Folks were lined up outside the basement door of the Presbyterian Church in Union one Tuesday evening as a small group of volunteers put the finishing touches on the dinner to be served — chicken alfredo with mixed vegetables and salad, plus cake for dessert.
Just before 6, one of the volunteers swung open the doors to let in the guests. Many are people the volunteers have come to know well in the 2 1/2 years they have been offering this free weekly meal. Some are new faces.
To all they simply say, “Welcome!”
A similar scenario plays out every Saturday evening at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Washington, and every other Thursday evening at the Presbyterian Church in Pacific.
The volunteers at these three locations call their free meal by a different name and operate them each a little differently, but they have a common purpose: to feed the hungry.
That includes people who are hungry for food, but also those who are hungry for companionship and friendship, volunteers at all three locations are quick to point out.
“It’s all about relationships,” remarked the Rev. Dee Pennington at Pacific United Methodist Church, cosponsors the meal with the Pacific Presbyterian Church.
None of the free meals come with any strings attached for guests. No questions are asked and no proof of need is required.
There is no charge for the meal, not even a freewill offering basket set out where people can put donations.
That, volunteers explain, might make people feel obligated to give what they may not be able to afford.
There is no pressure on guests to show up in church each week and they aren’t given any religious literature or expected to listen to any preaching at the free meal.
Some of the guests at The Harvest Table in Washington admit concern about that did keep them from coming to the meal sooner.
The Rev. Linda Maconochie at First Presbyterian Church in Union where the Welcoming Table is served every Tuesday said actions speak louder than words anyway.
“This is an important part of our Christian ministry,” she said. “Helping others is the real way to show God’s love.”
“Our evangelism is that we are being the hands and feet of Jesus,” said the Rev. Pennington. “We are feeding the hungry, no questions asked.”
Dinner With Us
Of these free meals, the one in Pacific, which volunteers call Dinner With Us, has been going on the longest, three years in July.
It was one individual at the Presbyterian Church who spoke up about concern for area schoolchildren going hungry over the summer when they didn’t have access to the free and reduced breakfasts and lunches provided through the schools that got the ball rolling, recalled the Rev. Pennington.
She and the interim pastor at Presbyterian Church already had been talking about their visions and goals for reaching into the community, when this member raised the concern about hungry children.
The two churches decided to team up and offer a free meal program. In the beginning they called it Feeding the Needs.
“Initially our focus was supplementing families with children,” said the Rev. Pennington. “We worked with the local elementary schools . . . sent fliers home with students and put information on the sign at the high school.
“And in our daily conversations with people who called our churches for help with emergency assistance, we told them about it.”
The name was later changed to Dinner On Us and now to its current name, Dinner With Us, to encourage people to sit down together to relax and enjoy the meal, the Rev. Pennington explained.
Unlike the other free meals served in the county, Dinner With Us actually allows its guests to opt for takeout meals. Although the volunteers would prefer their guests stay to eat, it is not a requirement.
“For families on the go, takeout may be helpful. Or someone may be self-conscious about the way they look or just not feel comfortable,” said the Rev. Pennington.
“If they’re hungry and we can help them, we want to.”
Dinner With Us is held every other Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m. in the Pacific Presbyterian Church’s fellowship hall. The dinner has served as many as 300 meals in one night, although that included quite a few takeouts.
On average, about 70 people stay to eat at the church, said the Rev. Williams, of the Pacific Presbyterian Church.
The meals are headed up by a young couple, Chris and Scott Borcherding, who are members of Pacific United Methodist Church. They plan and cook the food, and volunteers from both churches serve and clean up.
Meals have included everything from hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza, to chicken pasta, stir fry, beef stroganoff and spaghetti. Once they even served barbecue.
Dessert is included with every meal.
On occasion members from other area churches have volunteered for Dinner With Us and have gone on to begin their own community ministries.
The Welcoming Table
The Welcoming Table in Union, which is held every Tuesday evening from 6 to 7 p.m., in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church on Main Street, began in January 2010.
A new church member who had been part of a similar program at his previous church suggested setting up the meal here, said the Rev. Maconochie.
The idea was well-received by the small 50-some member congregation and a handful of volunteers stepped forward to get it started. The growing need in the community was obvious, recalled the Rev. Maconochie, who also is president of the Union Food Pantry.
Using $200 from the Deacon’s Fund as seed money, the volunteers served homemade mac-and-cheese the first Tuesday.
“We chose that because we thought the kids would love it, but they really didn’t,” one volunteer recalled.
Some of the more popular meals the Welcome Table has served include chicken and dumplings, mostaccioli, chili, ham, roast beef, sloppy Joes and chicken alfredo.
The meal always includes a vegetable or salad and a dessert.
The volunteers try to accommodate the needs of their weekly guests, especially as they have gotten to know them.
“We have one lady who is diabetic so we offer one dessert option that is sugar free,” said the Rev. Maconochie.
Since the meal began, other churches and one civic group have joined First Presbyterian in their efforts, each taking a turn to prepare, serve and clean up the weekly meal.
Members from Zion United Church of Christ volunteer on the first Tuesdays of the month;
New Hope Assembly of God in Union was handling the third week of the month, although currently it is unable to help;
And the Union Kiwanis Club manages any fifth Tuesdays of the month.
Members from Church of God also have helped in the past.
First Presbyterian is currently volunteering for the second, third and fourth Tuesdays, but welcomes any group or organization that wants to get involved, on a regular basis or even occasionally.
“We’re looking for others who are willing to take a week,” said the Rev. Maconochie.
At least eight volunteers are needed, she said. They will need to decide the menu, shop for and prepare the food, set it up for serving and clean up.
Currently about 45 guests attend The Welcome Table each week, said the Rev. Maconochie. The busiest weeks have brought as many as 60 guests.
Many of the guests each week come from the hotel located behind the church, the reverend said, and back in January 2010 that was one of the first places volunteers distributed fliers letting residents know about it.
“We put fliers at the hotel, at the laundromat, at the library, social services, the health department, food pantries . . . places we thought people with a need would be going,” said the Rev. Maconochie.
Many of the guests who attend The Welcome Table each week have been coming since the beginning, and the volunteers have formed a strong bond with them.
“We have had children who were born since their families have been coming here,” said Rev. Maconochie. “One woman went into labor while she was here.
“We see lots of families. There is one with four generations that comes.”
The Rev. Maconochie spends time visiting with the guests. Many times the conversations are typical chit-chat, but they are always meaningful.
“If times are hard for them, they might ask for prayers. They talk to me about jobs — if they got one, lost one, applied for one.
“Sometimes they offer to cut the grass here or do something. They just want to give back too,” she said.
The friendships made at The Welcome Table, whether between the guests or volunteers and guests, are real. One guest wrote to a volunteer who was away at college. Another time the guests got together to make a card for one of the volunteers who was ill.
“It definitely brought together some people who otherwise wouldn’t have known each other,” said the Rev. Maconochie.
“It really did change our view of who the hungry are.”
What amazes her even more though is that the $200 seed money that got The Welcome Table started more than two years ago has been the only church funds used to keep the meal ministry going.
The program received two grants, one from Esselte in Union and another from Giddings Lovejoy Presbyterian’s Hunger Action Team.
“It’s like the loaves and the fishes,” the Rev. Maconochie said with a smile.
The Harvest Table
Comments from volunteers at The Harvest Table in Washington are all very similar.
The Harvest Table meal is served every Saturday night from 5 to 6 in the dining room at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ on Fifth Street in Washington.
Volunteers represent churches of all denominations from all over town and people from all walks of life. And, they too, have formed strong bonds with their guests.
“Some of the children feel like family,” Portia Clark remarked.
The Harvest Table was organized in October 2010 and, like the other meals, has seen its numbers grow, from a couple dozen in the early days up to 60, 70 and 80 guests each week.
Even stronger has been the growth in the number of volunteers wanting to get involved. Some are simply groups of friends and one is even a large family, but individual volunteers also are welcome.
“We are averaging one new group a week calling to get information on how to volunteer,” said Brigid Reid, one of the Harvest Table founders.
Anyone who has volunteered in the past, understands why. The experience is that fulfilling, and word of that spreads quickly and easily.
“The gratitude we see is one of the most overwhelming things,” a volunteer commented. “One lady gave me $3 once, even though we don’t ask for any money. She said, ‘I don’t always have any extra money, but this month I have $3.
“It was important to her to give what she could.”
Other guests have asked if they can volunteer some weeks.
For the Harvest Table, volunteers are needed both to buy and cook the food and also to serve the meal. Volunteers are given the recipe for the food they are to make, as well as the disposable casserole dish in which to prepare it.
Volunteers echo the words of those working in Union and Pacific about why they want to be involved.
“We are all listening to God’s calling, following the teachings of Jesus to show love in our community, to alleviate some of the suffering, to provide a nourishing meal and companionship to the hungry,” said Nancy Nagel, another of the Harvest founders.
“Part of our philosophy is to treat each guest like Christ himself,” Clark added.
Another good thing that has come from The Harvest Table has been what organizers call “the ripple effect” for bringing people together.
“I see this as a connecting force in the community,” said Karen Dawson, a Harvest Table founder. “We had hoped for that.”
For information on how to volunteer for The Harvest Table, people should contact Brigid Reid at 314-882-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To volunteer for The Welcome Table, people should contact the First Presbyterian Church in Union, 636-583-3555.
To volunteer for Dinner With Us, people can contact either Pacific Presbyterian Church at 636-257-2742 or Pacific United Methodist Church at 636-257-3426.