Heath Watson, lead pastor of the new church Grace Church of Dunedin, preaches recently in the auditorium of Dunedin High School, where he was expelled as a teenager.
DUNEDIN – Heath Watson is convinced that God has a sense of humor.
Why else would Watson be leading a new church in the auditorium of Dunedin High School, the very school where he caused so much havoc as a teenager?
“I got expelled from that school twice. Flat-out expelled,” Watson said. “In the early ’90s, Dunedin High School was a rough place. It wasn’t just me. It was half the school.”
A lot has changed since his teenage years when Watson was involved with drugs and crime and, at the age of 16, sentenced to a maximum-security prison for stealing from a drug dealer.
Now the 36-year-oldster is the pastor of Grace Church of Dunedin, a new congregation of about 150, planted in a city that hasn’t seen a new church in a while. Watson also is working toward the establishment of the Greater Dunedin Community Foundation, designed to help families and children in need and promote generational healing in the community. He said he was pleased to return to do some good in the community where he grew up.
“I got in tons of trouble in that area, was like a menace to that society. So it would be nice to go back and do the opposite,” he said.
When he looks back on his life, Watson has to admit that getting locked up in jail for two years might have saved his life. Before that, his path was getting increasingly violent, seeped in drugs, money and partying. In fact, one of his good friends was shot and killed.
“You can’t do what I was doing and not get in trouble, not with just the law,” he said. “Getting arrested, even though I didn’t know it, was a salvation in a sense … I really do think it was God saving me from myself.”
At the time, Watson knew that something was wrong. He had everything teenagers coveted: freedom from the supervision of his divorced parents, money to burn and popularity. When he wanted something, he usually got it.
But Watson was miserable. He didn’t have any sense of purpose or joy, he said. His actions were self-destructive on purpose.
“Things just came crashing down on my 16-year-old mind and soul. And I didn’t want to live anymore, honestly, I just didn’t see the point of living,” he said. “I thought about death a lot. It was stupid, little things that kept me going.”
He had already been arrested multiple times as a juvenile. When the latest onslaught of charges piled on his head in 1993, he almost escaped them entirely, he said.
“Right at the end, they got my co-defendant to say that it was us,” Watson explained. “In hindsight, God knew exactly what he was doing.”
For the charge of armed robbery, he was sentenced to four years. Watson said he wasn’t a typical inmate.
“I grew up in a different type of home than most people in max security,” he said. “I was an avid reader of the Bible. I knew it backwards and forwards. I just didn’t believe it. At all. I was very skeptical toward God and Christianity, but especially Christians.”
Prison provided Watson a chance to read the Scriptures “away from my jadedness towards Christianity.” He began to realize that the message of the Bible and the life of Christ were exactly the answers those in prison sought. His perspective changed.
“What I began to see was just how broken people are,” he said. “It’s a sad place; it’s a rough place. It’s a place where people are broken, and they need hope. I think that’s where for me things really began to change. When I got out, that just never stopped. It just led me to do what I’m doing now.”
Watson got out of prison two years early, at age 18. His high school class hadn’t even graduated yet, and Watson, his GED already obtained behind bars, went to work at Countryside Christian Center. The senior pastor knew him well and had kept tabs on him while he was in prison. Within eight months, Watson was a youth pastor, despite never having gone to a seminary.
“As a lead pastor now, I would never hire someone out of prison and make them work with my kids,” Watson admitted. “It’s just insane.”
Watson wanted to be a part of a smaller church. He ended up at Grace Christian Fellowship in Largo, where he stayed for 12 years as it slowly grew into its own sanctuary on Ridge Road.
Watson always wanted to plant a brand new church. At the beginning of 2011, the leadership began serious discussions about a church plant.
Grace Church of Dunedin began meeting in February, with some members of the Grace Christian Fellowship and some new members from the northern part of the county. The church is a younger, contemporary congregation that Watson describes as “reverent casual.”
“The church has grown and it’s doing very well,” he said. “There are people who are coming to church who haven’t been in church before,
Part of the church’s mission is to serve and renew the greater Dunedin area, he explained. The Greater Dunedin Community Foundation is designed to address that aim, with an inclusive organization meant to enfold those in the community who wouldn’t otherwise align themselves with the mission of a church.
“I think for our church it’s exciting because it enables us to do what we want to do in a much bigger way,” Watson said. “We will very easily partner with anybody else to serve and do different things in our community.”
The foundation will fundraise on behalf of successful, existing organizations in the community, such as Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church’s ministry, Isaiah’s Inn, and the Homeless Emergency Project, Watson said. Organizers, who are still working on the planning stages of the foundation, also want to directly help children in the community, providing food for those who won’t normally get enough over the weekend, for example.
“A lot of our focus is going to be on schools and the kids and families,” Watson explained. “If you want to stabilize a community, you got to start with the next generation coming up and teach them well.”
Watson said conversations with a handful of his high school teachers who are still at Dunedin High School have been amusing and also a relief. They all remember him from his menace days and didn’t quite believe that he was pastoring a church initially.
Watson is the first to point to himself as an example of redemption.
“Don’t write anybody off,” he advised. “Even the people you think will never change, change.”
Watson and his wife of 15 years, Andrea, live with their three daughters, ages 3 to 9, in Palm Harbor.