Vi and Kelly Klucas of Willmar were among nearly 200 people at Calvary Lutheran Church who recently waited on a Sunday night for volunteers to serve plates of cheesy chicken casserole and crunchy coleslaw, along with fruit salad, dinner roll, cookies and beverage.
Calvary and other churches are participating in a program of serving free meals every month to hundreds of people in the community, including the Klucases.
"It's a very good program,'' said Vi. "It's hard to believe they give something free. It's nice to get out. You always have somebody different at your table. Everybody's friendly. That helps.''
She was asked what the couple would do if they didn't have the meals to attend?
"I don't know,'' she replied. "That's what I was wondering. Now I wait for them like a little kid.''
Organizers say the free meals are filling a need for food and fellowship in the community.
The program started 20 months ago with one Willmar church serving about two dozen people and it has grown to 11 participating churches serving upward of 200 or more people at each of eight sites a month.
Some participants may be hungry, while some might be well-off. Some just want to socialize. Some are young. Many are senior citizens, either singles or couples.
Their reasons for participating don't matter, however, because the meals are free and open to anyone.
"I think that's been one of the standing principles that we've had through the whole program,'' said Susan Cafferty, director of parish care ministries at the Willmar United Methodist Church. "From the very beginning, these meals are set up and everyone is invited, regardless of why you're here. If you're coming for fellowship, food or anything, any person who wants to come to our meals is always welcome.''
The program relies on the generosity of church members, donations from businesses and the work of volunteers who set the tables, greet participants, cook and serve the food, and do the cleanup.
The Methodist Church originated the idea when council members were discussing their mission and vision statement at the start of 2008, recalls Pastor Chad Gilbertson. The statement includes a call to provide food where there's hunger, he said.
The council was discussing the two-year United Community Assessment of Needs survey in which a high percentage of Kandiyohi County residents listed having enough money to buy food as one of their main concerns.
"We talked about how we're doing that in the life of the church, and found out that was perhaps an area that we could be doing more in,'' he said.
Gilbertson said the council came up with the idea of offering a monthly meal, open to any community member. The church advertised, recruited volunteers, planned the menu and served the first meal on June 29, 2008.
Gilbertson said no one knew how many people would come. If the volunteers were the only ones who showed up, they'd find other ways to get the word out.
"But what we do know is that those who do come will be served and also that we will continue this,'' he recalled.
Forth-five people showed up for the first meal, which included about 25 volunteers.
"I think volunteers outnumbered the guests from the community that first night,'' said Cafferty. "But what that meant is that our guests who came not only were fed a meal but they were sent home with leftovers and could provide a meal for themselves or their family at least one more time throughout the week.''
Because the church didn't expect a huge number, the volunteers saw the first meal as a success, said Gilbertson.
"We saw that we could prepare a quality meal, that we could serve it to people, that people would be well fed, and people would be happy because it was in an atmosphere where they could visit with one another and be in fellowship,'' he said.
Early on, the Methodist Church offered additional services. They set up a table for blood pressure checks, had an attorney from the congregation discuss legal questions, had an accountant answer money management questions, and a retired social worker helped refer people to social services.
"It wasn't just physical feeding,'' said Gilbertson. "It was feeding other needs as well that people may have come with. Putting the whole package together, I know I certainly walked away from that first meal thinking this is a good thing and I can't wait till next month.''
Other churches heard about the effort and joined the program. They are Harvest Community Church, First Presbyterian Church, Vinje Lutheran Church with Paz y Esperanza, First Baptist Church, Calvary Lutheran Church with Ebenezer Lutheran and Tripolis Lutheran of Kandiyohi, First Covenant Church and Bethel Lutheran Church. Each church serves on a different day.
The program has grown to the point where coordinators from each church meet quarterly to discuss how the program is going, talk about suggestions for improvements, such as offering additional services, and other issues.
"The meetings are a positive way to interact with each other, learning from each other and supporting one another,'' said Julayne Mayer, a co-coordinator at Calvary Lutheran. "We all still have our own way of making things work within our own congregation, but it's nice to hear that we're not the only ones where that didn't quite work or we're not the only ones that have the great idea. It's nice to share that.''
Laura Jorgenson, coordinator of missions at Harvest Church, said the meals fill social, physical and emotional needs.
"We make it a point to sit down and talk to people,'' said Jorgenson. "We encourage them to attend the other meals as well. Some come faithfully every month. There's always a hug and a smile and 'what are you serving today?' It's great to see them.''
Five senior women were among some 200 people waiting for a turkey supper recently at First Presbyterian Church. The women, who asked to remain anonymous, said the meals provide a time for fellowship. They said cooking for themselves and eating alone is no fun.
Sarah Sieck, a co-coordinator at First Presbyterian, said Sundays are often a lonely time for people.
"I think often people are coming for fellowship and that's great,'' she said.