Thursday dinners, and homeless friends of the church brought canned food and supplies of their own to the Thanksgiving dinner.
“I get offerings of a crumpled dollar bill, of 27 cents” for donations, Bellino said. “That means more than hundreds of dollars, because it’s all they have.”
Bellino and his wife Deborah, also a pastor at the church, let other groups use the church to host their own activities; most churches are vacant more often than they’re in use, Bellino said, which is not a good investment. So Church on the Rock is also the site of the Angels for the Elderly adult daycare Monday through Friday and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings Saturday nights, among other things.
“I want us to be a conduit to help people get the services they need,” Bellino said.
This is why, if Church on the Rock cannot provide someone what they need, they will funnel people to other places and organizations that can help.
Sheltering Tree, the cold-weather shelter formerly based out of the First United Methodist Church in Bunnell, was one such place, before its closure. Around the same time, Church on the Rock was encountering issues of its own. When an encampment of homeless people existed behind the Flagler County Public Library’s Palm Coast branch, the Church on the Rock used a rented bus to bring some of them back and forth to the church to take advantage of the resources it offered.
While no members of the public have ever voiced complaints about what they do, Bellino said, this in particular led to some “heated debate” with certain city officials and county commissioners.
“I told them, ‘You can threaten us; we’re not gonna stop,’” he said. His church is not a 501(c)(3) like Sheltering Tree was, and is held to different standards.
Besides aiding the homeless, Church on the Rock does outreach for those in prison as far away as Marion and Volusia Counties and runs the Good News Club after-school program for students at Bunnell Elementary School.
The Bellinos believe you have to give people a safe place to come before you can talk to them about their next steps. They have helped many of their visitors find new jobs and places to live with recommendations and by giving them a place to sleep.
While Bellino does not give out cash, he said it can be an even bigger help to give someone living out of their car a safe place to park overnight. The church is non-denominational and has no deep pockets to reach into, but word of mouth has brought them enough food, supplies and funding to make it month by month.
“People provide,” Bellino said. “God provides.”
He admitted the task they have taken on can be difficult and is not for people looking simply to feel good about themselves.
“Not everybody’s called to do this,” he said. “You need to do it out of the right heart.”
Cleaning a bathroom or shower that has been used by a queue of people who have been living outside comes with an unforgettable smell.
“If Jesus can clean the feet of all his Apostles in a row,” Bellino said, “I can clean a bathroom after it’s been fouled.”
For the love of Christ
Years ago, he said, he would have walked by these people if he had seen them on the street. Bellino does not miss that time of his life, and has no need for the six figures he was making.
“When my kids say, ‘Dad, we like you better now,’ then you know there’s a difference,” he said.
At the core of Church on the Rock’s mission is the idea that God did not create anyone less valuable than any other, and that those who have less should be shown that they are not stuck, stupid or worthless.
“We want to show them the love of Christ in a real concrete way,” Bellino said. “That’s how you start to change a community.”