More than 300 people enjoyed a free, home-cooked Easter brunch on Sunday morning at Old Courthouse Square amid a drenching downpour, but the cold and the wet did not seem to dampen anyone’s spirits.
“I’m glad I brought my umbrella,” said one of the diners, tucked safely under the canopy of a towering redwood.
The Easter buffet, served with orange juice and hot coffee, was prepared on-site Sunday morning by volunteers from the Soma Church Community, a small, evangelical congregation that meets at the Kid Street Charter School in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square.
“We wanted to do something different for Easter morning,” said Kristen Ortlinghaus, who is married to Paul, one of the three pastors of the 80-member church. “This is our seventh year, and it’s the third time it’s been raining. We brought a lot of canopies.”
By 11:15 a.m., she reported that volunteers had filled 275 plates, plus 50 to-go containers with heaping servings of macaroni, fruit and green salads, plus ham, muffins and hard-boiled eggs that had been dyed a few days earlier.
“We had 350 eggs, and they ran out first,” Kristen Ortlinghaus said. “A lot of people in the street are diabetic, and they want the protein.”
Paul Ortlinghaus had planned to hold a worship service at about 11 a.m. that included singing and a sermon, but he decided to cancel after all the chairs had filled up with cold, puddled water. He was philosophical about the mixed blessing.
“We have been praying for rain,” he said. “People from our church are out here cold and wet, but I don’t think the rain kept anyone away. We all agreed we aren’t going to grumble. It’s just water.”
One diner enjoying the Easter buffet was James O’Rourke of Santa Rosa, a native of Pennsylvania who is currently living on the streets and suffering from multiple health issues related to alcohol dependency.
“The food is really good, with the ham and salad and fruit,” said O’Rourke, who is looking for a sober living environment. “I’ve seen this place packed with hundreds of people. You get to listen to the Word, listen to the music and have some food.”
O’Rourke said he has noticed more young people, especially women, living on the street during the past few years. That fact is not lost on the Soma congregation.
“Santa Rosa is the largest city between San Francisco and Portland on the 101,” Paul Ortlinghaus said. “There are a lot of people coming through it, and I’m glad there are churches like the Redwood Gospel Mission and ours to help them.”
Heather Ackerman, 21, said she has been living on the street and in homeless shelters ever since she lost her job about two months ago and “fell off the wagon.”
“It’s an amazing meal,” she said. “I’m very grateful for it. I’m diluting my coffee with water so it will last a little longer.”
Ackerman, who moved to California from Minnesota at Christmas, said she planned to hang out and “hopefully meet some friends” on Easter day, then go back to the shelter to warm up.
The brunch was advertised through fliers placed at various shelters downtown, including the Redwood Gospel Mission, which was celebrating the holiday with another free event at Old Courthouse Square starting at noon Sunday. Its services included a bike repair station, manicures and a hot meal.
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