By 8 a.m. yesterday a line had already formed on South Linwood Avenue.
Folks waited in the morning chill while more than 1,000 volunteers unloaded three food-filled tractor-trailers in a corner of Patterson Park. Two and a half hours later -- after the line had snaked around the corner and two blocks down Eastern Avenue -- the Convoy of Hope began offering free food, activities for children, medical screenings and Christian philosophy to residents of Highlandtown and Patterson Park.
The event was organized by a coalition of more than 50 churches in the Baltimore area under the leadership of the Convoy of Hope, a Springfield, Mo.-based church organization. By the end of the year, the Pentecostal group will have staged similar events in 40 major cities across the country.
"It helps out a lot," said Barbara Ennis, 44, as she waited for her husband, James Ennis, who was taking advantage of the free-haircut tent set up by the group. "My husband works hard, and I don't get food stamps or anything like that."
For Ennis, and others, it was not only about the food. "It's about touching God, and I think everybody needs that," she said.
Organizers said they hoped to send that message to the approximately 4,500 people who were given about 100,000 pounds of free groceries yesterday -- along with thousands of Bibles.
"We don't just want to be a food program; we want to serve the whole person," said Chris Zinn, one of Convoy of Hope's national directors who was in Baltimore to help with the event.
Convoy of Hope's first trip to Baltimore was in August last year, when the group set up in Sandtown-Winchester, organizers said.
"Our whole philosophy is we want them to have a different experience than they've had being served in other places," Zinn said. "They are our guests of honor today."
Volunteers or "greeters" welcomed visitors with cups of coffee and hot dogs -- and roses for the women. A carnival-like atmosphere prevailed, as guests checked out the array of services and activities. Clown-costumed volunteers entertained children as Christian music, performed to Latin and rock beats, played in the background.
Adults got free blood pressure and dental screenings and picked up brochures on prenatal care, allergies and mammograms. Children flocked to the face-painters, a petting zoo and inflatable fun houses.
"This is a chance for children to get out here, the ones that aren't fortunate," said Patricia Walton, 34, who brought the two youngest of her three children to the Convoy of Hope.
"The people who are on social services and Social Security, this is for them; that's how I see it," said Walton. The Highlandtown resident said she receives $443 a month in temporary cash assistance and takes job-training classes.
Before making their way to the food distribution center -- the last stop on the Convoy of Hope -- visitors attended a half-hour "family ministry" service.
Zinn said the service was not mandatory.
"We don't make anybody do anything here," he said. "Some folks say, 'Look, I've got to get to my job and I can't wait.' We want to serve them at their point of need."
The Rev. William F. Snook, pastor of the Trinity Assembly of God Church in Lutherville and coordinator of the Baltimore event, said preparations for yesterday began this year, with participating churches holding food drives.
"This has been a truly multiethnic effort, with white, black and Hispanic churches coming together," said Convoy of Hope spokeswoman LaTanya Bailey Jones.
The Spanish Christian Church, on South Eaton Street, was one of the five sponsor churches of Convoy of Hope.
"We partnered with churches in the county to reach the people in the inner city with the most needs," said Spanish Christian's pastor, the Rev. Angel Nunez.