My church has a ministry on Monday evenings – we cook dinner for the community. This was the dream of a handful of people ten years ago then one of those dreamers, Sue Silliman, died and left us with start up money to begin. That was in 2015. Our first Monday night meal was served on January 3, 2016. At the end of the first year, there were five churches, three Sunday School classes, the UMW, Boy Scout Troop 6, and two restaurants taking a Monday night to serve a meal. The first two meals serve twenty-two people. The most we served that year was 145. Each year, more teams were added. It had become a community mission project. Lynne Rowland and Patsy Hale were two of the leaders that kept this project strong.
When I arrived as the new pastor in the church in mid 2018, we had teams feeding 40-60 people on Mondays at 5:30pm. Some teams cooked and served. Some served while our team did the cooking. Then we had a few restaurants volunteer to do a Monday night. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, we were serving 80-100 people on Monday nights, including a group that had class after dinner.
Who came? It was a mixture from the community. We had many older adults who gathered for a shared meal together. They did not have the resources to gather in one another’s homes or at a local restaurant so they came here. We had many who came because they did not know how to cook. Several told me it was their only hot meal of the week. Some came with their children and grandkids. We had a mother-daughter team, Misty and Ruby Beaver, who always had crafts and activities for the children. Others were hungry. For at least one meal a week, they knew they would eat. Then in March 2020, COVID hit.
Immediately, we switched to drive-through take-out. Our numbers fell to between 30-40 each week. As cases grew, we want to make certain the food preparation was safe so we stopped using volunteers and approached the local restaurants who were shut down. Due to the generosity of Lockheed Martin and other grant writers, we had enough money to purchase restaurant take-out dinners and pay for them. We hoped it would keep these businesses and keep our program going. It was a huge success. The local restaurants that participated were Woods Place, Postmasters Grill, What’s Cooking, Catherines, Pop-eyes, Hickory Hut, and La Loma Mexican Grill. The numbers began increasing again.
We had a former local restaurant owner on our team, Jeanette Pratt, and mid-summer, she asked if we could experiment allowing her team to cook fully masked and gloved. It worked great and soon other teams approached us. We no longer needed teams just to serve. We discovered that it was important to have the same people on the outside handing out meals. They knew and practiced the safety precautions and came to know the people and their needs. Some groups chose to participate under the new rules while other groups had to drop out due to limited or aging volunteers. Gradually most of our regular neighbors returned and we started picking up others.
Don Elsea, a long-time volunteer in our food ministries was hospitalized and he encouraged the nurses to stop on Mondays on their way home to pick up dinner for their families. That started a whole new group coming and we loved knowing we were helping essential workers during the pandemic. When the vaccinations were released, we gave out information on how to get your shot. We answered questions about safety. Our church participated in a program to hand out gift cards to people who got their shots at a downtown pop-up clinic. When the Delta variant hit, we handed out masks in the line. I had two cars that would not get vaccinated. One thought it was all a hoax but the other one was cautious and did not get out without wearing a masks. In November 2021, the man who thought it was a hoax died of COVID. That was devastating.
I became the outside person who ran back and forth which gave me a chance to get to know everyone and their pets! We do ministry with our neighbors on that line. Last year we had to move from an all volunteer coordinator of our food ministries to hiring a staff coordinator. We are now serving over 200 people each week and that has become a financial and volunteer labor challenge for many of our teams. Tate Wunnenberg, our staff coordinator, has worked in the hospitality industry for over thirty years and he is just who we needed to help simplify the process plus find ways we can better serve our neighbors as real neighbors.
In is now 2023 and we have started experimenting coming inside again. The numbers inside have been much smaller but we have changed the way we do things as well. We treat those that come inside as our guests. It has been a learning curve for all of us. As an introvert, I am very awkward at small talk but I am learning. Our neighbors are teaching us how to be good neighbors and that is changing everything.