LIMA — “Do this in remembrance of me.” When Christ uttered these words, He wasn’t talking about going to Bible studies. And he wasn’t talking about going to church on Sunday. No, He was talking about the simple act of eating, of breaking bread and passing the cup, one to another. And early Christians took this command to heart. Communal meals were an important part of life in the early church. And even though this idea of communion became ritualized in worship services as the church grew and expanded in influence, believers never forgot the importance of breaking bread together. This has been especially true in America, where church socials and dinners and box lunches have long been a part of our cultural landscape.
In the Lima area, many churches are now expanding on this idea, sponsoring meals not only for members of their own congregations but opening their doors also to the entire community.
Seeking to explain why it is important for churches to reach out to neighbors, regardless of their faith or church affiliation, Kent Wilson, pastor of Lima’s Zion Lutheran Church, invoked another of Christ’s oft-repeated teachings, recorded in the 22nd chapter of Matthew.
“The two commands that Jesus offered us — that summarize everything else — is to love the Lord your God with all heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself,” Wilson said. “[These meals are] a way of thanking God for the opportunities that we have, and to see in our neighbors our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, even if they don’t yet know the name. And to just reach out and be a sign of God’s presence in this world.”
Zion started serving community meals in September 2015. They are served on the last Tuesday of every month at 5 p.m. And even though Zion is located at the corner of Cole Street and Edgewood Drive, very much on the periphery of the city proper, Wilson said that the dinners are always well attended, with attendance typically ranging from 120 to 160 people.
“We certainly get folks from the neighborhood,” he noted. “We’ve got a lot of apartments and duplexes in our area. But we also get some folks that drive in or come in by bus. We have a bus stop right outside at the corner here. They drop off five minutes after every hour, so it’s possible for them to catch a 5 o’clock meal and still be able to catch a bus back home.”
Wilson agreed that the decision to offer community meals does appear to be a growing trend within the Lutheran community. Of the roughly 160 ELCA-affiliated Lutheran congregations in Northwest Ohio, he noted, well over 100 of them are doing some kind of a feeding ministry.
“That’s a tremendous jump in just the last few years,” he said.
While Zion focuses on serving a home-style evening meal, parishioners at Lima’s St. Gerard Catholic Church have opted to offer Sunday lunch, which is served four times a year after the last Mass of the morning has been celebrated. According to parishioner Nancy Taflinger, who coordinates the meals for the parish, the church has been hosting them for about three years now.
“The liturgy committee at St. Gerard’s thought that this would be a great idea to reach out [to the community]”, said Taflinger. “And it was also because of Pope Francis. When we got the new Pope, he is all about feeding the poor. So we thought that would be a great idea to do that.”
The timing of the meals at both St. Gerard and Zion reflects this concern for the poor and needy.
“We try to do it at the end of the month because a lot of people do not get their checks until the first of the month. By the end of the month they’re ready for a meal,” said Taflinger. “That was one of the reasons we chose the end of the month to have our meals.”
According to Wilson, this consideration led Zion as well to schedule its community meals for the last Tuesday of the month.
One of the longest-running community meals in Lima is served at Trinity United Methodist Church every Sunday morning. These have been served since 2008, when Trinity merged with Grace United Methodist Church. The Grace congregation had long been serving a community breakfast on Sundays prior to Sunday School. Trinity had been hosting a hospitality hour for church members on Sundays before services. The hospitality hour turned into a monthly community breakfast, and when the congregations merged they decided to open the doors to the entire community every Sunday.
“It’s us living out the gospel and sharing Jesus’s love with others,” explained Associate Pastor the Rev. Megan Croy. “We’re supposed to feed the hungry. That’s one of Jesus’s commands. But also what we’ve learned is that it’s relationships. It’s no longer just Trinity members serving a meal. But there are some relationships that have begun to form. It’s an opportunity for us to pray with people and just be in ministry with them in times of need.”
All of these ministries rely on the contributions made by church members, both in terms of time and financial support. But as the churches give to the community, so also does the community give to the churches.
Croy noted that Panera Bread contributes pastries and other food items to the Trinity meals every Sunday. Taflinger expressed gratitude to RightWay Food Services, which both donates to and offers discounted food items to the St. Gerard effort. And at Zion, Robyn King has brought in her food truck and taken charge of meal preparation in recent months.
From those who contribute their talents, to those who break the bread in fellowship, it is all about living out the gospel and sharing Jesus’s love with others, according to Croy.
“I think the most beneficial thing to me is the recognition that all people, no matter rich or poor or whatever ethnic background, all of us desire some sort of a community. That’s really what we see forming. It’s a safe community where people can just come and be who they are.”
Reach Dayton Fandray at [email protected]