When Pastor Sammy O'Neill started his ministry in August 2009, he had a very devoted following.
The members had a reason to be. Of the 12 people who were in the original congregation of the Ministerio International La Roca nondenominational church, 10 members were his own family members. Only two were from outside of the family.
O'Neill, who hails from Puerto Rico, and his wife, Merary, who is from the Dominican Republic, started to grow their ministry and eventually it became 40 members. After three years, the number is at 80.
They meet at the Real Life Church on Waters Avenue where they share the building with the Real Life congregation, meeting at 1 p.m. Sunday. It is an all-Spanish congregation. They are part of a partnership with Real Life to build a domed church on Waters Avenue that can be used as an emergency shelter and a shared church.
O'Neill has high hopes despite the humble beginnings.
"We are a small church and we didn't really have anywhere to go," O'Neill said. "We prayed and prayed and we found Real Life and it made a good fit. We are blessed to have what we have."
O'Neill got his start when he came to the United States at the age of 15. He played shortstop at King High School and thought he might have a career in baseball, but he suffered torn rotator cuff in a motorcycle accident and that ended his baseball aspirations. He was involved in the church, but also became involved in hip-hop and rap music.
"They almost kicked me out of the church," O'Neill said. "I started to think I was worshipping Satan and not God. I decided to give God a chance."
He never gave up his music career. He still records religious rap records to spread his religious message, and he found a home at the City Life Church in Tampa as a youth minister. He still loves his motorcycles and his rap music and knows that those aren't things necessarily identified with a minister, but he thinks it is all for the best.
"The Lord made me who I am and that is who I have to be," O'Neill said. "God moved me from one place to another, and he placed me here. I have positive messages and don't have any bad influences. There are alternatives to the typical church."
He doesn't listen to anyone who says he shouldn't be rapping about religion.
"Too many people try to tell you what not to do instead of helping you do what you should do," O'Neill said. "I have big plans. I want to grow our youth ministry. People know I am real and that's the important thing. I am not phony and the kids understand that. People can see right through a phony. I am real and they respect me for that."
Ministerio Internacional La Roca has services at the Real Life Church at 6821 W. Waters Ave. in Tampa.