By Brett Hetherington*
Providing a community meal has been a ministry of West Austintown First United Methodist Church (Mahoning Valley District) since 2016. There’s never a cost for the meal, just a basket inviting the 80 – 100 diners to give if they felt called – and a resounding assurance that it’s not an expectation to do so.
“It wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill dinner. We tried to produce some good food, especially for the folks who are not able to go out to eat on a regular basis, so it was really focused on building community and reaching out to the community around us as well,” shared the Rev. Jeffery Harrison.
The monthly meal was always a sit-down, dine-in event – until COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Ohio last March. In addition to altering our daily routines, the deadly pandemic caused the folks of West Austintown to change how, and how often, it served the community meal.
“I felt like we needed to offer this meal weekly when COVID hit so I asked the folks who had helped previously,” Harrison said. The band of faithful volunteers answered the call and every Thursday for five months the church offered a drive-thru meal service, until transitioning in August to providing meals on the first and third Thursday of each month.
It’s estimated that the church has served more than 8,000 meals since July 2016. Volunteer Jeanette King said there never seems to be a lack of supply on the Thursdays that meals are served.
“As followers of Christ, we are His hands on earth. Following His guidance for our church has been a blessing to all who have helped. Food for the hungry. We always seem to have enough food prepared to share with everyone who comes,” she shared.
The ways in which the meals are provided has changed a little bit during the pandemic but the ways that relationships with those being served have been created and deepened has changed a lot.
“It was definitely easier when people were coming in and sitting down and we were able to engage not only the folks from the church who are attending but also the folks from the community engaged get to know them, and we probably had a good 20 to 25 people who would come monthly just for the dinner and, you know, sit down and chat with each other,” said Harrison.
Amidst the COVID pandemic the church is discovering that building community doesn’t always have to happen in the same way it did before March of 2020. Harrison and his team of volunteers are regularly discovering that people who come through to receive meals are making connections with the church they might not have without this meal, or even the advent of a global pandemic.
“I would say there’s been about four or five folks who have come through and they told us they enjoyed the message on Sunday, that they saw on the Facebook page – or people that we’ve never had contact with before and they only come to the church parking lot for the dinners – like they’ve never even come inside for worship,” Harrison offered.
The community meal is all about people helping people. That help flows in all directions.
Some of the help has come from the Methodist Foundation of Ohio, which was looking to support churches that were offering feeding programs. The Foundation’s Executive Director Brian Sheetz posted on Facebook asking, “How is your church helping your community during the pandemic?” Harrison responded and following a conversation with Sheetz about the community meal the Foundation provided the church a $1,000 grant to defray its costs.
“Without a set price we were relying on donations and faith. Some people would come through and not be able to give anything and that was fine. Some people would come through and give $20 or $50. If it wasn’t for the contributions from the Foundation, we wouldn’t have been able to start or maintain those weekly dinners,” Harrison said.
Help has also come from members of the community who have sent contributions to the church with notes that read, “it’s just for the dinners, please help as many people as you can.” By Harrison’s count, the church has received over $1,000 in donations from people with whom it only has contact because of the Thursday night dinners.
“For two years, we at FUMCWA have served as the hands and feet of Jesus by providing Farm-to-Family food boxes and drive-thru suppers. It has changed my life as I can now grasp the notion that the need is real and this sacred serving is one way to fill that physical need,” shared volunteer Leslie Reedy. “The community actually anticipates our service as the lines of cars are long and the people receiving suppers are so grateful. I look forward to every other Thursday with joy and humility.”
The COVID restrictions in place do have their upside. There are no tables to set up. Cleanup is minimal at the end of the evening. And with no more than 10 people allowed at a time helping serve, the team of approximately 30 volunteers can rotate their serving times and not succumb to burnout so easily.
Despite the trials of this past year, the people of West Austintown UMC have taken this opportunity to adapt how they serve their community. It may not look the same as it did before 2020, but it certainly has just as much impact. Perhaps even more.
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.