By Joshua Del Rosario
Sharing a meal has always been a part of the Baptist tradition. It’s a symbol of hospitality and fellowship, and just a great opportunity to get to know others around the table.
Chesley Baptist Church, about two and half hours northwest of Toronto, offered a sit-down community meal every other week in the basement of their church.
Then COVID hit.
Knowing the great initiative that was happening, United Way approached them to think about doing a walk-in and takeout format, in place of the sit-down meal. Chesley was on board, and on April 9, 2020, the ministry continued with 60-70 takeout meals being served each week. Fast forward to today, and they’re churning out 180-200 meals every Thursday, feeding those who are underserved, unhoused and seniors.
Pastor Dean and Maxine Bender have been leading the way, but not without a committed team of volunteers by their side. Leading up to the Thursday afternoon meal service, they spend Mondays (and sometimes Tuesdays) shopping for the ingredients, and meal prep on Wednesdays. Then on Thursday, they start their day at 8:00 am to put it all together in time for the 11:30 AM meal service.
In addition to all the shopping and prep, they make calls to recipients–many of which are seniors–up until Wednesday to make sure they know to expect a meal coming to their door.
“Seniors often really appreciate the phone call and are lonely. So, for some the phone call is maybe not as important as the meal, but it is important” explains Maxine. Dean adds, “When you call them and have a conversation, they let their guard down, tell you how things are going. We have a great relationship with a lot of seniors in our community that the food gets delivered to.”
This level of attention is evident in all aspects of the operation. In their files, they’ve documented the recipients who require gluten and dairy-free accommodation. While meals go in boxes, people certainly don’t.
Some of the volunteers come from beyond the four walls of the church. There are a consistent 10-11 volunteers that help run the operation. There are volunteers who help bake and prep ingredients throughout the week, and those that help with the meal prep, packing, serving walk-ins, and delivery of the meals on the day-of.
“When we first proposed this to the church, we asked for volunteers, but we need a commitment. You can’t show up one week and not the other week, because we need the help. And they’ve been with us the whole stretch. Then random people phoned us [once they heard about it] whether they could help, and that’s how the other volunteers came in to be with us. Now some attend church on a weekly basis. Like Patsy–she phoned us up randomly–she does all the dishes and clean-up, and she asked whether she could help and now she’s coming to church regularly,” says Dean. “Everybody pitches in. We wouldn’t be able to do it without this group. It wouldn’t be possible.”
People are being fed, and connections are being made.
“The community connects. The community knows. Randomly, we get stuff and they donate, just to keep it going. And the joy of working with all these volunteers; It’s like, we go home and we’re exhausted, but happy. Not unhappy. It’s a great joy to serve,” share Dean and Maxine. They describe how many recipients feel by saying how this is like a little bit of light in the week, especially during this period of COVID.
While it has been a joy to serve through this community meal, other needs that have been brought to light. Dean and Maxine are looking towards the future. When asked about what needs to be done, or said, to raise awareness about the need around them, this is what they shared:
“The rural area has really lost its voice on what is actually going on in the community and especially in church. It’s really lost its voice on how you move forward in a community–to serve in a community. Because a lot of churches in our area are just trying to survive with what they have to keep the door open. And in my mind, if you do that, you will die. You need to be more proactive because people aren’t lining up to get into church anymore. So, you have to go where the need is. What’s the first thing you do? You feed them. And that’s how you reach people.”
Dean exhorts churches, “The line I like to use is, ‘Find out where God is working and join him there.’ Don’t try to invent something on your own because if God’s not in it, it’s going to fail. That’s a given. So, find out where the need is, where God is working and join him there. And the volunteers will come.”
Maxine shares some hopes for the future, “I pray that young people in ministry would have a missionary heart and leave urban centres and come minister in the rural settings because we need that. It seems like we have a void. The churches need help in so many ways in rural Ontario–financially, a lot of them–but they need people with a missionary heart to go out and make disciples–I don’t even like to use the words “as a career”–We need younger recruits.”
While the community meal has been a great success thus far and has made connections with so many people, there’s an underlying prayer, that the torch, or in this case, the plate, will be passed to the next generation to serve the community.
“Our hope is that this carries on, way beyond when we’re gone; that somebody else will pick up the mantle and run with it. That’s the prayer, that’s the hope, that’s the vision. Because the need is not going to go away when society is back to normal, when COVID is behind us. The same need is going to be there.”