By Kristine Thomas
Maybe, it is because the women preparing the meals have reputations as top-notch cooks the lines grew from 40 to more than 400 people.
Maybe, it’s because people know regardless of their circumstances in life,they are welcome.
Or maybe it’s because volunteers believe in a common goal and are willing to work to make it happen.
Whatever the reasons, people flock to the Community Dinners held every Wednesday night at First Christian Church in Silverton.
The volunteers who host the free dinners have been honored with the Silverton Chamber of Commerce’s 2011 Distinguished Service Award, with individual recognition going to First Christian Church Pastor Steve Knox, Cherry Hoffman, Karen Brock, Julie Bersin and Lynn Koig.
“I think what makes the dinners successful is teamwork. If we didn’t have teamwork, the dinners wouldn’t have continued,” Bersin said. “We have people from different churches helping out and volunteers who show up and ask what they can do to help. I think the dinners show what can happen when a bunch people work together for a common cause – to help people – to make a difference in our community.”
Silverton residents Carol Centers-Douthit and Fred Douthit nominated the Community Dinners for the award citing, “The concept of providing a safe place for community members to gather and partake in a meal with no strings attached has certainly met a community need.
“Organizers spend countless hours of their own time each week, preparing and cleaning up afterward the meal,” they wrote. “They have embraced other service organizations that have offered their support for the program, which, in turn, engages even more people in community service.”
As she chopped tomatoes, 79-year-old Shirley Cavanaugh said she started volunteering at the dinners almost three years ago with her fellow parishioners from St. Paul’s Catholic Church.
“I think people come here because besides feeding their bodies, we also feed their souls,” Cavanaugh said. “I know people who are lonely and they come here for the friendship.”
Although guests may be greeted by him or a Mount Angel Abbey seminarian, there is no evangelizing, Knox said.
“We want our actions to speak louder than our words,” Knox said. “We want God’s love to radiate and we want to be a place open to all and where all feel comfortable coming.”
Too often, society finds a way to separate people whether it is by their religion, income or politics, Knox said.
What makes the Wednesday Community Dinners special is all that is forgotten because everyone shares the belief and the desire to do something to benefit the community, Knox said.
“This dinner is about the larger ecumenical community – we are just the host church – and we believe God has a hand in it,” Knox said. “We enjoy seeing the friendships that have formed because of this and how people have stepped up to help out.”
Stirring a crock pot filled with chicken and gravy, Bersin estimates more than 50,000 meals have been served since the program began in the fall of 2008.
Although she worries each week if she has prepared enough food, Bersin said they have never run out.
“There was one evening I was sure we would run out of food,” she said laughing. “We told Pastor Knox to go and pray. We opened the oven and there were two trays of food.”
They take leftovers to St. Joseph’s Shelter in Mount Angel. They receive food donations from Silverton Area Community Aid, Marion-Polk Food Share, Bruce-Pac and individuals. When the dinners started four years ago, the group received a $100 donation from First Christian Church to purchase food. They have never used it because every week they receive donations from individuals – anywhere from a handful of coins to $20 and have always been in the black.
Working in retail, Karen Brock of First Christian Church saw what was happening to businesses in Silverton and the impact it had on people, many who had lost their jobs in 2008.
“It bothered me that there were so many people going without food and I felt strongly that I needed to do something,” Brock said.
She met with Knox and shared her idea of providing a weekly community dinner. She convinced Bersin and Hoffman to help out. The first dinner they served, 39 people attended. Now, the average is 400.
“Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t see the three different churches working together, now they are,” Brock said. “We don’t evangelize to people. We just welcome them and feed them.”
Brock has talked to many seniors who are either widows or widowers.
“I had someone tell me that he knows he can come here on a Wednesday night and get a hot meal and not have to eat out of a can over his kitchen sink,” she said. “Another family moved here on a Wednesday, saw our sign and stopped in. They said they had no idea how they were going to feed their five children that night.”
They have high school students who are “couch surfers,” including one who comes after school on Wednesdays and naps on the couch until dinnertime.
“There was a homeless man who came to dinner and afterward a member of our church and another church drove him to the Union Gospel Mission,” Brock said. “Everyone is welcome here.”
They served Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners – always on real plates with silverware donated from the Mount Angel Abbey. Volunteers include St. Paul’s Catholic, First Christian, Immanuel Lutheran and Friends churches, Canyonview Camp staff, 4-H groups, high school students and Boy Scouts from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
First Christian member Linda McCallister along with Del Jury makes all the bread for the dinners – from hamburger rolls to French bread.
“Just like people have their pews in church, they have their tables here,” McCallister said. “There are young and old people sitting together. If a regular misses a dinner, someone checks up on them.”
Brad Brenden doesn’t mind wearing a flowery apron when he washes the dishes – something that keeps him busy since they have only 350 plates. “Everyone who volunteers here is a hero,” Brenden said.
As Carol Anderson shops for food for the dinners, she often meets other volunteers or dinner guests – who refer to her as “Catholic Carol.”
“I have found a friendlier community because of these dinners,” she said. “I now know people I would have never met if it hadn’t been for the dinners. I am grateful for Father William and Pastor Steve working together and grateful for all the people who come from all walks of life working together for a common goal.”