The Trinity Cafe bustled with holiday spirit on Christmas morning.
Santa Clause welcomed diners to the downtown Tampa cafe for the needy as a two-man band entertained them with holiday music.
A chef prepared a breakfast of steak and eggs that fed about 250 people and 32 waiters wearing Christmas colors served the food to those seated at the festively decorated tables.
Rev. Louis McGee was among those volunteers but it wasn’t too long ago that he was seated at one of the tables for a meal.
After losing his job and his home, McGee, 60, lived on Tampa’s streets for 11 years and frequented the cafe that has served more than 890,000 meals to the needy since it opened in 2001.
Through his faith and determination and with the help of others, McGee was able to get back on his feet. Today, the man who was once a symbol of the plight of the homeless is a symbol of hope for those experiencing tough times.
As he served the needy on Wednesday, McGee tried to deliver a message that would lift their spirits.
“I tell people that things can get better,” he said. “It’s important to hear because many stop believing that it can.”
“All of our volunteers have empathy,” said Trinity Café Program Director Cindy Davis “But Louis even more so because he has actually walked in their shoes. He had it all and then lost it, but found it again. I think the people we serve need to hear his story. It provides them with hope.”
In the 1990s, McGee was a beloved reverend at Ambassadors of Christ Church and a successful salesman. In his commission-based industry during the economic boom of that decade, he said would earn up to $1,000 a week. But he didn’t save, believing the good times would never end.
When the economy hit a downturn, so did his life.
“I see it all the time,” said Davis. “People with long careers suddenly catch a bad break and end up with nothing. It can happen to anyone.”
“I squandered it all away,” McGee said. “It was my fault.”
He did not always shoulder the blame, though.
It was August 2000 when McGee became homeless. Always a positive man who believed that God had a plan for him, he tried to continue living as though nothing but his address had changed.
He found an abandoned building in West Tampa and moved in. He continued to preach at his church, never allowing anyone to know his situation. He fed himself with food stamps, used the little money he earned as a reverend and by performing odd jobs around the community to buy himself dress slacks and collared shirts. And he made sure to find a facility where he could shower daily.
“No one wants to hire a homeless person,” he said. “I had to look like I was doing well. I didn’t look rich, but I didn’t look desperate.”
And he stayed clear of anyone who did not share his attitude.
“I didn’t want to be with anyone willing to spend their last dollar on a beer,” McGee said. “I needed to surround myself with positive people.”
Keeping that positive attitude proved difficult.
During those evenings when he was alone in the darkness, McGee said he would become angry. He sought to blame anyone but himself for his problems, even God, and abandoned his position as reverend.
“The hardest part of being homeless is keeping hope,” said McGee. “No one becomes homeless believing it will be permanent. They think it is temporary. But if they lose hope, homelessness can become their life.”
McGee said he was indeed having difficulty remaining optimistic.
Then he found the Trinity Café.
“Yes, we serve the homeless,” said Davis. “But we operate like a restaurant. We want our patrons to have a little bit of time each day when they are treated like they were prior to their bad fortune.”
A maître d’ greets each patron at the door and leads them to a table. Food is served by a waiter. Hosts walk the establishment and talk to each table.
“The hosts are our most important people,” said Davis. “They provide each diner with encouragement and advice. The meal will only last a little time, but the kindness and respect the host provides can have a long-term affect.”
Such treatment reminded McGee what he was aspiring to become once again, Davis said.
He wanted everyone to look at him and respect him like they did at the Trinity Café.
McGee was motivated to continue to better himself, but he said he was still angry with God. And until he made amends with his faith, he knew he could not experience true joy again.
On Christmas Day 2005, he decided to confront God, asking what he had done to deserve such a fate.
“A voice inside me shared the answer,” said McGee. “It was God speaking to me.”
McGee said the voice told him to look to the sky. That was his roof. He was then told to look to the ground; that was his floor. Finally, he was told to look east and west.
“God told me my house had plenty of room to run,” said McGee. “I didn’t have a conventional house, but I did have a place to live — His house. I may have abandoned God for a bit, but he never left me.”
McGee said he had learned to love himself and love God again. Still, one thing was missing — the love of a woman.
“I didn’t think anyone could love a homeless man,” he said.
In 2006 he found a woman who proved him wrong.
He met Josephine Williams in a thrift shop parking lot that year. He was leaving the store when he spotted her in her car with her grandson. He needed a ride to Ybor City and something inside him told him she would be willing to help.
Josephine’s instinct was to roll up her window and lock the doors. She had recently left an abusive relationship that ended when her boyfriend tossed Molotov cocktails into her home, scorching her body. She was the last person who would trust a male stranger, she said.
But when McGee knocked on her window and politely introduced himself and asked for the favor, she felt compelled to say yes.
Josephine said her instinct told her he was safe.
“We were kindred spirits,” she said.
Josephine began seeing McGee around town — in front of the downtown library, on Main Street in West Tampa, in Ybor City. She would always stop and talk to him, but he never mentioned he was homeless or asked for a handout, she said.
“I had no idea,” she said. “He was always well dressed and clean.”
Three months after they met she invited him over for dinner. That night, he told her the truth.
“I did not believe him until he took me to the abandoned home he lived in,” Josephine said.
McGee feared she would want him out of her life. Instead, she wanted to be a bigger part of it. She invited him over for regular meals, let him use her shower and laundry facilities. They would watch movies together.
“We were friends in the beginning,” Josephine said. “Nothing more.”
A year after they met the friendship blossomed into romance. McGee said it was the final boost his life needed. She loved him because she saw him for who he was and not just a homeless man.
“He is remarkable,” said Josephine.
He moved in with her. She helped him find work. And in 2011, they were married.
Ever since then, she has stood by his side as he volunteers at Trinity Café twice a week.
“They do good work at the café,” she said. “They helped Louis.”
“I don’t consider myself lucky,” said McGee, who is once again a reverend at Ambassadors of Christ Church. “I like to use the word blessed. I’ve had a lot of people looking out for me. I am blessed that people cared and that God was with me.”