Homeless, hungry find food, fellowship at Santa Rosa Easter brunch

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It didn't take a fancy $50 brunch with eggs Benedict and bottomless mimosas to bring a smile to the faces of 300 people, many homeless, who came to Santa Rosa's Old Courthouse Square on Sunday for food and fellowship.

They came as they were, some with shopping carts laden with their all their belongings, to take seats at festive tables set up restaurant style with fresh flowers in vases.

The Easter buffet, prepared on the spot by volunteers and served on a table covered by bed of live sod grass rolled out like a carpet, is an annual tradition of Santa Rosa's evangelical SOMA Church Community. The small 80- to 100-member congregation, which meets at the Lincoln Arts Center in Santa Rosa's West End neighborhood, decided seven years ago to cancel its regular Easter Sunday service and go minister to the poorest people in their community on the holiest of Christian holidays.

"We made it like going to grandma's house on Easter Sunday to have a fabulous meal with your family ... Our goal is just to show Jesus' love in practice, and make people feel loved by doing things the way your grandmother would have done them," said Kristin Ortlinghaus, a mechanical engineer. Her husband Paul, is pastor of the church, which is focused on missionary work within its own community. Among their projects is regularly providing birthday cakes to foster kids living at The Children's Village in Santa Rosa.

Jody Danforth, 36, who sleeps in her car while waiting for a spot to open up in a shelter or subsidized housing, said a home-cooked breakfast of fresh fruit, macaroni salad, blueberry muffins and hard boiled eggs dyed for Easter, was good medicine.

"Things like this are so beautiful and uplifting. They give you hope," said Danforth, who said she used to work in the electronics and airline industries before being hit with mental health issues and hard times. "When you're homeless so many people treat you like dirt. They look down on you. People here today are so kind and generous and giving. It feels so good and it's so rare to feel good."

Rich Wells, a church pastor and elder who works with children, said church members got the word out by passing out flyers to the homeless downtown and in Railroad Square early last week.

Brunch guests were also given clean socks and toiletries. A few picked up sleeping bags collected by Gloria Huerta, who has her own personal ministry "Comfort of Hope," providing friendship, support and basic necessities to people struggling with a multitude of issues that contribute to homelessness.

One weathered, 44-year-old woman who identified herself only as Tara, said she's lived on the streets since she was 14. She appreciated being able to eat as much as she wanted until she was full, in the company of friends.

"I've been in a slump, a deep depression," she said, "This makes me happy, to be around happy people."

(You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.)

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