It’s 9 a.m. and west Ocala community members are gathered outside the doors of a white and red brick church. Some bring pet dogs to keep them company, others carry backpacks and some wear a smile. They come as they are and they’re ready to eat.
This April Tuesday is no different from any other. At 9 a.m. every Tuesday, more than 60 people depend on the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal church to eat.
St. Paul AME offers free breakfast, but also a free food pantry, COVID-19 vaccinations and a place to fall back for people in need of a helping hand.
Marlin Johnson, 57, takes temperatures as visitors wait for the church doors to open for breakfast. He’s soft-spoken and has lived in the area his entire life.
“Most of the people are happy to come here,” he said.
The church’s kitchen is bustling and serving a steady line that waits in front of countertops. On the menu are eggs, toast, orange juice and bags of groceries that people are welcome – encouraged – to bring back to their homes.
Sister Gloria Powell, 64, is cracking eggs inside while other volunteers from both her congregation and Fort King Presbyterian Church prepare meals.
Powell, who also distributes food from the pantry every week, knows that cereals and canned meats are needed. Canned foods, dry goods and toiletries are always appreciated because their shelves are hard to keep stocked.
“Whatever people give us, we give it out,” Powell said. “We give it out to whomever needs it.”
By 11 a.m., St. Paul AME’s Reverend Jeffrey Dove takes a golf cart into the community and visits neighbors to personally invite them to breakfast and sign them up for COVID-19 vaccines the church offers.
“This community is unique because it’s in a food desert, it’s in a technological desert,” said Dove.
Reverend Dove, 50, welcomes members freely into his congregation.
Some neighbors are hesitant to attend breakfast, others jump on his golf cart – but all come with questions or a desire to talk.
“I don’t think people can be liberated or even hear the word of God if they’re hungry,” Dove said. “Everybody here comes on one accord: to provide for the least of these.”
After driving around the neighborhood, he sits at his desk and speaks with members of his flock.
“We’re living the gospel of Jesus Christ. I don’t think there’s anything special about it. I don’t. It’s my job. It’s my responsibility.”
Come noon, the line for breakfast has long passed and the volunteers now sit and meet to plan future gatherings and current goals.
How can they keep shelves stocked? How can they reach more members in the community? How can they feed people in a way that fills their stomachs and opens their hearts?
They discuss these topics as dishes are being washed, full bellies are going home and the day is settling.
• • •
St. Paul AME Church is located at 718 NW 7th St., Ocala, FL, 34475. Its phone number is (352) 622-8921.