While getting a tattoo during his most recent vacation to Panama City Beach, Florida, Rick Wilson said he felt a spiritual stirring and connection to the area.
It was more than just the nice weather, though. It was a calling to do something new, something many people would think was crazy.
But Wilson, who started The Alley ministry in Seymour in 2010, has never cared what people think of his methods of helping people battle their addictions, feeding the hungry and most importantly, connecting them to God.
That’s why he has announced he’s moving in a year’s time from his hometown of Seymour to the Sunshine State, where he plans to start a satellite ministry in Panama City Beach and expand the mission of The Alley.
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And like The Alley, it will be anything but traditional, Wilson said. As a rock and country musician and recovering drug addict, Wilson said he is able to reach many people on a different level.
“I’m a unique package in that I’m a musician and a minister, and some people try to separate those,” he said. “For me, those two things work together.”
With his passion for music, God and reaching out to those who don’t feel comfortable “going to church,” Wilson said he wants to minister to people where they are.
“I’ve always been intrigued with a bar ministry,” he said. “And the more I’ve been thinking and praying about it, the Lord has been revealing to me the best way to get down there and start a bar ministry or a bar church is to get into the bar scene.”
There are more than 100 bars and nightclubs in the waterfront town and popular vacation destination of Panama City Beach, Wilson said.
“That’s a lot of opportunity that I would have to first just go in and get to know people,” he said. “What my goal is, at least at this point, is to find one of those bars while I’m playing to have a Sunday morning church service in the bar.”
He plans to set up a base of operations first, likely in a small church, in Panama City Beach.
“When I go down in June for vacation, I’m going to put some feelers out,” he said.
The southern locale is not new to Wilson, as he has a long history with the area.
“My family started going to Panama City Beach, Florida, when I was a kid every year for vacation,” he said. “My wife and my kids and I still go every year. Last year, we went twice.”
Wilson and his wife, Teresa, have five young children they have adopted.
It was their last visit that made him realize there was something pulling at him to stay.
“I just felt this really strong connection, like I didn’t want to leave, but it was stronger than normal,” he said. “And I began to wonder, ‘What does that mean?'”
Part of the decision was a result of facing retirement, Wilson said. He turns 62 in December.
“I wanted to start drawing my Social Security,” he said. “When I started to entertain the thought of that, then it really started weighing down on me that maybe I’m supposed to retire.”
Those who know Wilson, however, know he doesn’t want to slow down.
“I’m not really the type to retire,” he said. “When you start thinking about that, it’s very overwhelming. You wonder, ‘Is this the Lord’s will? Is this what I’m wanting to do?'”
But Wilson said he lives his life trusting God, and it has become clear to him what God wants is for The Alley to expand its ministry.
The “satellite” ministry, he said, will reach out to those in Panama City Beach with addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex and other vices.
“While I was getting a couple of tattoos last summer, I thought, ‘Wow! These streets could really use somebody that cares about folks,'” he said. “I realized the best way would be to infiltrate the bar system by simply going down there and playing.”
The warm weather draws a lot of transients who are homeless and running from themselves or bad situations, Wilson said.
With the success of The Alley in Seymour, Wilson said it’s time to start over again.
“I’m a person who needs a blank slate every chapter of my life,” he said. “This ministry is flourishing. No, we’re not the biggest church in town. When I say flourishing, I don’t mean in numbers, but we’re flourishing in what we’re accomplishing.”
That includes feeding up to 100 people a day in The Alley Kitchen, helping people overcome addictions and find their way to God.
“We’re seeing the biggest attendance on Friday nights that we’ve ever seen,” he said.
Although it will be challenging at 682 miles away, Wilson said he will continue to oversee The Alley in Seymour by driving the 10 hours back once a month for three or four days to lead Celebrate Recovery sessions, board meetings, Friday night worship services and other activities, including the annual Thousand Ten Project.
He also plans to use technology to stay connected with the congregation by “Skyping” weekly messages live and connecting the two ministries through Facebook.
Wilson knows, however, members of the church will have to step up in order to continue fulfilling its mission.
A lay minister leader has been chosen and will be named at a later date, Wilson said. That person, along with a lay ministry team, will take on leadership roles to keep the church thriving.
When The Alley members first heard Wilson’s plans, he said they were “scared to death.”
But a lot of things aren’t going to change, and that’s the beauty of it, he said.
He hopes to see the community continue to support The Alley as it always has.
“This community has always been wonderful at supporting, financially, the ministry we have here because we couldn’t keep it going on our own,” he said. “These are folks that are on their last leg, lost all hope and they come to The Alley because this is a safe place for them.”