Monday, February 9, 2009

Front Page News that is Hopeful

As bread is broken, neighbors find unity

Free meal fills stomachs, lifts spirits each Tuesday.


Tribune Staff Writer

SOUTH BEND — "I heard they feed well," says 21-year-old Tony Elliott, among the first ones to line up in the bitter cold.

Several minutes later, Lorraine Bailey also walks up to the door of the Monroe Circle Community Center at Western Avenue and Taylor Street. She comes as much for the conversation as the food.

Denise Martin of Granger Community Church serves drinks to Tony Elliott and DiAnna Thompson at The Gathering, a weekly meal at the Monroe Circle Community Center in South Bend.

"Nice people you see on the street every day," she says.

And, she adds, there's the spiritual message that comes each time they dine.

At 54, she was laid off from her hotel housekeeping job in November and is waiting to be hired back in March or April. She goes to some food pantries but doesn't really go to other free community meals.

People sometimes wait outside an hour or more for these weekly Tuesday meals, known as The Gathering. Sometimes they are turned away because there's enough space inside for just 55 adults, plus some kids, says coordinator LeRoy King.

Doors typically open by 6:30 p.m. — make that 6:19 on this night. The crowd steps into a thick, warm aroma of gourmet coffee and hot cocoa. Volunteers from Granger Community Church greet them. Smiles. Handshakes. Hugs.

The diners take their seats at cozy little round tables draped with white cloths, maroon place mats and white and black balloons. Volunteers take orders, then deliver potato chips and dip with tall cups of soul-thawing cocoa or coffee.

"We are trying to create a place where they can have community with their neighbors," King says. "Our goal is not to treat them as second-class citizens. One thing we always tell them is that they matter and that they are loved by God."

The Gathering started in June. It's part of the Granger church's ministry here in a strip of old storefronts that the church renovated into a sleek, modern school, food pantry and other programs.

The meal, King says, targets next-door neighbors in the apartment complexes of the South Bend Housing Authority and the 46601 ZIP code area, but anyone is welcome.

"It's more like home," says David Johnson, 46, who lives in the Monroe Circle complex and often brings neighbors with him.

What he enjoys, he says, is "to see people eating here, to see them in a more relaxed atmosphere."

"It allows you to meet people from other walks of life," says Eileen Wade, 56. "When you think you have problems, you find someone whose problems are worse than yours."

But make no mistake, she says: That one meal makes a financial difference "when you're on a limited income and you only get a lousy $10 in food stamps (per month)."

Raymond Seiler, 64, tunes in to the spiritual presentation, a scaled-down version of the church's weekend services. Some of it is on the TV screens in the room, a Christian message with a rhythm-and-blues beat that moves the diners to sway. King also speaks, but so do other church members, like Mike Jackson, who had seen President Barack Obama's inauguration in Washington, D.C.

"You don't hear one person talking," says Seiler, a retiree who also picks up food boxes here each month. "You can hear a lot of people getting the message across about Jesus Christ. In church, you only hear one person, and everyone else has to shut up."

Meanwhile, children are in a room next door with more elbow room for their energetic bodies. They are coloring sheets of Noah's ark, sipping water and munching on chips. Ten to 20 kids show up weekly for a meal and a Christian activity.

The food then comes in both rooms. In the past there has been spaghetti, turkey, soups ... really, just a variety. This time it is a form of broken bread, that biblical symbol of communion: Subway sandwiches.

Staff writer Joseph Dits:
(574) 235-6158

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