On Sept. 1, 2004 the first community meal was held at the New Community United Methodist Church. There were 30 volunteers on hand for the spaghetti and meatball dinner. A sole attendee arrived that evening, vegetarian Dave Maguire.
“I have come out for this meal, off and on, since day one,” Maguire said. “They have taken my being a vegetarian into consideration and always make a good dish,” said Maguire, 76, who lives alone and comes to socialize.
Ron Shilling, 70, also comes to socialize with his buddies, to catch up on the latest gossip around town. Shilling lives alone and has been attending the community meal for about 10 years for the fellowship.
“Many elderly who need socialization look forward to these weekly meals. We also have families on a limited budget attend as a way to help defray food costs,” Ginger Straughn, originator of the community meal, said. “We get a lot of negative community feedback because people think we’re enabling the homeless. In reality we average 40-60 attendees each week and only six or seven are homeless ... but it really doesn’t matter who we feed if they’re hungry.”
That sentiment is proudly displayed on a wooden plaque hanging above the kitchen counter for all to see: For I was hungry and you fed me.
Feather Johnson and her boyfriend have been homeless for about a month. They were there with her five-year-old son, Arrow Williamson, who lives with Johnson’s mother. For personal reasons, Johnson can’t live in her mother’s home.
“We’re not able to cook a good meal,” Johnson said, “so we enjoy coming here. We’re also spending the night afterwards. When it got down to 18 degrees at night, that’s when we started staying at the churches. It’s just too cold to sleep outside.”
Troy Rowland, 58, has been homeless after he walked out of his marriage five years ago. He currently lives on the streets with his girlfriend. They spend five nights a week at the church shelters, and the other two, he said they just walk.
“I want to get off the streets,” Rowland said. “I’m not asking anyone for any money. I’ve been trying to get up and get out, but keep getting knocked down. I had a motor home given to me and was restoring it inside and out. It was registered non-op and had a broken windshield. Well, it got towed and now I’m back on the streets again. I’ve been a union carpenter for 40 years. My nephew and I clean the area behind the Chevron to help the community, but no one notices that. I don’t steal, don’t drink, don’t do drugs. I just want to work.”
One homeless couple, who wished to remain anonymous, have lived on the streets off and on for four years. She came with two large suitcases and a backpack looking for an electrical outlet to charge her cell phone. She has family in the area, and said she would rather sleep on the streets than spend the night at the church shelter because “it’s better than fighting with the homeless there.” She added that she wants desperately to get off the streets.
“Most of the homeless have family in the area, but for a number of reasons, they live on the street,” Straughn said. “A lot of homeless have drug and alcohol problems, and that’s a disease. Remember, we shouldn’t judge others because we’re all God’s children.”
With laughter erupting throughout the meal preparation, it’s apparent that the volunteers enjoy preparing and serving the meal as much as the attendees enjoy the food, warmth, and camaraderie.
“I’m always energized and happy when I go home,” volunteer Joann Merickel said, “because I’ve had such a good time here. When God gives you an opportunity to help, to do something for others, you need to step-up and do something.”
“This is so rewarding,” volunteer Gina Coleman added. “It’s a way for us to give back to our community.”
The idea of a weekly community meal in Oakhurst came about quite by chance.
“The pastor at that time, Jim Luther and I went to donate clothing at the Methodist Church in Selma,” Straughn explained, “and they said in addition to handing out clothing to those in need, they offered meals. I asked Jim why we couldn’t do something like that, and he responded, why can’t we?”
Later, at a general meeting, church members were asked if they would support this idea, and after unanimous agreement, preparation and plans were quickly set in motion. The church set up a special fund for the meal, and in 2009, they were the recipient of the monster rummage sale funds - $26,400, which allowed them to remodel the kitchen. Over the past 10 years, volunteers have faithfully prepared weekly dinners, serving about 31,200 meals. When the crowd is smaller than usual, attendees can have seconds and are given carefully wrapped food packages to take with them. Nothing goes to waste and the gathering comes to a close when all the food is gone.
While the meals are always served at the United Methodist Church, two other area churches volunteer to prepare the meals two weeks out of the month. On the first Wednesday of the month, the Anglican Church prepares the meals; and on the second Wednesday, the Episcopal Church prepares the meals. The volunteers at the United Methodist Church prepare the meals the other weeks.
“We are always in need of volunteers,” Straughn said. “Any amount of help you can give is appreciated. It’s also so very nice to have someone who can just come and walk around, talk with our guests or just have dinner with someone new. This is our gift to the community ... with no strings attached.”
Shelter & meals• Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church on Saturdays and Sundays at 7 p.m. Dinner is offered on Saturdays only, beginning at 6 p.m.
• United Methodist Church on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, dinner served Wednesdays only, beginning at 5:30 p.m.
• EV Free Evangelical on Thursdays, with dinner served at 6 p.m. Showers are also available.
To volunteer: New Community United Methodist Church, (559) 683-2652.