ST. PETERSBURG — Megaphone in hand, the pastor walked in his worn, dirt-caked sneakers to the center of the longest free-food line he had ever seen.
Wiping beads of sweat from his brow, he watched as one person after another shuffled to the back of the line.
He wondered if there would be enough food. No one ever had been turned away before.
"You will all leave here with food," Pastor Joe Mitsch vowed over a megaphone.
Then, he bowed his head and prayed.
For Mitsch, 50, salvation exists in helping those who cannot help themselves.
By the end of that day, more than 1,900 people had come and gone. No one left empty-handed.
Organizers expected 500 people to turn up at 2997 Tyrone Blvd., across the street from the Tyrone Square Mall. But that number more than doubled before the first box of food was given away. Three extra trucks of food were rerouted to the church.
"When the need is so great, how can you not help?" Mitsch said. "How can you just stop?"
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Sometimes, help is a gallon of milk and a box of cereal. Sometimes, it's a new pair of shoes. Sometimes, it's just a hug.
At Beaming Hope Church, Mitsch tries to cover it all.
Since its inception three years ago, the church has instituted several programs focused on helping the needy, funded almost exclusively by donations. Two years ago, the church opened the only free clothing store in the Tampa Bay area. Nine months ago, it started the food pantry.
The pantry opens its doors every Monday night, serving about 500 families weekly.
On a recent Monday night, the line stretched around the church building, with more than 300 slowly making their way inside.
"This matters," said Joe Buono, 48, of St. Petersburg. "It matters to these people right here. It's a blessing to be a blessing."
Up to 30 volunteers hand out prescription discount cards to those waiting in line. And Sheila King, 45, makes sure nobody leaves without a hug. Often, visitors break down and cry in her arms.
On Thursdays and Sundays, anyone in need of shoes or clothes can come to the church's free clothing store. About 50 families typically show up every week, organizers said.
Twice a month, church volunteers climb in a van and venture into an impoverished area of Pinellas County, offering food, giveaways, free haircuts and prayer.
"Every chance we get, we're out there, we're doing whatever we can do," said Lieska Mitsch, the pastor's wife. "Why do it every six months when you can do it every week? Why do it every week when you can do something every few days?"
Nobody is getting rich doing this work.
The 3-year-old church, which boasts about 150 members, often struggles to make ends meet. A five-member board oversees the church's finances.
"I have faith," Mitsch said. "God works things out."
Sometimes, parishioners take money out of their own pockets to subsidize events. They keep pushing for more outreach, more space, more programs.
"It humbles you," Buono said. "You look at these people and you think, "Man, I've been there.' "
Many of them have been there.
Several members of Beaming Hope, a nondenominational church, will tell you they have seen miracles. They see themselves as proof of divine grace.
Salvation, says 52-year-old Bonnie Florence, a former addict, is in helping others.
• • •
"I'm going to recite a prayer with you," Mitsch tells the hundreds waiting for food Monday night. "The prayer of salvation."
Also known as the sinner's prayer, Mitsch knows it well.
It was this prayer, he said, that changed his life forever.
In the 1980s, Mitsch was a drinker, a gambler, a womanizer. He was convicted of DUI. He wasn't a believer.
One day, he recited the prayer of salvation. Everything began to change, he said. He studied the Bible, searching for answers. Soon, he would become a pastor. Everything kept growing bigger and better.
Next month, Beaming Hope church will move into a new building, at 13355 49th St. N in Pinellas Park. With the bigger building and more central location, Mitsch hopes to bring in more people and hold more charitable events.
Doing less, he said, is not an option. Everybody, no matter who they are, deserves a hand, Mistch said."
Marissa Lang can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3386.