ER HEART is pounding so hard Juanita Kretschmar is sure the people standing near her can hear it. The room is dark, except for the soft light emanating from wildlife and underwater nature scenes projected on three 12- by 16-foot video screens in the semicircular room. Some 50 business people sit in padded chairs watching the panoramic views and listening to the smooth baritone narration by Juanita’s husband, Merlin.
Juanita and Merlin have spent months planning this event in a Key West, Florida, mall. An affirming response from the community is vital to their success. The residents sacrificing a few hours of their time to attend the official opening of the area’s newest tourist attraction will determine whether the Kretschmars’ hard work and countless hours in prayer have been wasted.
If just one person stands up and walks out, the rest will follow, Juanita muses--a mental image that doesn't help to steady her nerves.
The program ultimately comes to an end, and after an endless moment—absolute silence gives way to a burst of resounding applause that fills the room.Juanita smiles and begins to breathe again.
Before their retirement in the summer of 1994, Merlin and Juanita Kretschmar were serving the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Greater New York Conference—Merlin as conference president for more than 16 years, and Juanita as director of the Community Services/Health Ministries Department. The couple speaks three languages—English, Spanish, and Portuguese—a side benefit of serving nine years as missionaries in Brazil from 1960 to 1969.
After more than 40 years of hectic schedules, full agendas, and a stress-filled lifestyle, many couples would be counting the days until they could leisurely tour the country seeing the sights, visiting their children and grandchildren, and just plain taking it easy. But the Kretschmars are not of that ilk.
Twelve years into retirement, Merlin and Juanita are busy running a strictly donation-based attraction for tourists called A Key Encounter, established in a downtown Key West mall. The attraction features a nature video program that unabashedly claims God created the earth and everything on it in six days; a planetarium projecting not only panoramic scenes of the universe but also professionally generated animation of the second coming of Jesus; a jungle walk; a creation “picture alley”; and a gift shop that sells, among other things, educational games, nature books, and stuffed toys—but nothing that subscribes to concepts contrary to a one-week divine Creation.
“We retired from our work at the conference,” Merlin says, “but we never plan to retire from doing God’s work.”
Juanita and Merlin set their sights on the Florida Keys more than a decade ago because they believed the Lord steered them in that direction. A letter addressed to the couple had arrived from the Florida Conference, asking if they would be interested in team pastoring two small churches in the Keys.
Although Merlin was eager for the warm climate change—his three exotic pet parrots, after all, would enjoy living outside year-round in their cages—Juanita was less than thrilled.
“The one place I had asked the Lord not to send us was Florida,” Juanita says, laughing. “But I told Him I would go anywhere He wanted me to go . . . and He has since given me a total heart transplant—turned it 180 degrees. I love it down here! I really love it.”
And there’s much to love.
Warm temperatures, sandy beaches, and flora and fauna native only to southern Florida, Cuba, and the Caribbean are draws for tourists and daily delights for residents. Key West’s Botanical Garden claims its own “tree of life,” technically named the lignum vitae, known for its heavy wood used in shipbuilding; as well as the chicle tree, employed, of course, in making chewing gum.
Located 92 miles north of Cuba and 150 miles southeast of Miami, the four-mile by two-mile island is home not only to some 26,000 residents but also a variety of wildlife. Dolphins, sea turtles, and a vast array of tropical fish and other sea life abound in the Keys’ coral reef. Slow moving, usually gentle manatees also on occasion swim into canals, marinas, and other waterways close to shore.
The exquisite beauty of the island as well as access to the million-plus tourists who visit Key West every year, thousands of them on the more than 500 cruise ships docking there annually, were what prompted the Kretschmars to pursue a vision they had held for many years—developing an Adventist tourist attraction.
“We wanted to do something special that would bring glory to God and would teach people about the six-day Creation and Jesus’ second coming,” Juanita says.
“We were team pastoring two small churches—the Marathon and Key West churches,” Merlin adds, “but we felt called to do more.
“When we first opened the attraction in 1996, only a handful of people would visit A Key Encounter in a day,” he says. “But tens of thousands visited in 2006, and already thousands more are coming this year compared to last.”
Embracing a Vision
Juanita came to the Keys already possessing much of the expertise needed to put together a video program. In the 1980s she and other staff of the Greater New York Conference expanded the Community Health Services to include television, launching a made-for-cable TV interview program that emphasized finding strength to cope with stress through God’s power, and later a daily satellite uplink called “The SDA Good News Network.” Through those media endeavors, Juanita soon learned how to edit television and video. These skills resurfaced as she began taking footage of Key West nature and wildlife.
The Kretschmars first planned to show the program in the Key West Adventist Church’s fellowship hall, but then Merlin suggested to Juanita, “Why not make it a semicircle projection like the Epcot Center has?”
“After much prayer, we decided to give it a try,” Juanita reflects. “But we had a lot of growing to do.”
Juanita funneled her energies into videotaping. “We filmed everything we could—the snakes and the birds, the alligators and the Key deer—all kinds of stuff. But we didn’t have anything under water,” she explains. “If you know anything about the Keys, you know this is a great snorkeling place; the only live coral reef in North America is here. Water is the attraction.”
What the Kretschmars describe as a providential conversation with Joseph Saladino, head elder of the Marathon Adventist Church and owner of a fishing boat charter, took care of that problem. A client of Saladino, Pat Ford, had worked his way through law school as a professional underwater photographer and through Saladino’s mediation, Ford offered to provide the Kretschmars with more than 20 hours of free underwater footage
The next issue was money
“On a very fixed retirement income, how do you raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to set up a tourist attraction?” Merlin asked
Apparently, it’s not easy.
After weeks of searching for a suitable location for the attraction, Merlin found an undeveloped upstairs area in a local mall for rent—a 3,000-square-foot space in a warehouse attached to the Clinton Square Market Mall in downtown Key West. The facility was built in 1852 and formerly used to store coal, but obviously was in need of a lot of work. A friend, Mary Lauda, offered the couple $100,000 to begin the renovation project and establish the ministry. With construction costs estimated at $50,000, the Kretschmars signed a 10-year contract for the space
“It was our signature on that contract,” Merlin says. “There was no one who could bail us out if things went bad
“One of our close friends told us, ‘You’re crazy. You should retire. Visit the grandkids, take it easy. If you go bankrupt, don’t come to me for help, because you will deserve everything you get.’ That wasn’t too encouraging,” Merlin says. “But we decided we would do this because it appeared to us to be what God wanted. ‘If we go bankrupt,’ we said, ‘then we go bankrupt.’”
This wasn’t a flippant statement. After discovering their initial contractor was less than forthright, an architect friend offered to design plans for the facility for free. He later recommended a reputable contractor, who estimated building costs at a staggering $250,000.
“We were feeling a little sick after we heard that,” Merlin says. “We prayed all night about it, but we finally decided we would go ahead with the project, even if it cost us everything we had. . . . We had made a commitment to God, and we would trust Him.”
That commitment entailed trusting God not only to provide funds to cover building costs but also the money needed to purchase equipment. With the essential state-of-the-art projectors attached to a price tag of $20,000, the Kretschmars were forced to “max-out” their credit card to make the purchase—not an easy decision for the very frugal couple.
“It was insane,” Juanita says, “but we did it.”.
The Money Comes In
Donations began to flow in from a variety of sources. A man who was not a member of the Adventist Church but one time had attended the Key West church showed up on the Kretschmars’ doorstep one Friday evening for small-group worship. He left behind a check for $7,000. Others sent donations saying they just wanted to help
“Looking back, we can’t tell you exactly how the money came in,” Juanita says, “but somehow it did.”
A Key Encounter was finally constructed, furnished with the needed equipment, and has been up and running as a government-recognized, nonprofit, tax-exempt organization with a seven-member operating board for more than 11 years, but the funding continues to be faith-based.
“We don’t charge a penny for entrance fees; we ask only for donations,” Juanita explains. “It costs about $17,000 a month to operate A Key Encounter, but we have never missed paying a bill.”
This is no small feat for a Christian-based program located in what many people term “a party town.”
“The Kretschmars are the most committed couple I’ve ever seen,” exclaims Karin Alderfer, head elder of the Key Largo church. “They have taken personal risks, financial risks, and God has truly blessed them and provided them with the means to carry on. . . . It’s really a faith ministry.”
A Memorial Planetarium
The Kretschmars acknowledge the Christian aspects of the facility up front. Visitors are told of the Creation and the Second Coming emphases before they enter the viewing rooms and are given an opportunity to choose not to watch the programs. But very few opt out.
The planetarium program—dubbed “The Ultimate Encounter”—was created more than three years ago in memory of the Kretschmars’ son George, formerly a pastor of the Beltsville, Maryland, church, who died of cancer in 2004 at age 38. A memorial plaque to George hangs on a wall outside the planetarium theater.
“Visitors to the planetarium seem to empathize with us, to understand why we did this, when they learn about George’s death,” Juanita notes, “especially because he was a pastor.”
Dean Scott of Southern Adventist University created the program’s closing animation of the Second Coming. George’s daughter, Kaiya, now 15, conarrates the planetarium script with her grandfather Merlin.
Although A Key Encounter is an independent ministry, Florida Conference executive secretary Carmen Rodriguez affirms the program.
“This Christ-centered ministry is making a difference not only in the Key West community but also around the world,” Rodriguez says. “Every person who visits the planetarium leaves with the awareness of who the Creator of the universe is. . . . The Florida Conference fully supports the concept of creationism on which it’s been established.”
Can’t Do It Alone
The Kretschmars concede the Encounter couldn’t operate without the help of others, mostly volunteers. Some couples, such as Betti and Robert “Knick” Knickerbocker of Laurel, Maryland, have returned each winter for 10 years to help run the gift shop, introduce the video programs, and entice mall shoppers to check out A Key Encounter. George and Judy Halleron, retirees from North Carolina, have also spent several winters assisting with the ministry. Others are one-time helpers of maybe two or three weeks’ duration. Eugene Hamlin, who holds a bachelor’s degree in communication and formerly wrote training manuals for Washington’s U.S. Forest Service, is the Encounter’s only continuous full-time employee, a position he’s held for 10 years.“I’m pretty much the day-to-day operations manager here,” Eugene explains. “Literally hundreds of people stream through this mall on a given day, especially when ships are in port. I spend much of my time downstairs with a bird on my arm meeting people and inviting them to come up and experience what’s offered here.”
The loud calls and bright colors of six exotic birds, including a blue-and-gold macaw named Jack, a cockatoo called Peaches, and toucans Sunshine and Hemmingway, draw otherwise reticent visitors to A Key Encounter. Sitting on perches in front of the facility’s entrance, the parrots make friends with people of all ages, encouraging them to come in to see what A Key Encounter is all about.
“The birds are such a benefit to the ministry,” Eugene says. “They not only attract people, but people love to interact with them and let us put them on their arms for pictures.
“Once an autistic girl from Ireland, who was about 12 or 13, and her mother came through the mall,” he says. “The girl was in a wheelchair. She was constantly moving—her arms were moving, her head was moving—but when she saw Peaches, she stopped and just looked at the bird. She allowed me to take the bird close to her, and she stroked Peaches. Then she reached out and took hold of my hand. I just let her interact with me and the bird as long as she wanted to. The mother was amazed. . . . They later came upstairs and into the theater.”
Eugene believes A Key Encounter also raises awareness of Adventists in the community, even though a church affiliation is not publicized by the ministry.
“A local paper printed an article about us, and because of that article many more people in the area became aware of our existence and that we are Adventists,” Eugene explains. “More and more people are pouring in here, and we’re not even doing any advertising.”
“One man came and said he wanted to get a copy of the DVD about final events that he heard we give away to planetarium viewers,” Knick says. “The man said he wanted to show the DVD to the members of his Baptist church here in Key West.”
Before retirement Knick served as an administrative officer of the National Institutes of Health. His wife, Betti, was a secretary at Washington Adventist Hospital’s emergency room. They learned about A Key Encounter while visiting the Key West Adventist Church 11 years ago.
“We couldn’t take the pressure we used to, and this sounded like fun,” Betti says. “That summer we contacted the Kretschmars, and that’s how it all started.”
First-time volunteer and retired teacher Shirley Rohde says even though much enjoyment is involved in the program, it’s also a lot of hard work.
“We put in long hours, and it’s intense—meeting people, introducing programs, running the gift shop,” she says. “We do a little of everything.
“But I’m thrilled to be working here with a program that uses the natural world to teach about God,” Shirley adds. “It’s a mission field right here at home in the United States.”
She notes, “What is neat about this experience is meeting and talking with people one-on-one. For some people that’s easier to do than preaching to the masses.”
Betti says the negative comments they receive are few, although some confess the programs, for them, “are over the top spiritually.”
“Usually they tell us they enjoyed the programs, and many even ask us to pray for them,” Betti says.
Providing housing for all the volunteers was a challenge. What Juanita and Merlin call the Praise House, however, a five-bedroom home located just down the road from where the Kretschmars live, took care of the housing dilemma.Purchased eight years ago as an investment by a supporter of the Encounter ministry, Praise House provides the temporary lodging needed by the many volunteers who come and go throughout the years. The Kretschmars also hold weekly staff meetings and small-group Bible studies and worship meetings in the ample-sized, airy living room. A one-room apartment in the basement is the semipermanent home for Eugene.
Single and with no family in the region, Eugene says he is dedicating his life to this ministry right now because he’s convinced of its evangelism potential.
“Statistical studies indicate that a very high percentage of people hate their jobs,” Eugene notes. “They go [to work] just for the paycheck and to punch that clock. But this particular experience I am having allows me to fulfill the commission of Jesus to make disciples of men and women and to let them know about Jesus’ second coming. Day in and day out, I speak to literally hundreds of people . . . and have spiritual conversations and share their griefs with them.”
Eugene tells the story of a man and a woman--both bald--who stepped off the elevator one day and walked over to look at the birds. "I discovered the woman had cancer," he said. "She had been given radiation therapy and two courses of chemotherapy. Her hair fell out, and she became bald. In solidarity, her husband shaved his head. And so here's this husband and wife who had bonded together through this very difficult experience."
Eugene prayed with the couple, offered them a copy of the Power to Cope magazine—one of the many pieces of literature given away free to visitors—and talked to them about the love of Jesus.
“What more important or more fulfilling work could I be doing?” he asked.
A Lighthouse in a Dark Place
A Key Encounter has slowly evolved during the past 12 years, and evidences of faith abound—a financially stable foundation, a witnessing tool that is reaching thousands of people from numerous regions of the world, and dedicated, praying leaders and volunteers. This “lighthouse in a dark place,” as described by one visitor, was not established by the fainthearted, but by people wholeheartedly committed to the Lord and His mission to reach the world with the gospel message.
During one particular desolate day in the early months of struggle and doubt, when the Kretschmars realized, perhaps for the first time, the full gravity of their financial situation and how tenuous their circumstances were, Juanita says, “It just hit me that Merlin had jumped off the cliff with me. For better or worse, we had given everything to this endeavor, and we were leaning entirely on Jesus.”
“Did I ever doubt we were doing the right thing?” Merlin reflects. “Many times. But I have no doubts now. . . . God has blessed us, and He’s blessing this ministry.
"All we can do is praise Him." The Kretschmars can be contacted at: PrayingKs@aol.com.
Sandra Blackmer is an assistant editor of the Adventist Review.