Inside the kitchen, a smoothly operating staff hustles to keep up with the rush of customers. They wear personalized white aprons speckled with faded yellow stains. The 15-by-15-foot space is crowded, walls stacked floor to ceiling with an array of pots, pans and canned vegetables. A worn paper sign above the serving window reads, “All are to be welcomed as Christ.”
A line of hungry people stretches out the door and stays constant for two full hours, an organized flow of people shuffling atop creaking floorboards and faded blue carpet. The aroma of hot casserole and meatloaf wafts through the room. Sunlight pours through the windows and colorful worship banners hang throughout the room, declaring “Peace like a river” and “HOPE in a time of waiting.”
This is CrossTies Gospel Cafe.
The cafe serves a free, hearty lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. every Wednesday through Friday in a refurbished crack house on the west side of 10th Street, just a two-minute drive from Baylor’s campus. On any given day, one can see a myriad of tattoos, piercings, ages and skin colors. But Gospel Cafe does not serve the homeless, druggies, drunks or punks. It serves people.
“The last thing I want to do is make generalities about the people,” said Sherry Castello, one of the founders of Gospel Cafe.
The ministry runs on donations from local churches and ample amounts of faith. Donations are welcomed during lunch, but more often than not the collection basket at the front of the cafe stands empty. Even still, they don’t deny anyone.
“They never fail to respond to the needs of the people who show up on their doors,” said Charles Sutton, a longtime Gospel Cafe diner.
Sutton has served time in prison and been drawing Social Security for 20 years. While he admits he could have done better for himself, he is grateful for the cafe’s benevolent presence in the community.
Dorothy Warren is also keenly aware of the impact Gospel Cafe has made on her neighborhood. She’s lived in the house next to the cafe for 25 years and watched the building transfer ownership from a Hispanic family to crack dealers and now to a nonprofit ministry. She has mothered eight children, 24 grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and much of the neighborhood in the dilapidated house’s shadow.
“Most people call me Mom,” Warren said. “I don’t care what color they is, even the grown folks.”
When one of Warren’s sons was shot and killed 20 years ago, Gospel Cafe came alongside her. Their kindness made an unthinkable tragedy bearable.
“These are my family right here,” Warren said.
In 1992, the four-person community of the newly formed CrossTies Ecumenical Church purchased the rundown building for $15,000. They were all Baylor graduates, and all women, with thriving professional careers.
At the time, Sherry Castello, 56, had been editor of the Baylor Line alumni magazine for 25 years. Marsha Martie, 37, was moving up in a local construction company. Susan Cowley, 43, was working at her family’s marketing and advertising firm. Still, they each felt called to something higher.
“We came here very much aware of how little we knew about a poverty neighborhood,” said Castello, now 78 years old. “We knew the only way we were going to learn was to be here.”
They spent the next four years and over $80,000 dollars repurposing the house into a functional restaurant complete with industrial cooking equipment, two full dining rooms and several meeting rooms in back. Some of the money came from their own pockets.
When the doors finally opened on April 15, 1996, Castello was the only chef. The cafe might serve 15 to 30 people for lunch each day. Now the record stands at 278. In 2013 they served 24,000 meals. As needs continue to increase and word about the cafe continues to spread, the ministry continues to grow.
“It’s been a matter of mutual trust,” Castello said. “They’ve trusted us that we will be the same people we were last week. That’s really vital, as much as feeding people, are the relationships we build with people.”
While the ministry calls itself Gospel Cafe, it doesn’t force religion on its guests. They don’t hand out tracts, force prayer before meals or anoint heads with oil. They simply let their actions speak.
“If you want to serve God, this is it,” said Gail Froberg, who has volunteered with the cafe for the last decade and now serves as one of the standing chefs.
A 75-year-old retired nurse, Froberg worked in the ICU for 35 years and taught nursing several additional years. Now, she goes with Gospel Cafe diners to their medical appointments, demanding they receive excellent care regardless of their financial standing.
“Once you’re a nurse, you must keep on helping people,” she said.
Gospel Cafe is open roughly 11 months out of the year, only closed during spring break, Thanksgiving and Christmas break. Most days feature two different menu items, like chicken spaghetti or Mexican casserole.
“I’m going to write my book on the resuscitation of casseroles,” Castello jokes.
The famous chef salad and staple Gospel Cafe chili dog are also served daily. Many boast it’s the best chili dog in town.
Gospel Cafe doesn’t just meet their diners’ immediate physical needs. CrossTies and Gospel Cafe volunteers have worked to get their guests steady jobs at local establishments like H-E-B, Aramark and Uncle Dan’s BBQ. Marsha Martie, the CrossTies pastor, leads both an Alcoholics Anonymous and a Narcotics Anonymous group in the cafe building. After 20 years in the neighborhood, these diners are their friends.
The cafe relies heavily on volunteers to operate smoothly. Some come regularly, like members of First Baptist Waco, who volunteer the last Friday of every month. Others come only when they can. Still others are familiar fixtures at the cafe, as much a part of the atmosphere as the stifled air itself.
Ernesto Andiño, a former military officer and retired schoolteacher, has been volunteering every Wednesday since last year when his wife of 40 years died. Elijah Hudson, similarly, has been the cafe’s sole dishwasher for more than six years.
Gospel Cafe is more than a charity, more than an altar call. It’s not a pity party. Gospel Cafe is a tangible expression of faith lived through everyday relationships.