MACEDONIA: It doesn’t matter why they’ve come to dinner.
Maybe they have been too busy to cook.
Maybe they don’t get out much and want some company.
Maybe the paycheck didn’t stretch far enough, and the cupboard is a bit bare.
As the Rev. Russell Ham tells his volunteers — assembled in the cafeteria at United Methodist Church of Macedonia — the food is just a vehicle for reaching people’s hearts.
“We’re here to serve a need, whatever that need may be,” he said.
Since February, the church has been hosting a free community meal every Thursday from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
This is no cafeteria buffet.
A hostess greets diners at the door. Some folks wave to waiting friends and hurry to their regular tables, while those who come alone are seated at round tables where they can make new acquaintances.
Servers bring a basket of bread and take orders. Ham and cheesy potatoes and chicken a la king are on the menu this night.
The tables are dressed in colorful blue tablecloths and yellow flower centerpieces.
“If I had them come to my home, I would have those things,” hospitality leader Sandy Leader said in explaining the extra amenities. “Hospitality is just as important as the food that is served. Everything is made and done with love and care.”
And if someone lets slip that a dinner companion is celebrating a birthday or anniversary, a cupcake and a band of singers won’t be far behind.
It takes about 50 volunteers — from this church, other churches and the community at large — to pull off this 90-minute affair each week, meal director Deb Borgas said.
More than a dozen bakers worked at home to create the cakes and confections covering two dessert tables, with bite-sized portions so diners can sample more than one.
Other helpers arrived earlier in the day to produce the entrees. Recent weeks have featured lasagna roll-ups, barbecue chicken, spaghetti and meatballs and chicken paprikash.
For kids, hot dogs and macaroni and cheese are a staple.
Meanwhile, those who wait tables are tasked with keeping an eye out for people who might need a little more attention.
“If you think someone needs an extra meal to take home and they’re too shy to ask, offer it to them,” Ham told his servers during his weekly kitchen pep talk, which always ends in a prayer.
He also encourages volunteers to collect contact information from regulars who live alone so if they miss a meal, someone can call to check on their well-being.
Church member and volunteer server Joe Pannitto says the Thursday event has the feel of a large family gathering.
“You see the same people each week,’’ Pannitto said.
‘‘They really look forward to having a night out with friends.”
For Borgas, there has been great satisfaction in watching some individuals blossom.
She recalls how one woman came alone that first night and made fast friends, “and now she eats every week with a whole group, and she’s the life of the party.”
At the far end of the dining room, Mary Testa and Ron Wolfe sit with 12 friends — all seniors who met hanging out at a local lunch counter and decided to bring their weekly gathering to the church.
“I’ve only missed two weeks since it started, and that’s when I was in the hospital,” Wolfe said.
The friends use the evening to catch up on “doctors, hospitals and pills,” quipped Don Phillips.
“And politics and sports,” another voice calls out.
‘God will provide’
The weekly meal is not in the church’s budget. The entire operation is run through donations, which have come from local businesses, civic organizations, individuals and a donation jar made available in the dining room on meal night.
Borgas says she’s not nervous anymore about where the money will come from.
“We’re confident the means will come through. God will provide,” she said.
The goal is to keep the cost of meals to $2 or less.
Although there is no way to know how many diners will show up, Borgas has also grown confident that there always will be enough food.
For the first meal held in February, she expected 50 people. More than 80 showed up, and there were still enough leftovers to donate to Haven of Rest.
Now, more than 200 people routinely come to dinner.
While there is a steady core of volunteers, more than 100 people have helped during a meal, including a Cub Scout and Girl Scout troop and the Nordonia High School National Honor Society.
That’s one thing that never gave the Rev. Ham cause to worry.
“The truth is, people want to serve,” he said. “You just have to give them an opportunity.”
To donate or volunteer for the community meal, contact the church, at 1280 E. Aurora Road, at 330-467-3169.
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.