Long Island Ministry Thrives For 25 years By Helping Those in Need
By Pat Shea
It’s 7:30 PM on a Saturday night in East Northport, New York. This small harbor town, located on the north shore of Long Island, just about an hour outside of Manhattan, is known more for its seafood than as a destination for top-of-the-line Christian entertainment and worship ministry. Yet, just off one of the town’s major streets, Larkfield Road, in a strip mall that includes a printer, a paint store, a veterinarian, and a butcher, there’s a storefront ministry known as Samantha’s Li’l Bit of Heaven, or “Heaven” for short. Despite its humble appearance, over 200,000 thousand people (and counting) have come through its doors in the past 25 years to worship God, fellowship with others, and enjoy faith-filled and family-friendly entertainment.
The parking lot fills up quickly as a steady stream of people make their way from their cars to the ministry’s front door. Some people, like Bill Lober, 86, known as “Heaven’s Doorman” have come to volunteer. Lober opens the door for each guest with a grand flourish, giving the first indication to those who enter that something truly special happens here.
The excitement is contagious amongst the crowd. A well-known, local Christian band, Crossfire, is playing this evening and people have already begun to line up at the door.
Welcome to God’s Place
As guests enter Heaven, they are generally surprised and delighted by the warm and welcoming atmosphere. Cozy tables fill the room and on the the walls are inspirational paintings and photos. At the front of the room is a stage; at the back of the room is a coffee counter filled with a wide array of mouthwatering desserts purchased from a local bakery. Past the counter is a hallway that leads to a prayer room for those wishing a break from the crowds to give or receive prayer, and a fellowship room for conversation during the worship or entertainment.
Linda Racaniello, a volunteer at Heaven for the past 18 years, coordinates guest reservations for the evening at the greeter station with the style and precision of an air traffic controller. “I love it here,” explained Racaniello with a smile. “There is a peace and serenity here. I really look forward to coming all week long just so I can greet people at the door.”
Across the room at the coffee counter, Annie Seaver, another volunteer for almost eleven years, is busy setting out a selection of cakes, pies, pastries and cookies for guests. “This place is like a second home to me,” stated Seaver. “I love it here! This is really God’s place. You can feel it.”
Crossfire’s lead singer, Barbara Grace, signals the rest of the band members to set up their instruments and then head to the fellowship room. Lober grandly opens the door and an elegant, dark haired woman enters, dressed in a shimmering gown of black and gold. She is instantly surrounded by a crowd of people all vying for her attention. It’s Samantha Tetro, the Samantha, who founded the ministry. As Tetro makes her way through the room, she welcomes and thanks each guest for coming, gives regular attendees a hug or a kind word and greets volunteers with a big smile. She then heads into the fellowship room where members of the band and volunteers have gathered in a circle to pray before the evening’s events get underway.
As the prayer ends, the lights are lowered and Tetro steps on stage, to welcome attendees and more importantly, give praise to God and share the testimony of how Li’l Bit of Heaven came to be.
On December 28, 1992, a young girl, Katherine “Katie” Beers, was kidnapped on Long Island, just two days before her tenth birthday. For days Long Islanders were riveted to their televisions. Among those watching the drama unfold was Tetro herself, who prayed constantly for Katie’s safety and wellbeing.
On January 13, 1993, 17 days after Katie Beers was abducted, John Esposito, 44, a local contractor with a criminal history, and Katie’s neighbor, confessed to kidnapping the young girl. Esposito led police to a hidden underground concrete bunker in his home, covered with a 200-pound concrete trap door. Shimmying down a dark chute into an area no bigger than a coffin, detectives found Katie alive, chained to a wall, with only a television and a mattress. As detectives carried Katie from her underground prison into daylight, local television crews were on hand to capture the first pictures of her freedom.
“You have to remember,” explained Tetro, “this was before the internet, before social media. Everyone was glued to their televisions worried where this young girl was and terrified for her. I was watching the television when they actually found her, and it was at that moment I understood what real evil was,” stated Tetro. “I couldn’t stop crying, and then in pure anguish and despair, I cried out to God, ‘Why can’t there be a place just for good people?’ Within seconds I clearly heard two words, ‘That’s heaven.’ The next words out of my mouth were, ‘Why can’t there be a little bit of heaven here on earth?’ And that’s where the name came from,” explained Tetro.
Writing Down the Vision
As the seed to create a place of hope began to take root, Tetro began keeping a record of all she believed would be needed to create a Li’l Bit of Heaven here on earth.
“The Lord says, ‘Write your vision down on tablets and in His appointed time, He will make it happen,’” explained Tetro. “So, I wrote down I wanted a place for all ages to come to so that no one would ever be left home alone; and a place that welcomed people of all backgrounds and faiths, so we could come together and celebrate our differences and stop being divided by them. I also wanted to have music, many different types, because there are many kinds of people, but I wanted it to be music that could bring hope and healing. I also started thinking this place should offer workshops and classes that would help people live a more victorious life of faith. And … then I began thinking about chocolate,” laughed Tetro.
As the vision for Li’l Bit of Heaven continued to grow, Tetro showed her list to a friend who asked Tetro, “So when are you going to do this?” Tetro recalls laughing at the time and replying, “Oh I’m not going to do this. I’m just keeping this information until God sends the real person who will run the ministry.” Tetro’s friend just smiled and said to Tetro, “Well, this sounds a lot like God to me, because when you can’t, He can.” The friend suggested Tetro get together with people who were strong in their faith walk and pray over the list. Tetro did as suggested, and within weeks, every item on the list was provided, from the tables, to chairs, to even a volunteer to make the coffee.
In April 1994, Li’l Bit of Heaven Ministries opened its doors just down the block from its present-day location. With no money to advertise, Tetro was convinced only her parents would be attending. Much to her surprise, over 60 people attended opening night, filling the room beyond capacity for that evening, and for many nights after. Within five years, the ministry moved to its present location on Larkfield Road within the strip mall in order accommodate more people. “We call that first location, ‘Little Li’l Bit of Heaven,’” stated Tetro who now displays the original awning over the current location’s coffee counter so she’ll never forget what God created out of nothing.
Music, Ministry and More
Throughout the years, as Tetro once hoped, Heaven has opened its doors to people of all ages, ethnicities, faiths and backgrounds. “During the week it’s always busy. And every Friday and Saturday night, Heaven provides Christian-based entertainment. When it comes to music, we feature almost every style from Contemporary Christian to Jazz to Blues to Gospel to Latin and even Rockabilly. We have artists visit from all over the world,” explained Tetro. “I choose performers that bring a message through their music. I continually ask myself, ‘Does this music bring hope and healing? Does it inspire and bring the listener closer to God?’”
Lead singer for Crossfire, Barbara Grace, explains as a performer, playing at Heaven is truly a special event. “We’ve been performing here for the past 18 years, and even though we play throughout the Tri-State area, this is our home away from home. There are other coffee houses on Long Island, but this is a special place — it was the pioneer. There are no other places quite like Heaven, and New York desperately needs this place,” stated Grace.
As a non-profit 501c, Heaven relies solely on donations to keep its doors open. The events during the week are offered for free, but on the weekend, the ministry requests a donation of $15. “From the donations we receive, we tithe, because we believe it’s ‘blessed to be a blessing’ to others, and we donate to 20 other ministries,” stated Tetro.
How One Little Girl Changed Everything
The ministry will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2019, and Katie Beers is now a grown woman in her 30’s, married with children of her own and living a quiet life in rural Pennsylvania. She has never been to Heaven, that Tetro is aware of, and is more than likely unaware of how many lives have been touched and changed by a ministry that grew out of the horror she endured.
“God did the impossible and made something out of nothing here,” stated Tetro. “Thousands of lives have been blessed by this ministry and I can only pray that one day I might be able to meet Katie Beers in person to let her know that all of this, all the many people who have come through this door, all the friendships that have been formed, all the blessings that have been received and all the lives that have been blessed by this ministry stem from her story.
To contact Samantha’s Li’l Bit of Heaven call 631-262-1212 or visit their website at www.Samanthalilbitofheaven.org or stop by at 287 Larkfield Road, East Northport NY 11731.