The smell of lemon pepper-encrusted fish wafted over the Stedfast Christian Center, as James Davis and Louis Simmons methodically dropped whiting fillets into hot sizzling oil.
Inside the north Columbia church fellowship hall, women and children prepared cole slaw and pork-and-beans and set tables in preparation for the congregation's free monthly Saturday dinner, held last weekend.
Between noon and 2 p.m. on the fourth Saturday of each month, the congregation opens its doors to anyone who wants to come.
A homeless man may share a table with a working mother and child; a high school ball team stopping by after practice may enjoy a meal with a neighbor who walks to the salmon-colored buildings along Fairfield Road.
The skeptic may not quite believe the parishioner waving the sign that says "free dinner." But once inside the door, doubt fades.
On this Saturday, Robin Wright greeted people, showed them to the restroom to wash their hands and assigned them to a room where hot food and hospitality awaited.
The idea for the community feeding came from the church's founder, the Rev. Sam Goodwin, an All-American football standout at S.C. State who traded in a football for the Bible at the height of his coaching career.
"This is a part of the Gospel," Goodwin said. "Jesus says feed these people. By doing that, we show our love for them."
At 66, Goodwin still boasts the athleticism and bearing that earned him a spot in the S.C. State University Athletic Hall of Fame.
Goodwin, known as "Herc" from his childhood nickname Hercules, is a familiar figure in the South Carolina sports community.
He coached at Brewer High in Greenwood from 1965-67 and at his alma mater, Booker T. Washington, from 1967-72. And, while coaching at S.C. State between 1973-79, he took the Bulldogs to six bowl games while grooming future NFL stars. He followed that with coaching stints at Wichita State and USC.
In 1983, Goodwin decided that God was calling him to pastor a church. His vision was non-denominational Christian evangelism.
His family thought he was crazy.
"All of my family said, 'Herc, are you starting some kind of cult?'" he laughed. "Back then, everybody was Baptist or Methodist or Lutheran."
Members of his congregation, an independent Pentecostal church associated with the Fellowship of Inner-City Word of Faith Ministries, are faithful to the church's founding Bible verse, I Corinthians 15:58: "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord."
They embrace Goodwin's hope that one day the congregation will reach out to their neighbors with a weekly, or even daily, meal.
"You could not conceive what it would do for one person to get a nice meal," Simmons said as he carefully removed cooked fillets and placed them in a pan for 9-year-old Jaazaniah Gayden, the youngest helper, to ferry to the kitchen.
Simmons knows some who come are simply there for the fellowship. But others, strained by a tough economy, need to be able to sit at a table and enjoy a meal without worrying about the cost.
"What little they have, they have to spend elsewhere," he said.
At Stedfast's table, all are equals in Christ.
Diamonique Jackson brought her 10-year-old daughter, Latwan Jackson, who had been to the dinner before and wanted her mother to experience it.
Frankie Hagler, Gary Augustus and Herbert Hunter were driving in the neighborhood, turned the corner and saw the "free dinner" sign.
"I was on the way to cut some grass," Hagler said.
All agreed the meal was delicious.
Diamonique Jackson said she hoped to return to worship with the people who made her feel at home.
Gloria Elliott, whose daughter is a church member, said the nourishment supplied by Stedfast feeds body and soul. "Some of these people will never go to church, but this is another way to get out the word (of God)," she said.
"It doesn't matter about the person," Jennifer Gibson said. "It doesn't matter whether they have a million dollars or no dollars."
Gibson, like other members of Stedfast, finds that the outreach stirs as much goodwill among the congregation as it does for their monthly guests.
"It's encouraging," added Wright, as she directed a couple toward a table. "It lightens your heart."