The poor who gather every Sunday come for more than a free meal. They have become a community. Men and women of all shapes and colors share a camaraderie and fellowship that extends beyond neighborhood boundaries and church walls. Some dress up for the occasion, waiting in line well before the meal starts.
"Once you get here, you see that what you're doing really matters," said Lucy Avila of First Baptist Church of Dade City, which started the Love One Another program two years ago.
The program started by feeding about a dozen people. Now volunteers from various churches and organizations prepare as many as 130 meals each week. They also give away clothing, toiletries and occasional treats like homemade cookies. Birthday cake and cards are available the first Sunday for anyone celebrating a birthday that month.
Depending on availability, other donated items are available for people to take home: bread, fresh fruits and vegetables, "Uncrustable" peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
The afternoon also includes a short, inspirational message, though Avila said they don't bog people down with a long sermon — just enough to make an impact.
"We feed them spiritually and physically," she said.
The program is held at the Pasco County Community Services and Nutrition Center, across the street from Pasco Elementary School, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. every Sunday
Each week a different group sponsors, prepares and serves the meal. Groups have included the East Pasco Habitat for Humanity, Sunrise Rotary, individual families, and a number of local churches.
"We had done so many things that they don't usually get and they really appreciate it," said Karen Patterson of St. Mary's Episcopal Church. Her group made Cuban chicken and yellow rice one recent Sunday.
Volunteers from St. Rita's Catholic Church now come on a regular basis — every third Sunday — which takes some of the pressure off Avila, who usually has to guide volunteers each week who have never been there.
Avila works as an assistant to Pastor Ed Kuffel at the First Baptist Church of Dade City, and he had asked her to organize a program similar to Love Your Neighbor, a Christian ministry in Brooksville that provides meals, nonperishable food, clothing and other necessities to anyone in need.
So she did her research, starting making lots of phone calls and meeting people in the community.
Finding a place to serve the meals was a challenge: Some locations wanted to charge hundreds of dollars for the use of their facilities, Avila said.
Then she connected with the county's Nutrition Center, which offered their space for free.
"It just felt so right," Avila said. "I was like, praise the Lord. I was crying."
Along the way, other people in the community stepped forward to pitch in. Pasco Middle School, for example, now provides its leftover food after Avila made a connection with the food services manager.
"We are very thankful," Avila said of how everything seemed to come together.
About a dozen people filled the kitchen last Sunday, getting ready to prepare roast beef with gravy, mashed potatoes and green beans.
Sunday's volunteers were from Dade City United Methodist Church's Truth Seekers Sunday School, as well as members of the church's youth group who found other jobs throughout the day.
"We saw the need and we answered the call," said Betty Crane, 73, who organized the Sunday School volunteer group. She wore a hat and an apron, taking a few minutes out of her preparations.
She said her group took two months to prepare for Sunday's meal, including collecting clothing, toiletries, making cookies and organizing volunteers.
Volunteers put fliers on trash bins and outside the police station, but people usually find out about the program through word of mouth.
Sheila Singleton and "Indian Joe" said they don't miss a Sunday. "We're regulars," he said, proudly introducing other friends who come as well.
Linda Green was standing behind a table, offering the free travel-sized soaps, shampoos and other toiletries to those who passed by her. She started out two years ago seeing a social worker through Pasco County and met Avila. Now she serves as a volunteer.
"I live where most of these people come from: Tommytown," Green said.
Avila is trying to convince a few of the people who come to form a choir, because they often sing during the Sunday afternoon meals. And if she has her way, the program will continue to grow as she pulls in the help of the community, regardless of religion, denomination or beliefs.
"As far as I'm concerned there's one God," Avila said. "And we're all serving the one true God."