City of Orlando Wants to Build a Soccer Stadium, But a Tiny Church Stands In the Way

The city of Orlando claims it can seize land to build a stadium, but a higher power may object. (Mark Matcho for ESPN)
The city of Orlando claims it can seize land to build a stadium, but a higher power may object. (Mark Matcho for ESPN)

A few weeks ago, as the first stirrings of World Cup mania rolled through this country, the city of Orlando unveiled plans for its own paean to the beautiful game: a sparkling new stadium for a new MLS team. The Orlando City Soccer Club’s $110 million facility will contain 20,000 seats, dozens of luxury suites and a massive lion statue that rotates to face the pitch during matches. The city is ready to break ground, but there’s one thing standing in its way: a tiny church.

Unstoppable stadium, meet immovable altar.

Orlando has acquired 19 of the 20 parcels it needs to begin construction. The final plot belongs to Faith Deliverance Temple, a nondenominational church of about 100 members. After the city failed to reach an agreement to buy it, Orlando filed an eminent domain petition to seize the property. The land, Orlando’s leaders argue, will serve a public good — so they can use their public powers to take it.

The church sits on a dreary block in Parramore, a poor, predominantly black neighborhood sandwiched between the Citrus Bowl and the Amway Center (home of the Magic). On a recent muggy Thursday night, the building’s windows emit a soft glow. As rain batters the ceiling, parishioners trickle in. One of the members, Lily Harris, stands up to speak. “The enemy attacks at the weakest point,” she says. “The battle is not ours — the battle is God’s.” As she continues, her message sharpens. “I hope everyone’s been praying for a just judge.” The swaying congregation responds with murmurs of assent.

Catherine Williams, the widow of the original pastor, sits alone in a pew, hands clasped. Williams, 76, moved to Florida as a young woman, following her husband from Atlanta. They bounced between temporary worship spaces, dragging their flock with them, until they found this plot of land. Day laborers built the church in the 1990s, accepting chicken dinners and pound cakes as payment. “When God opened this door for us, it was heaven on earth,” she says, her eyes tearing up. Across the street, drunks sprawl in front of peeling storefronts, bottles scattered like fallen leaves. This community is dying, Williams says, and the church is its lifeline — but the city doesn’t care. “They just want to throw us out.”

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SOURCE: ESPN The Magazine
Mina Kimes

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