HYDE PARK NORTH — Wearing an unusually long blue apron to cover his 6-foot-9 frame, Jonathan Turner cooks sausages and "Big John famous cheese grits" in the kitchen of Hyde Park
Every Sunday morning, more than 100 homeless folks arrive here for what may be their only meal of the day.
At the end of his volunteer shift, Turner rides the bus back to his home — a broken down 1992 Mazda Protege LX, parked outside a vacant house off N Nebraska Avenue.
The car got flooded in 2004 during Hurricane Frances, and Turner, who is homeless and without a steady income, has not been able to fix it.
"That's where he is going to when he says that he is going home," said pastoral staff assistant Paggi Gromp. "It's his car."
A mixed bag
Turner didn't always live this way.
He said he was born an orphan in Aschaffenburg, Germany, in 1954. Soon after, he was adopted by an Air Force family from Louisiana that was stationed in the European country. He grew up a military brat, living in Spain, Italy and Morocco. His father was a colonel.
"I've been brought up in a kind of silver spoon atmosphere," Turner said.
Eventually, the family returned to the United States and moved to Oklahoma, where Turner entered the broadcasting business while taking college courses. He had his own show at the school radio station and did commercials. Also, he worked as a DJ in various clubs.
Turner said he had a comfortable life until he moved to Florida in 1989, because he wanted to live by the water.
"I had money then," Turner said. "When you have money, you go anywhere."
He got a job as radio host at WRXB-AM 1590, a St. Pete Beach station, but left soon after because the paychecks weren't big enough, he said.
After hopping from one unsatisfying job to another, he settled as a 24-hour security supervisor at Greater Ministries International in 1994, a congregation that ran a major pyramid investment scheme. The program, called Faith Promises, vowed to double the money that members invested in 12 months.
Turner, 53, was among more than 18,000 people who bought into the scheme and invested a total of $448-million during the 1990s.
Greater Ministries was busted in 1998, leaving its members drained of everything they owned.
"I lost everything," said Turner. "It was a dumb move, a stupid move, and now I am suffering for it."
He had invested his inheritance of more than $70,000 in the program. He has been homeless ever since.
He said he can't hold a steady job because he has degenerative disc disease, a condition that gradually wears on the spine and gets worse with age.
Turner also has a criminal record that includes aggravated assault, resisting an officer, petit theft and possession of drug paraphernalia. He said he was innocent of several of the charges and that he has never abused drugs.
He said the charges resulted from living on the streets and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Big, gentle man
Turner started volunteering at Hyde Park United Methodist four years ago, although he says cooking on Sundays for the homeless community and on Wednesdays for the congregation is rough on his back.
"I do this because of the fulfillment of it," Turner said. "It keeps me busy and keeps my mind off of my struggle."
He earns money by being the occasional handyman, cutting trees or painting houses.
Turner has been fighting for disability benefits since 2004 and hopes to get back on his feet as soon as the case is settled.
Gromp called Turner "bigger than life."
Aside from cooking, he also hands out donated clothes to the homeless and gives them advice on finding food and shelter.
"He is a very gentle man, he is a big guy, but he is a gentle man," Gromp said.
Turner takes pride in volunteering, or "outreaching," as he calls it.
According to Pastor Bernard Lieving, Turner is always the first to arrive at the church on Sundays to get the stoves started.
"He does a great work," Lieving said.
Lieving remembers one Sunday morning when rain poured and no volunteers made it to the church — except Turner.
"That's a servant heart," said director of equipping ministries Justin La Rosa. "He is consistent, he is reliable, and those are the qualities that make him extraordinary in light of the circumstance he is in."
Turner, who has a Catholic background but now considers himself a nondenominational Christian, says he prays, keeps a positive attitude at all times and is hopeful about his future.
"If I didn't have faith, I'd be dead. I'd have killed myself long time ago," he said. "One day I'll be blessed, somehow, and I will be out of this.
"That's the way I look at it."
Alessandra Da Pra can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3434.