Food preparation and service will occur each Tuesday evening at the College United Methodist Church. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

A familiar feel will return to the College United Methodist Church’s social hall beginning Sept. 6 with the launch of what organizers are calling the Philomath Community Meal. For more than two decades, the Neighbor to Neighbor Soup Kitchen operated in the space before it shut down with the retirement of its longtime coordinator.

Pastor Jim Pierce had tried to drum up interest among the church’s remaining volunteer contingent to keep the long-running program in place. But the numbers just weren’t there and the last meal was served in the final week of 2021.

“When Glenda (Plant) retired, no one in the immediate church stepped up to take over because it’s a huge thing,” church member Peter Finn said. “So the thought was to bring the Christian churches of Philomath together to use our facility to do the same thing — but with a little different twist.”

The twist was to sort of rebrand the weekly meal as a community event. Beyond those who help out with food service, organizers invited several other churches to just show up and enjoy a meal of fellowship together.

“So it’s more of a community event weekly than just a soup kitchen … it’s more of everybody’s on the same boat, on the same level, whether you’re serving or being serving,” Finn said.

The Philomath Community Meal will happen each Tuesday at College United Methodist Church (1123 Main St.) with a start time of 6 p.m.

“We’ll have a meal and then we’ll have someone get up for a short period of time and speak about what Jesus has done in their life and immediately go into some music for about 45 minutes before we do our final cleanup,” Finn said when an evening would look like. “There again, that’s a matter of making it more of a community celebration each time.”

“We want everybody to come. It’s not like it’s hey, if you’re not a card-carrying Christian then you’re not allowed to come to the meal. We really want everybody to come.” PETER FINN, COLLEGE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

As of this week, other churches committed to helping with the weekly event include New Life Fellowship, Living Faith Community Church, Peace Lutheran Church, Philomath Community Church and The Refuge. Other churches could be getting involved in the future.

“I think as this gets going, some of those other churches will get involved,” Finn said.

Pierce said the meal is open to anyone. Sure, folks who can benefit with a free meal from week to week are welcome but organizers invite anyone to come down to share the room with a meal, conversation and good music.

“People are wanting to come in and sit down and talk,” Pierce said. “We’re getting a lot of people wanting to know when the church is going to start up their omelet dinners again. … Not quite ready to start that yet but with this, we can get this going and bring people back together again.”

The Benton County Health Department provides oversight with established rules when it comes to preparing and serving meals. The food will all be made on site in the church kitchen and those involved have food handlers’ cards. The county also puts its stamp of approval on meals to be served and perform routine inspections.

Volunteers from The Refuge will handle preparation duties for the first meal, Finn said. Following a short testimonial, singers from Living Faith Community Church will entertain to end the evening.

“The simple thing is encouraging each other, just being able to sit and encourage somebody,” Finn said. “And then to share Jesus Christ with them, to me, is a big issue. It really helps them to kinda have this flow in their lives that’s outside of just surviving from meal to meal.”

One component of the previous hot meal program that had been in place is that it had to be a secular event with no religious or spiritual basis. The Philomath Community Meal program has opted to not participate in receiving items from any food banks.

“When the food bank gets involved, you can’t have religious overtones,” Pierce said. “So part of the idea was we won’t be getting food bank food because that comes with restrictions on it. Now that we’re able to open it up to be more overtly a Christian thing, then the other churches are able to come in and we can handle it differently.”

Finn said the other churches were very receptive to the idea to establish the weekly free meals.

“Really, we were working on faith to begin with but when I started making phone calls, you know, immediately there were at least 20 people that were saying, ‘yeah, we’re really interested’ and people stepped up,” Finn said. “In terms of how we keep generating, I actually think it’s going to build momentum as this goes out there and people realize it’s a fun thing to do.”

Finn can see the Philomath Community Meal becoming an activity that provides a variety of benefits.

“I think it’s really important for the community and I also think it helps build unity,” Finn said. “At the same time, there’s a lot of need out there, too, so we really want … people who could use a free meal every week. And not only did they need a free meal but they need a little bit of fellowship at the same time.”

Finn sees the opportunity as a social gathering that people can build on, especially for those who have become isolated over the past few years.

“So this is trying to get people out and enjoy each other, build each other up and encourage each other,” Finn said.

The Philomath Community Meal program accepts donations of money and certain types of food. Contributions are tax deductible under the nonprofit status of the College United Methodist Church.

“We’re putting the funds together ourselves and donations as we go out and ask,” Finn said. “As the word gets out, there will be some other places that are willing to give us food, or even from people’s gardens and the like.”

Finn said people who want to donate can do so through the church. For information, email PhilomathCommunityMeal@gmail.com.

“We don’t want the people that are coming that can’t afford to pay for the meal to feel like they should have to donate in any way, shape or form,” Finn pointed out.

In the end, Pierce and Finn just hope folks from Philomath’s various segments of the community will come out on Tuesday nights.

“We want everybody to come,” Finn said. “It’s not like it’s hey, if you’re not a card-carrying Christian then you’re not allowed to come to the meal. We really want everybody to come.”

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.