HOLIDAY — Mike Doughty and his crew of volunteers hustle around the church kitchen and into the sanctuary, serving up hot breakfasts to the dozens who have gathered there Sunday morning.
Made-to-order omelets, golden brown waffles, fruit and yogurt parfaits, and other savory breakfast dishes line the restaurant-style menu. Dozens of people of all ages sit in the back of the sanctuary at round tables with white cloths, enjoying hot food and friendly service — all part of the Mission Cafe.
The best part: It's all free.
"I listen to the word of God and I come do his will," said Millie Mercado, who volunteers Sunday mornings at the cafe. She was seated with her husband, Gilbert, and two of their grandchildren. Bryanna, 8, and Gabriella, 3, smiled broadly as they nibbled on their breakfast and welcomed a newcomer to the table.
Mercado said the church "may not have a lot of space or glory, but they have a lot of love and compassion that a lot of churches have forgotten about."
She recalls homeless people coming to the door of the church and getting food.
"Now everybody gets breakfast," she said.
The church itself has gone through various incarnations as the economy has declined. It was Methodist, then closed its doors in 2009 and reopened as Joining Hands Community Mission, a charity focused on helping the poor and homeless of Pasco County. Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa was so impressed by the work they've been doing, they merged earlier this month with Joining Hands.
Now, the modest church on U.S. 19 just north of Moog Road is called Metropolitan Ministries Pasco. In addition to the free Sunday breakfast, which draws between 40 and 80 people, the ministry offers a resource center, free camp for homeless children and substance abuse programs.
Many of the people who come for breakfast have been attending the church for years. Large families, elderly couples and people of all ages and backgrounds dine together. Some are new to the church and stay only for breakfast. Others stay for the religious service and music that begins after breakfast. The veterans fan out to the different tables trying to meet the newcomers and make them feel welcome. No one gets out of there without someone smiling at them, a warm hello, and often a hug.
Pastor Mary Ashcroft drives up from her St. Petersburg home to lead Sunday services, and one day a week to run the church resource center. Ashcroft, who works full-time in St. Petersburg as an accounting assistant, said that gives her a good opportunity to meet people in the community.
"The people here are awesome. They have a heart for reaching out to the community," she said. In many places, she added, it takes time to get volunteers involved and motivated, but at the Holiday church, it seemed to all come so quickly and naturally. Volunteers go door to door in the lower-income neighborhoods around the church. They invite people for breakfast and ask if they need anything. They offer transportation.
Ashcroft walks around to the tables on Sunday and meets people. She doesn't preach the word of God during breakfast, but they can stay for the service afterward if they want.
"We're just there for them if they want anything," she said.
The Rev. Dan Campbell, the church's ministry director, came up with the idea to have a pancake breakfast several months ago and asked Mike Doughty to help out. Doughty, a software engineer, took it to the next level.
"We needed to go above and beyond and make it worthwhile for people to come out," he said. He designed the menus with pictures and descriptions of the food, which look much like what you'd find at most restaurants — but with no prices.
A donation box sits in the church, but no one asks for money.
"It's been a big change in the faces coming for breakfast," said Maria Brandes, one of the volunteers who helps organize the program. She said the attitude of the volunteers is "come, serve, love."
"We see a lot of new faces coming in," said Bett Cracolici, of New Port Richey, who has been coming to the church with her husband, Tom, for more than 20 years. She said she loves seeing families with children gather around the table.
Sharon and Ray Brimm said they like to get acquainted with people at breakfast and enjoy watching the friendly volunteers meeting all the newcomers.
"They shake your hand and you just feel so welcome," she said.