Good Samaritan Cafe feeds hundreds each Tuesday night
BY JOHN ARMISTEAD
If it's Tuesday, there's a large white banner with bold red letters displayed in front of First United Methodist Church of Ripley:
Good Samaritan Cafe
Serving a hot meal tonight
The "cafe," housed in the church's fellowship hall, served 19 meals on its first night a year ago. On a typical Tuesday night this month, meals will go to more than 350 people who live in Ripley, Blue Mountain, Falkner, Walnut, Pine Grove and many points in between.
"We take Matthew 25 as our guideline," said Phil Wilson, as he hurriedly stacked Styrofoam boxes of meals on a recent Tuesday night.
In Matthew 25, Jesus said when his followers feed "the least of these," they are feeding him.
A completely lay-run ministry, the Tuesday night free meal has evolved from a idea which surfaced in an adult Sunday school class at First Methodist to a program in which several denominations participate.
Wilson, one of the two coordinators for the ministry, added, "Anybody is welcome to come in to eat from the richest to the poorest in town. We don't ask questions."
Almost everyone, however, who takes advantage of the ministry's offer, is needy.
"But their lives are so incredible," said Melinda Marsalis, working behind the counter assembling boxes. "They've been thrown so many curve balls but their spirits are not broken. They come smiling."
Marsalis is Wilson's fellow coordinator, and, like all of the 100 volunteers in the ecumenical ministry, marvels at how fast the numbers have grown.
"We stayed at serving about 200 people each week for a long time," she said. "Then, like all of a sudden, we hit 350, and have been there for the last four weeks."
Filling the gaps
Members of St. Matthew Catholic Church, Ripley Presbyterian Church, First Baptist Church, Springdale Baptist Church, Trinity Assembly of God, United Methodist Tippah Charge, United Methodist Ripley Charge, and First Methodist all take turns providing the food and serving the meals.
The Tuesday night when the operation was observed was First Methodist's turn.
"It really started out trying to fill the gaps," said Richard Babb, as he washed dishes. "Several of us had worked the free Christmas day dinner Wayne and Betty Windham started, and we had delivered meals out in the county.
"We saw some real disadvantaged folks, almost Third World. In our Sunday school class, we talked about what we could do. We weren't sure we could work it out. We didn't even advertise. It grew by word of mouth."
Making things easier
As 4:30 p.m. drew near, the volunteers assembled for a word of prayer by the Rev. Tom Potter, pastor of First Methodist. Then the doors of the cafe opened. Jeannie Fortier manned the registration table, and First Methodist's 93-year-old Ned Novac began playing familiar hymns on the piano in the corner of the room.
"She comes each week and plays," explained Wilson. "We could not overstate what she adds in atmosphere."
One-hundred-fifty plates have been prepared for the initial rush.
"Ninety-five percent of the meals are take out," said Wilson. "What we've come to realize is that we don't serve homeless people, but the working poor. They want to take it home to their families."
The menu varies each week, and those who come for food are asked to register their name, address and any prayer requests they have, but that's all.
"The best thing about this is that it has not yet become institutionalized," said volunteer Bonnie Gardner. "If you come, you're served. We don't proselytize. You don't have to give us your life history. Here you come and receive."
"I think I missed once since the first night and that was because ice was on the road," said Christina Keenum of Tiplersville. Keenum was taking 12 meals to family members, mostly adults. "It's just a blessing."
Eighteen-year-old twins Sherrell and Robert McWilliams of Blue Mountain talked as they dressed the hamburgers in the boxes they were taking out.
"We've got seven people at our house," she said. "It's helping a lot. At least one day you don't have to worry about what you're going to eat tonight."
"It's made things a lot easier," added her brother. "We come every Tuesday night."
Purpose and meaning
The Good Samaritan Cafe touches the lives of those who serve as much as those who are being served.
"I don't know which is better to me, seeing the churches working together across the lines or the people who come in," said Marsalis.
"I've been a member of this church all my life and I'm 70 years old," said Becky Smith. "I think this plus our child care center are the highlights of our church because we're meeting needs."
"It's given our church purpose and meaning," Sue Ellen Babb said succinctly.