GRANITE CITY, Ill. (BP)–Paula spends her secluded days scouring the streets, searching for roadside trash that catches her fancy. She’s been gathering dusty jars and discarded trinkets for at least a half-dozen years, adding them to the growing collection in her modest apartment.
She lives alone in an apartment in Granite City, Ill., where the landlord turns her heat off at night to cut corners on his utility bills. Paula (not her real name) said he has told her she’ll be out on the streets if she reports him. She’s been kicked out of apartments before so she knows how hard it is to find a place to live. Most landlords don’t like her cherished collection in their buildings, so she remains silent about this latest injustice.
Her trash menagerie provides most of her company. A grown daughter lives on the other side of town, but she seldom sees her; a son lives farther away. Her boyfriend seems more enamored with his visits to the Casino Queen, a riverboat gambling establishment docked along the Mississippi River in East St. Louis. She grew up Catholic but isn’t attending any church.
But one afternoon a week, she catches a bus to take her to a stop across the street from Grace Baptist Church. It’s the one place she knows she can get a warm meal and lots of conversation at Meals Of Love, a ministry fueled by volunteers from 13 churches in the Madison County Baptist Association, roughly half the churches in the association. She is just one of 85 or so making their way to the church every Tuesday, where free meals are plated from 4:30 to 6 p.m.
Some of the other regulars have only a short walk to reach the fellowship hall in the church’s basement. For some, Meals Of Love serves the only balanced meal they will eat all week.
Volunteer drivers navigate church vans through the city’s neighborhoods to bring in other folks. They pick up elderly passengers from the Anchorage Nursing Home and homeless women and children from The Good Samaritan House, a Christian nonprofit agency that provides temporary shelter for them.
Meals Of Love has been serving suppers since June 1992 to people in this corner of Madison County, a struggling industrial community just a short drive from downtown St. Louis. When the ministry sounded its first dinner bell, a sparse eight people were on hand, less than 10 percent who seek out the program today.
The ministry grew out of a concern recognized by the association’s mission development committee almost nine years ago. It’s had three homes, starting in First Baptist Church for three years, moving to Second Baptist for another three and now settled in at Grace Baptist. A baker’s dozen churches take turns preparing the meals, rotating on a schedule so they each take charge of four meals a year.
“But we’re always eager to get more churches involved,” said Jane Raphael, a committee member who has served as the program’s coordinator since its inception. She arrives at 2:30 p.m. nearly every Tuesday, awaiting the volunteers for that day.
Each church has a different way of doing things. Some arrive early and cook in Grace Baptist’s kitchen. Others, such as Pleasant Ridge Baptist of Collinsville, have their meals almost prepared and come in a bit later, with plenty of time to finish it up. The association helps by supplying all the paper products, such as napkins and plates.
Raphael makes sure everything runs smoothly and spends time talking to the people who come through the church’s door. Smaller churches ask for volunteers from the entire congregation to help when their turn rolls around. Larger churches rotate the responsibility through several groups, such as Sunday school classes, so people only need to volunteer once a year.
A two-sided freestanding sign is propped up on Grace Baptist’s lawn near the road, letting people know that the free meals will be served later that day. Folks also hear about the ministry through word of mouth, fliers distributed through town and occasional paid ads placed in local newspapers.
On a recent Tuesday, about an hour before the meal begins, a small group arrives for crafts and Bible studies. Evelyn Maessen teaches women how to do crafts, often with a holiday theme, while her husband leads a Bible study for the men. “We’ve been coming every Tuesday since it used to be at Second Baptist,” Evelyn Maessen said.
Members of First Baptist of Madison were on hand to prepare that evening’s meal. The first van arrives with senior citizens from the nearby nursing home. More people shuffle in. Some show up by themselves; others are husbands and wives with their children in tow. By the time the women and children from Good Samaritan House arrive, volunteers have to slide back a partition and set up more tables to make room for everybody. Church members pass out plastic-foam bowls filled with piping-hot chili ladled over spoonfuls of elbow macaroni, accompanied by a salad. Rather than set up a buffet-style line, church members carry trays to each table and serve each person one at a time.
As volunteers serve squares of flavored red gelatin topped with dollops of whipped cream, Mike Pascal of Granite City steps behind a wooden lectern to kick off the evening’s devotion. It’s his first time to lead this part of the program, which his dad, William, had handled for a couple of years but had to step down because a new job made it impossible for him to get to Grace Baptist on time.
He has some instant fans from the senior citizens just a few feet away. They cajole him into singing one of their favorite tunes, “Jesus Loves Me,” and join in as others finish their meals. Not everyone is as enraptured as the nursing-home residents are. They continue to eat and even carry on their conversations as he works his way through his message.
Pastors and other laypeople will often go from table to table during the meal to connect with people and see what one-on-one ministry opportunities open up. When the devotion wraps up, people trickle out as volunteers begin their clean-up duties.
In March, Meals Of Love will turn to a new chapter in its nearly decade-long ministry when Raphael releases the reins as coordinator. It’s become too much to handle along with her other responsibilities as full-time director of social ministries at Third Baptist of Granite City and her ministry as Bluebell the Clown. She has dressed up as a clown for several years in a unique way to communicate God’s love to others. The local association has found her replacement, pending official action from its board of directors in April.
In the meantime, people like Paula will come as long as the doors are open. She leaves the church to step into the crisp winter night, bundling her thin blouse and windbreaker close to her body and clutching an orange-and-blue shopping bag from Aldi’s. She’s always ready to rescue some abandoned treasure that someone else feels no longer carries any value.
She walks down to her daughter’s house, but no one’s home. Someone else at Meals Of Love is able to give her a ride back to her small apartment and she fades into the night, until next Tuesday.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: MEALS OF LOVE.