Need a hug? Step right up

You don't receive only religious guidance at this church. You also get a warm hug.

Published July 24, 2007

LARGO - Love don't cost a thing at Christ the King Lutheran Church.

At the 11 a.m. Sunday services, members are giving away free hugs.

Bob Schiffer, a 28-year church member, was inspired to start the program by a video on YouTube showing an Australian man named "Juan Mann" holding up a sign reading "Free Hugs." Mann, not his real name, ignited a worldwide movement.

Schiffer, 69, who works in advertising, said he gives away about 30 hugs each Sunday.

"They know I'm the hug man," he said. "I could stand out here with no sign and they'd still come up and hug me. They say, 'Oh, the hug man.' "

He said "more women than men want hugs." And if someone turns down a hug, he offers a handshake instead.

But most people on Sunday seemed to prefer the embraces, and he got plenty of them.

Schiffer worked the north entrance and volunteer Ginger Davis, 66, worked the south entrance, holding their signs.

Davis had an assistant hugger, 9-year-old Haley Dolan.

Dorothy Miller, 88, appeared happy to get her hug.

"A lot of churches are so cold they don't even speak to one another," she said.

Barbara Bardell, 53, agreed.

"I think it's wonderful," she said. "Everybody could use a hug."

Davis said the program helps encourage conversation.

"It's (also) a way of giving comfort to those who are hurting," she said.

The Rev. Mike Thurau, pastor of the church, said he "absolutely loves" the program.

"After a week of being beaten up by the world, it's nice to get a hug," he said.

Every person coming out the door Davis worked accepted a hug - except one.

"I'm not into hugs," said an elderly woman as she walked by Davis. But as she passed, she patted Davis' shoulder to show she wasn't a completely cold fish.

Davis and Haley were undeterred, giving hugs until there was no one left.

"I think it's nice to share my love with other people," Haley said.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or schulte@sptimes.com