Bridget Mickey, Hector Cantu and Larry Carpenter are not congregants at First United Methodist Church, 603 11th St. W., yet they are part of the church family.
They are among roughly 35 homeless beneficiaries of "The Gathering," a ministry that tries to assist them on several levels.
"This church enables us to have hope," Mickey said.
"They help us out the best they can," Cantu said.
"They got love," Carpenter said.
Such is the mission, said Pastor Adam Zele, who embraces the down-and-out and encourages his flock to do likewise.
"When I read the Gospel, I see Christ out there serving the least of these and he calls us to do that," he said.
Paul Raetz, who heads The Gathering program, agreed. His parents were
"We're commanded to care for the homeless, the poor, the marginalized," he said. "That's why we do this."
"Being able to serve is our gratification," volunteer Sandy Barton said.
The Gathering, food and fellowship at 7 a.m. every Sunday, is the foundation for the church's homeless ministries.
It began several years ago when a woman working in the church kitchen would make coffee before Sunday school.
"She'd see the homeless sitting outside and started bringing coffee to them," Zele said. "That turned into a weekly ministry bringing them coffee and muffins, which turned into The Gathering. We also provide some clothing and toiletries when they are in need. As we've gotten to know them, we've added more to the ministry."
Among its multiple facets:
A bike ministry, where church volunteers distribute bike lights, fix flats, repair bike chains and put on new brakes. Nearly 180 homeless have received lights and more than 200 had bike repairs this year.
"For the homeless, the bike is their lifeline," Raetz said.
A motel ministry, where homeless who have had an emergency procedure at Manatee Memorial Hospital are put up in hotel room for a couple of nights, paid for by the church.
"That helped me immensely," Carpenter said of his recovery from surgery. "Without them, I'd have been in the weeds."
A Christmas morning breakfast with eggs, pancakes and sausage and a Christmas worship service.
An Easter sunrise service, followed by a big breakfast.
"Our sunrise service is a little different," Zele said. "Last year one couple showed up and she was in a beautiful dress and hat and he was in a nice suit. They sat down, looked around and realized everybody around them was homeless. They ended up having a very good time."
The church's traditional Thanksgiving community meal.
"It's not a one-day thing to this congregation," Zele said. "It's is something we do throughout the year."
There are other manifestations of compassion.
Like Zele accompanying a homeless person to court.
Or visiting their campsite at night.
Or making showers available Sunday mornings for homeless women.
"A lot of days I'll sit out by the fountain and just visit with the homeless," Zele said. "They'll tell their life stories, their problems, their struggles. They won't tell someone else because they're afraid. It takes awhile to build up a relationship with them before they'll trust you."
"We're a familiar face," Barton said. "They know who we are, the same volunteers out there every Sunday. They may not know our names, but they know us."
There's no proselytizing, either. "We do share our faith. We pray with them," Zele said. "We do invite them to come to church, but there's no expectation for them to come to church in order to receive help." A few do and they sit right up front.
"Some may choose not to be around them, but the congregation is amazingly welcoming," Zele said.
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix