Center Cross Ministries held a baked potato fundraiser Friday in the hopes of financing a move out of the truck where it currently serves free food and into a new building, where the group plans to expand its services to Grayson County’s homeless and struggling populations.


The Christian ministry cooked up 250 potatoes with all the fixings and held a prize raffle to generate additional funds on top of the revenue raised from ticket sales. The event was held at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Denison and was attended by members of the public, as well as those regularly on the receiving end of the organization’s services.


“We want to be able to get off the street so they can sit down, and we can talk and try to help them through their troubles,” Center Cross Ministries Founder Alan Bernard said. “That’s difficult to do standing in the street and in the heat or the rain and inclement weather.”


The story of Center Cross Ministries started about a year ago when Bernard and his wife Terri went before the Denison Zoning Board of Adjustments to request variances for a new soup kitchen in Denison. Bernard said he decided to open the soup kitchen after nearly two years of soul searching and a call to service by God.


The Bernards planned to open their the soup kitchen ministry in a building at 313 S. Fannin Ave. that had served as a saddle shop, radio studio and most recently a private residence. The building, located just outside Forest Park, stood in contrast to the neighboring residential neighborhood that had since grown around it.


In order to receive a certificate of occupancy and serve the public, the Bernards sought a variance to city code that required 12 parking spots due to the location and use of the building — the location only had one parking spot available. During the public hearing regarding the request, city staff noted that if the kitchen was just two blocks north, parking would not be an issue.


“Had they been located in the central district, no parking spots would be required,” Development Review Coordinator Gracie Loyd said at the time.


Amid concerns by nearby residents of vagrancy, and concerns by the city of traffic issues and street parking on Fannin, the ZBA denied the request. In the weeks that followed, city staff offered to assist with bringing the building into compliance with building code. Officials with the city toured the site and offered advice and observations, including recommendations on wiring upgrades, roofing issues and general modernization of the facility.


In August, the nonprofit received help from local car dealer Eric Bryant, who offered to purchase neighboring lots to build a parking lot for the kitchen. It was hoped this would resolve some of the issues the kitchen was facing regarding adequate parking.


As officials with the nonprofit attempted to work out issues with the city and Grayson County Health Department, Center Cross continued to operate out of the facility, cooking and preparing food that was then served outside.


The fight over the kitchen returned in November when the city issued a letter asking organizers to cease operations until code and zoning issues could be resolved. In the letter, city staff said organizers had yet to solve the issues despite being given more than four months to do so. Additionally, the Denison Police Department was receiving an increased number of calls for vagrancy near the soup kitchen and in Forest Park.


“I have said over this last four and a half months if God wants to take this blessing away from me, he can,” Alan Bernard said during a meeting with city staff in November. “And I want you to know, through your actions, he has taken it away because you are sitting in the seats you are because he put you there.”


Later that month, organizers for Center Cross held a meeting with local nonprofits and the city about alternative ideas and ways to continue to serve. During the meeting, officials with the Denison Public Library offered the use of the community room for service. During the same meeting, officials with St. Luke’s Episcopal Church offered the use of the church’s kitchen.


However, this arrangement was temporary and lasted only two months. Earlier this year, the library needed the space for library programming, bringing an end to service at the library. Since then, Center Cross has continued to serve food each weekday outside of the Grayson County Shelter, the Denison Hotel and behind Albertsons.


But Bernard said things are looking up for Center Cross Ministries. The founder said he and the city have worked together in recent weeks to find a new brick-and-mortar home for the ministry and they have a lead on a space that was formerly used for religious services.


“I don’t want to put words in the city’s mouth, but we moved from the discussion positively,” Bernard said.


The ministry leader said the move to the new building isn’t yet a done deal, but he said whenever the organization does get its long-awaited, permanent address, there are plans to greatly expand its offerings.


“Once we do get our building, in addition to having a ministry, we’ll be having Bible study a couple of nights a week and there will be a potluck dinner served. And we hope, at least one night each week, we will be able to celebrate recovery with a program like Narcotics Anonymous, a Christian-based, 12-step program to lead to better well-being,” Bernard said.


And in an effort to improve the social and professional prospects of those they serve, Barnard said the ministry also intends to offer computer and internet service and provide easier access to government identification, which the homeless populations often lack.


But until Center Cross Ministries gets its new home, Bernard said he is simply happy to see folks breaking bread together at the fundraiser.


“There is something that happens, a change that takes place within a person when they sit down and have a meal,” Bernard said. “Their spirit gets lifted not just by the meal, but through the fellowship and the community we believe we offer through our ministry.”