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Church invites neighborhood to supper


Volunteers and sponsors contribute time, work and goods to provide top-notch hospitality to their neighbors.
St. Rita's inaugural community supper fed 81 neighbors with ample family-style portions of chicken, potatoes, salad and cornbread, with components donated by local farmers.
Courtesy Dave Bozek
In times of need, the resourceful get inventive; they take stock of their assets and stretch their dollars. For many families treading water in this recession, a well-balanced dinner has become a luxury, and any restaurant without a drive-through is out of the question. At St. Rita Catholic Church, 10029 N.E. Prescott Street, parishioners aspiring to uplift their community saw their kitchen and common room facilities as ripe for a cause. With teamwork, coordination and the enthusiasm of neighbors and friends, they created a venue in which they hope to unite their community through the simple act of hospitality.

On June 20, St. Rita launched its first community dinner, a free meal program with a family-night-out feel. Volunteer hosts acted as maitre d's by greeting newcomers and seating strangers, friends and parishioners alike around seven-seat banquet tables set with linens and adorned with centerpieces. All were welcome to enjoy a wholesome chicken dinner served family style.

“The free Saturday-night-dinner thing was really so that people could come to a dinner without the stress and wonderment of whether they are going to have the money for the outing,” Harry Guildner, organizer of St. Rita's Social Ministry Committee, said of the program's aim. “They can bring their family to this thing, meet new neighbors, have a conversation; really that's what it's all about. There is no religious pressure at all. We're not here to convert; we are just here to be neighbors.”

While many churches provide meal programs directed to rescue specific at-risk populations, the community dinner arrangement draws on the traditions of the church acting as a community center, a custom as old as hospitality itself. “Providing shelter and sustenance for society's most vulnerable have been key links in the success of community forever,” said Bill Gates, pastor of Parkrose United Methodist Church, which has sponsored Thanksgiving dinners and community picnics in the past. “St. Rita is reclaiming the sacredness of that link.” He described meal programs as a barrier breaker that reinforces community ties. “To provide hospitality on a consistent and ongoing basis reveals a deep sense of commitment to strengthening the fabric of community,” he said.

St. Rita parishioner Joe Rossi validated this sentiment. While observing the crowd still chatting as the meal concluded, he said, “All these people would have been home by themselves eating tonight, and the workers too, but instead of being home by themselves, they are here. That is the biggest part: the social part. Getting people out of the house and meeting their neighbors in the community.”

Rossi helped subsidize the effort by eliciting donations to support the event. Even in these tough times, local business owners obliged, with Garre Farms donating the lettuce for the salad and Trapold Farms supplying the potatoes. “We are soliciting sponsors so people would sponsor individual dinners and then businesses will donate if they can. We are trying to make it a community effort.”

“The amount of food we got for our budget was incredible,” Mary Beth Lynn said, who led the kitchen effort with a staff of six volunteers. Lynn - who has catered church dinners and other events, such as weddings, in the past - prepared a dinner of chicken, salad, potatoes, cornbread, brownies and iced tea to serve to the guests.

“Everyone was commenting on how the portions were really big and the food was good,” Rossi said. “Mary Beth took charge of the kitchen. That was the biggest hurdle: getting somebody to have the courage to cook 100 servings of food. But like everything else, once somebody leads the way, everybody else says, 'Hey, I can do that,' and now out of this a lot of people who sat down and ate said they want to help.”

Guildner added, “There is a lot of talent here, (people) who knew what to do already. The whole thing was just getting that talent together and moving forward, and getting that talent to understand that there is nothing to be afraid of.”

Though the idea - conceived about two years ago - took time to percolate and gain momentum, the premeditation resulted in a well-planned event. The food stretched just enough to satisfy all 81 attendees, about a quarter of which held no affiliation with the church. As a dry run for the big event, the church had held a superbowl party last winter, also open to the community, which attracted around 50 attendees.

“The only thing we fell down on was the signs,” Guildner said, citing their inconvenient placement as the only lesson to amend for their next scheduled dinner on July 25. St. Rita's volunteer staff plans to welcome diners from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. every last Saturday of the month through September, though Guildner and others hope to eventually gain enough traction to actuate staging the dinners weekly. “I think word of mouth will get out there and we will have a larger group of people (in the future). It takes a little longer for this thing to get out. About 20 folks here were not parishioners; we would like to see a bigger mix.”

As opposed to the rescue missions run by other ministries in the inner city, a community dinner program, as adopted by St. Rita, answers a more suburban need, where struggling families - many proud and working, yet living in reduced circumstances - predominate.

“Each program has its own character,” Valerie Chapman said, pastoral administrator at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, which runs a dining hall six nights a week and caters to a mostly homeless population on Southeast 11th Avenue and Oak Street. “Every place that does a meal program is assessing what is going on in their neighborhood and what the need is.”

“This is a really important effort on the part of our parishioners,” Chris Kresek said, pastoral administrator at St. Rita. “We really do want to build our relationship with the wider community, and we're very pleased with the turnout we had and the mix of people that were here.”

In addition to attendees, volunteers reap benefits from events like this. “A lot of people showed up and volunteered,” Rossi said, “double of what I expected. We probably had 30 volunteers. It was great. The volunteers need to do it as much as the (attendees) need to do it; we need to do stuff for our community.” Business owners, volunteers, St. Rita parishioners, and families form a community of neighbors by taking a seat at the dinner table together, forming the bridge that helps one another through this time of need.
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