All Saints Catholic Mission has fed the poor since 1990. While the City of Oakland Park has tried to shut them down for the past eight years.
The battle between the church and the city recently escalated when All Saints sued the city on the basis of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“It was a violation of the zoning code to feed people inside his church,” said Oakland Park city attorney D.J. Doody. “[It] does not allow for the utilization of his property in that fashion.”
That’s not how many local leaders see it though, including Dean Trantalis, an attorney who is also the openly gay mayor of Fort Lauderdale.
“The feeding of the homeless is considered a constitutional right, and so I recognize that,” Trantalis said.
All Saints’ soup kitchen feeds between 100-200 homeless or poor people a day. They’ve given out more than 1.3 million meals since the program launched.
The church is an LGBT-affirming organization, and many of the people they feed are from the LGBT community, church leader Father Bob Caudill said. LGBT youth are 120 percent more likely to be homeless than straight people of their age, and one in five transgender people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.
“One day I remember we had three guys that were in [transition] … We have these huge screens that show movies and videos while the people are eating, and the video that came up was these guys dressed as nuns in San Francisco singing ‘Holy Queen’ … They said, ‘oh my gosh, I think we’re in the right place,’” he said.
Police showed up at the church with a cease and desist order three years ago, in which the government demanded they stop feeding the homeless.
Caudill, however, has continued to push forward.
“I said ‘no, I’m not going to stop, do whatever you have to do.’ I actually thought they were going to arrest me … They’re just fining us $125 a day for the last three years,” Caudill said — a fine that he hasn’t paid a dime of, and doesn’t plan to, either.
The current lawsuit is at a standstill, however. The court dismissed the case the church brought against the city, so the complaints have been amended. The hearing for this new set will be in November, Caudill said.
The case has been taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union, who’s siding with the church.
“I support the efforts of Father Bob,” Trantalis said. “I think that we need to work together as a community to make sure that we don’t ignore our homeless and that we find a place in our lives to ensure their well-being.”
The soup kitchen does more than provide food for the homeless, Caudill said. They begin to give out meals every day at 2 p.m., and the homeless are then given clothes, shoes, and the opportunity to get their medical prescriptions for free and set up mailboxes.
The food is mainly provided by outside sources for no charge — the Cheesecake Factory, Longhorn Steakhouse, Red Lobster, Chipotle, Carrabba's, and others. Independent meal preparation service Catered Fit gives them 37 pans of fresh food a week, and Wawa gifts them with 500 sandwiches a week as well.
“The beautiful thing about this whole thing is I never sought out anything from anyone, it just comes. Even the food, I didn’t seek … it just came,” Caudill said.
At least five television news channels have highlighted their case, and even larger churches are pitching in — St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton bought them a new refrigerator, and St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church in Pompano Beach has been doing food and toiletries drives for them. Groups from other religions, such as local Hindu temple Shiva Mandir and Jewish temple Kol Ami Emanu-El, have sent volunteers and resources over to the church as well.
“Every time [Oakland Park] does something to us it seems that we have a positive reaction doubly, so that’s a good thing,” Caudill said about the help.
But he believes the most important thing is to have a heart for the homeless, who can feel insecure and unloved.
“Just think about if for some reason you lost your job, or you’re in a hard spot, you had no family or friends to loan you money, what would you do? And we’re here for that reason … helping people in the larger sense, it’s not gays or straights or black or white, or whoever, it’s just for everyone. And that gets back down to the principle of, you know, God loves everyone equally, and he wants everyone to be happy, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.
“I’m just going to keep on doing what I do, and just let it play out as it’s supposed to. Kind of just put your faith in God and move on.”
Visit AllSaintsMission.org for more information about the church’s soup kitchen.