The holidays are over. Those big, decadent dinners shared with extended family gathered around the table are now happy memories, and now it's back to regular meals eaten hastily between night-time activities. At least for some.
For others, there may be no one with whom to share a meal. For others, there may be no meal to share. These are the reasons that lay members of the United Church in Walpole got together with other local churches in the area and established a weekly community meal called "Breaking Bread."
The program was designed to take the food pantry and soup kitchen concepts a step further. Breaking Bread was created to be a place for anyone -- no matter where they were on life's journey -- to gather and share a meal. "It was important to the group that this be a true community meal for all -- no matter age or need, whether it be food, conversation, or companionship," said Pastor Rev. Ray Kostulias. "It's free and open to all who are looking for a wholesome dinner and welcoming fellowship."
"The Bible is filled with stories that speak of God revealed through the ordinary act of feeding and eating. ... Think of Jesus ...simply sitting with people on many occasions --the tax collector, the disciples, at the Last Supper --sharing fellowship and food, and providing the nourishment we all need, physical and spiritual. The Bible's feeding stories tell us over and over again of a loving, caring God who gives us life and sustains us with food," promotes the church newsletter.
The idea was formed a few years ago when several lay people from different churches in Walpole participated in a hunger campaign. The various outreach committees mingled together to discuss additional ways to continue the outreach. They made this ecumenical relationship official by calling the group "Walpole Families of Faith." As a group, they met, discussed the needs of the community, investigated charitable programs in the area, gathered their findings and then came up with the idea for Breaking Bread.
They then got volunteers to be certified by ServSafe® as well as to cook, serve, and clean up. They found a local agent who would donate the insurance needed, and they then proceeded to obtain commitments from ten different restaurants in the town and surrounding areas to contribute on a regular basis a side dish, appetizer, entrée, or dessert. They chose United Church for the dining space because of the available kitchen facilities, space for tables, and the building's central location in town. The members of Breaking Bread spread the word to their congregations, and through seed money from each of the churches and in-kind donations from stores and restaurants, they were able to serve their first meal in September 2010.
However, when they opened the doors the first few months they had very few patrons. Sometimes one or two people showed up, so most of the volunteers who were preparing and serving would also end up eating the meal.
But then two things happened. First, there was a tremendous outpouring of volunteers from churches and community volunteer groups, so many in fact that volunteers were scheduled 4-5 months in advance. It takes approximately 15 volunteers to prepare and serve each meal. Second, word spread that the food served was excellent, the atmosphere was warm and caring, and the program was a planned dining experience, not something thrown together with leftovers or overstocks. Kostulias had some experience with homeless shelters and soup kitchens in a previous ministry, and knew that providing a meal with care and love is noticed and acknowledged. "We knew that if we wanted people to come, we had to make the ambiance as good as the food," he said.
A little over a year later, the program is self-sufficient, the group is serving 50-60 people each week, and it is working exactly as envisioned. Close to half the attendees are elderly or lonely people who appreciate the fellowship; other guests come because they are short on money for food. The mix of attendees dine together 'beautifully.'
The Breaking Bread committee -- consisting entirely of volunteers -- has taken on the responsibility of buying the food and equipment, scheduling the volunteers, working with local grocery stores, delis and restaurants, and managing the program. According to Kostulias, all of the ministers and priests have supported the program in various ways by volunteering, promoting the meal, or saying prayers, but this has been first and foremost an ecumenical lay project and "I am very proud of everyone who has taken part in it."
Julie Bushway, one of the original founders, was thrilled at the results. "It happened so organically. A meal is such a basic need, yet it is amazing to see the spirit it embodies -- whether in the many different faith families who collaborate and work toward this common goal, or in the many diverse groups of people who have come together and have formed relationships at the table." In fact, many of the widowed women who met at Breaking Bread have formed a social group and have become friends.
The meal program has also inspired ideas for additional community work in town. "The diligence by which the group went about this was astounding," explained Kostulias. "They took every hurdle, discussed it, analyzed it, thought about it, then came out with a solution and overcame it. Now this has given us a model for community action in Walpole. Because of this program, people came forward to Kostulias and asked about other programs that could help with their needs. The various clergy are now talking about ways to build on what the lay people did - possibly coming up with a community-assistance program focused on housing or rental assistance, clothing, or child care," he said. "As we see it, the possibilities are wide open."
Kostulias explained: "For the people involved it has been a wonderful eye-opening experience that they could go back to their churches and say there are people out there who need this and we can do this. It's an uplifting wonderful feeling for them to feel empowered to fulfill a need. It has also transformed the notion of outreach in many of the other churches as well. Instead of making a last minute decision on how to spend money left over in the budget and pushing it out to worthy causes, it has caused outreach members to take on a more personal commitment to carry out the programs, and carry out our faith. It's been a tremendous lift to the faith of people in these congregations and now it's spreading outward and more people are advocating how we can participate and get more involved."
Rev. Ray Kostulias can be reached at the church office at (508) 668-0551 or