An Appetite for Serving: Community meal creates camaraderie and connection
Jean Browne’s and Jim and Sally Thompson’s enthusiasm is contagious as they talk about the work they are doing at Brookdale Reformed Church.
Jim, Sally, and Jean coordinate a community meal on the last Saturday of each month, when many folks have nothing left from their welfare checks with which to buy food. People from the church serve a hot meal to 30 to 60 guests, many of whom live in cars or wherever they can find shelter. Everyone is welcome.
Seven years ago, during the peak of the economic crisis, the congregation provided a Thanksgiving meal on the Saturday following the holiday. Many of the people in their economically diverse community of Bloomfield, New Jersey, had neither the resources nor much reason to celebrate. That first Thanksgiving meal was such a success, Jim, Sally, and Jean extended it into a monthly meal for a six-month trial period. At first, the number of people who came to eat didn’t grow; the trio set a date to reevaluate whether the results were worth the effort. When that date came around, the number of guests doubled!
The meal was initially advertised on Craigslist, and then by word of mouth. One regular guest has made it his mission to personally invite people in the neighborhood and those who attend some of the other community kitchens in the area.
Jim, Sally, and Jean have come up with a routine that works. First, Sally sets the menu along with the kitchen team. Another dedicated woman, Pat, makes phone calls to people in the congregation asking them to bring main dishes, sides, and desserts; members who are unable to cook often make donations. An RCA CARE Network grant contributes to the meat purchases and other supplies. Several outsiders have made generous donations toward the community meal. The balance is paid from the church’s budget.
The food is plentiful and served buffet-style. Seconds are encouraged, and each guest may request a takeaway meal.
“We try to make each meal a party,” Sally says, “complete with flowers and decorations. We choose a theme and decorate the room accordingly. In March, we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day and served corned beef and cabbage.”
While the meal was initially established to feed hungry stomachs, the servers and the guests find that the Saturday meal fills social and spiritual needs too. The meal has become a way for neighborhood people to get to know one another. Dinner time is 4:30, but the coffee pot is on by 3:00 for those who like to come early to socialize. Many of the guests use that time to play the piano and sing together.
The benefits extend to congregational members as well. Many of them have built friendships with guests. Though some started out timidly, they now sit down among the guests to eat and chat. They bond with each other, too, as they work side by side cooking, serving, and cleaning up.
Jim emphasizes that there is no “hard sell” of religion. “The guests know they are in church,” he says, “but we don’t make them listen to a sermon before they eat.” At each meal, one of the elders chooses eight to ten verses from the Bible by theme, writes them out, and places them on the table. Before the meal, the guests enjoy guessing what the theme is. Guests are also invited to write their prayer requests on cards, and elders pray for them until the next meal.
The guests are very complimentary about the cooking and always thank the servers. “We don’t do it to be thanked, but because we receive so much in return,” Jean says.
Pray for people who struggle to put food on the table, and for individuals and ministries that help them.
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