By Amber Jurgensen | Associate Editor
Every Friday, a row of bikes is parked alongside the playground fence at First United Methodist Church’s Wesley Center off West Reynolds Street. A sign posted at the front doors reads: “No weapons.”
There, a tattooed man in a leather vest greets visitors. His name is Muff McLeod. He’s not a bouncer. He’s the host who leads you to your table at Christ’s Community Café.
Once a week, the Wesley Center opens its doors to diners seeking a warm meal or fellowship. Numerous tables are spread throughout the space. The church’s nurse offers free checkups. A speaker talks about salvation.
McLeod escorts people to their seats, while volunteers stay busy in the kitchen preparing meals. A maître d’ directs servers emerging from the kitchen with heaping piles of food on their trays.
To an outsider, this is the busiest restaurant in town. It’s hard to believe Christ’s Community Café started from a failure.
Two years ago, First United Methodist Church wanted to have a Thanksgiving meal for families in need. Volunteers gathered and roasted more than 20 turkeys and made enough side dishes and desserts to serve 200 people. On the day of the feast, only one family showed up.
The church suspected a lack of transportation might have led to the lack of attendance — but mostly that people liked to eat in their homes with their families on Thanksgiving. So, the church donated the food to the United Food Bank of Plant City and to migrant camps in rural areas.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, a group of women from the church began to collect bagged lunches for those in need, inspired by the effort and spirit of the Thanksgiving feast.
“We gathered a few brains together and people who wanted to do it,” said Nancy Chaney, who leads the café. “We prayed, ‘Lord, we want to do something with our kitchen and this space.’”
So, bagged lunches turned into Christ’s Community Café. On any give Friday, the café serves 60 to 80 people. And it’s not just sandwiches and soups. Hearty meals, such as lasagna, corned beef and cabbage, fried chicken and turkey, are common staples on the menu. The minimal leftovers can be bagged and taken, but otherwise, the café is a dine-in experience.
The food is donated by members and churches in the community, including Forbes Road Produce, which donates all the fresh fruit. Volunteers include people from different churches and ministries.
Every first Friday, the café celebrates birthdays with cake and ice cream, and every last Friday, guests can take communion.
The café is open to the homeless, those in need, the elderly and those who need fellowship.
“We want to give them a hand up,” Chaney said. “This is God’s plan and a way for us to help the community.”
Most known for dancing with promotional signs at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Collins Street, Natalie Rebel comes to the café every Friday for fellowship. Sitting with a group from St. Clement Catholic Church, Rebel chats and laughs with her fellow diners.
“I come for the people,” Rebel said. “And I’m glad there’s a place for the elderly and the homeless and the needy. I don’t need to come, but I come for the fellowship.”
Across the room is a table of seven men who sit together every week. They each have special nicknames for each other — Grave Digger, Gopher, Black Elvis and more.
“It’s just like a restaurant — except you don’t have to pay the bill,” James Turney said.
“It’s all pretty good,” Vince Sayer, who rides a bicycle around town, said. “It’s something I look forward to.”
“I love the meals that they have,” Floyd Hughs said. “They bring it right to us.”
In addition to the meals, a speaker comes to share a Christian message.
“I like the sermons that they do, too,” Rebel said. “I don’t go to church, but this is where I get my time and my communion.”
Contact Amber Jurgensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.