Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations responding to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s call to "Grow Christ's Church Deep and Wide." The call to grow in evangelism, discipleship, servanthood and diversity was adopted by the 2008 General Assembly and renewed by the 2010 General Assembly. — Jerry L. Van Marter
Many churches operate soup kitchens, but First Presbyterian Church in Phoenix, Ore., has taken it a step further by fostering a sense of community.
City leaders and clergy had discussed how to address the economic situation in Phoenix that left many people struggling. First Presbyterian offered to host free dinners twice a month, but pastor the Rev. Mike Foster wanted to address more than economic needs.
"We marketed this as being for everyone, regardless of whether you are hungering for something spiritual, emotional or physical," Foster said. "There's something here for you. Everyone in the community has an open invitation."
Phoenix is home to many senior citizens, and while they can afford meals, they often eat alone, missing out on a relationship with the community.
"We wanted to do something a little broader than saying if you are homeless, out of work, or on disability we can give you a meal," Foster said. "We wanted to put it out there and say, 'If you want to come down and experience some community, come down, we're here.'"
Foster noted another benefit of putting the emphasis on the community and all of its needs.
"Those who are coming because they are having financial difficulty can participate with the rest of the community and not feel everyone is looking at them and labeling them," he said.
The program allows community members to do things with and for their fellow residents.
"This truly is a community dinner," said the Rev. Hugh Anderson, co-executive presbyter of the South Region of the Presbytery of the Cascades. "It's an excellent way for the church to be involved in the community and to get out and get to know people but it's also an excellent way for the community to get to know First Presbyterian Church and the ministry, mission and opportunities present there."
To get the program started, the church accepted donations from members as well as the mayor, city manager, chamber of commerce and other city officials. First Presbyterian also consulted with the health inspector and operates the kitchen under the Benevolent Kitchen License.
The meals, served in the fellowship hall, have begun to draw more people.
"We had 50 or so people at the first ones, some of those volunteers who just wanted to see what was happening," Foster said. "As we've done more, word got out and the numbers have been growing. We served 200 plus in June and about 150 in July. "
Diners include a good cross-section of the community, Foster said. Some people come in alone, eat and leave. Others see the meals as a family dinner and gather to talk and share. Those who are able to contribute do so, but no one is pressured to give.
First Presbyterian is also looking into ways to entertain its guests. Choir rehearsals used to be held on Thursday nights, so the singers would sometimes indulge diners by taking requests. But rehearsals are now at another time, so the church is exploring other options.
"We'd like to have activities for kids and for adults, whether it be singing or games," Foster said. "We'd like something to add a different dynamic into it."
First Presbyterian decided early on to not have scripture readings or Bible studies at the dinners.
"We decided not to include that type of evangelism because it can be touchy. Sometimes there is some abuse of that type of thing and we did not want to do that because it would turn some people away," Foster said. "If they felt uncomfortable, they wouldn't come and we didn't want that to happen. We want to feed them where they are and make them comfortable so they would come."
Support from the community has been plentiful. The church got a grant from Interfaith Care Community, an agency that serves homeless people and veterans. With the grant, First Presbyterian was able to buy 600 pounds of beef for hamburgers.
Volunteers have also given their time. At first, the work of organizing the dinners fell on one church member, who recruited volunteers to cook and prepare. Now, local restaurant Debby's Café has stepped in, preparing most of the meals in its kitchen. Church members pick up the food and prepare salads and other dishes.
And servers come from the community too, Foster said.
"We have a local juvenile foster care program that sends boys to help do the service and we get others who are looking to do community service work," he said. "The mayor, city manager, various council members, they've all been hands on with helping."
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.