When Raymond Bludso first walked into St Paul Baptist Church last September he wasn't looking for salvation, he was just hungry and heard they serve free breakfast every Sunday.
The frail and gray-haired 62-year-old sat among a hundred others that came looking for a hot meal that morning.
"First I just came for breakfast and then one morning I was accidentally looking for the restroom in the back there and that's when I found the Bible study class and I started going there. After that I try to come every week now," said Bludso.
St. Paul's also distributes clothes, care packages and helps the homeless find shelters. Bludso credits the church for saving him from homelessness.
"I haven't been homeless for about 5 months but I still come here because it got me back on the road. It keeps me away from those drugs I was using," Bludso observed.
The St. Paul community celebrated its 140th anniversary this year. The current edifice, with its peeling bubble-gum pink paint, has sat on the corner of 49th and Main Street for sixty years.
Once the center of a thriving African-American community, St Paul's is struggling to financially survive and attract new members from what has become a primarily Hispanic neighborhood. Yet new life is flowing through the sanctuary as hundreds of homeless come every Sunday and many become regulars in the services, Bible study classes and choirs.
"They all come and eat and many of them stay, which is the purpose. We feed them physical food as well as spiritual food," said Pat Thomas, 69, a lay person at the church who teaches Sunday Bible studies for new members and volunteers as a staff person.
Like many other congregants, Thomas drives from outside the neighborhood, commuting from West Los Angeles. She joined the church in 1987 when she lived in Inglewood and said that she remained out of a sense of allegiance to the community.
Today the fastest growing membership of the church come from shelters, said Thomas.
Many of the homeless arrive early for the 8am service where a few dozen gather in the hall that could fit a thousand more people. The walls are pink, the carpet is a dark magenta and large neon-pink crucifixes surround the assembly. The congregation sits, sings, and prays together, but half of them dress in their Sunday best, while the other wear whatever clothes they happened to have on their back.
Despite the financial disparity, Thomas said church members don't treat the homeless any differently and are comfortable mingling together.
"In this economy and country everybody is one check away from being homeless," Thomas noted. "Those are people that have fallen by the wayside, some because of drugs and mental illnesses but that doesn't make them bad people. They're just people."
Rev. Joel Anthony Ward, who has had negative press in the past, initiated the breakfast ministry soon after he took the reins in 1997. The original purpose was to facilitate the senior citizens who were leaving services and skipping Bible studies to go home and eat. According to Ward, when several homeless persons realized they could get another free meal they went back and told others in the shelters.
Ward related that the number of homeless coming to eat has dropped since last November when he announced the financial struggles the church was having and publicly questioned whether they could continue providing the food. However, a few congregants persuaded the pastor to continue the program by providing the kitchen and utensils, while they will buy and prepare the food.
Members rotate the responsibility of providing the food according to the birthday months. The women with birthdays in April dressed head-to-toe in matching yellow outfits, and hurriedly tried to set the tables before the long lines began to form in the dining hall.
The volunteers stirred the oatmeal, scrambled the eggs, prepared the sausages, and laid out the fresh fruit, orange juice and coffee.
"We really feed a good breakfast. There are other churches that feed on Sundays but many tell us that they don't get the food there that they get here," said Thomas. "We fix breakfast as if it were for ourselves."
The cost of providing the food is $240 per month, according to Thomas, each member of the birthday month donates an average of $40. The members shop in bulks at Costco and receive donated eggs and sometimes fruit from a food bank.
Letrenda White has helped in the kitchen every week since Christmas, even though she is homeless herself. Miss. White, as she's called, loves to talk to everyone and says she's the greeter at the church. While serving others food she circles the room making small talk and ensuring that everyone has what they need.
White became homeless after moving from Atlanta, GA., five months ago and still lives in a shelter. Yet White is a regular member of the church and sings in the choir. The congregation has become a family for her, she said.
It often happens that the homeless become regulars even after they find permanent housing, said Thomas, and the church encourages the homeless to become involved. Two out of nine deacons of the church came from shelters and are faithful and active members, she added.
Every Monday morning Thomas counts the donated offerings and said she's amazed to find coins donated, saying she knows it's coming from the homeless.
"It's not big money but it's amazing that they are moved to give what they can when we pass the offering basket," noted Thomas.
"They don't have much money but they have a soul and they are willing to serve, and it's our responsibility to save souls for Christ. That is the main mission of the church."
St. Paul Baptist Church is located at 100 West 49th St, Los Angeles, CA, 90037