At the end of a long cafeteria-style table, Jannat Verser, 20, of Fort Wayne was enjoying her good fortune – having a dinner she didn’t have to cook.
Often, she says, she would make dinner for herself and the younger siblings she baby-sits while her mom and stepdad work – Nasir Thomas, 5, and 12-year-old brother-sister twins Maiwan and Maia Thomas.
If the four of them weren’t eating in the barn-like gymnasium at Greater Christ Temple Apostolic Church on Fort Wayne’s southeast side, what would the family be having for dinner? “Ramen noodles,” Verser says. “It’s cheap. It’s very easy. But not very good.”
Welcome to Soul Food Wednesdays, where the food, by all accounts, is very good – as well as free and coming with no strings attached.
Linda Golden, a long-time church member who helped get the new dinner program started, says the church doesn’t take names, have income limits or require documentation of need. “You just come, and we’re going to feed you,” she says.
The need for food assistance in the congregation’s neighborhood has quickly become apparent, says Golden, a licensed minister. The program has been up and running for only eight weeks, and as many as 150 people have been served on a single night. Wednesday, 82 had been served by 5 p.m., with a nearly a dozen more on their way up the stairs that lead to the church kitchen’s food pass-through.
Homelessness, unemployment and under-employment lead many to the dinners, which are served between 4:45 and 6 p.m. Wednesdays, Golden says.
“Usually it’s families who come,” she says. “They may go to other programs, too, or feel uncomfortable going to a food bank. Some use it to stretch their budget.”
Often, children outnumber adults, Golden says. Many diners are teens and tweens who come unaccompanied, including a group of nine boys who last Wednesday arrived sweaty. One carried a well-worn basketball.
The dinners are prepared with the help of the Fort Wayne Rescue Mission, which uses items from Fort Wayne’s Community Harvest Food Bank, Golden says.
About 20 volunteers set up, serve the meals and clean up, while some make homemade desserts, including pies, cakes, cupcakes and cookies for the kids.
“It’s wonderful meals,” Golden says, and menus depend on availability to the food bank of ingredients. “We have had barbecued chicken, macaroni and cheese with mixed vegetables and green beans, tamales with Mexican rice and beans and pulled pork sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy.”
On Wednesday, J.D. Malone, 9, had already dived into dessert – a strawberry-frosted vanilla cupcake – while her brother D.J. Malone was still pulling slivers of meat off the baked chicken leg on his plate.
Their friend, Emily Lingle, 12, had a plate that included baked beans and macaroni and cheese.
The children all live near the church, and they’ve come at least four times, Lingle said. “The people here are very nice. They don’t have to do this. I think they do it because they just like to have the people come and to give them food.”
That’s more or less what Elbert Haywood, known as “Bishop Haywood” to his flock, thinks, too.
When the congregation moved in 2010 after 50 years in a building on Winter Street to more spacious quarters at 2940 S. Anthony Blvd., members wanted to be of service to their new neighborhood.
Offering food seemed “a niche” where the church, which is part of the black Apostolic Pentecostal tradition, could make a difference, Haywood says.
The congregation’s new kitchen and gym made the program feasible. At the former church, “The kitchen was so small we couldn’t even fit a refrigerator in,” Haywood says.
Church volunteers have secured necessary health department permits to operate.
“There are some real needs here, and … this one seems to be one of the most critical,” adds Haywood.
The church, formerly the site of Light of the Cross Lutheran Church and Grace Lutheran Church, is open to expanding the dinners to more than one night a week, he says, but “finances prevent it.”
“It would be great if we could find more ministry partners,” he says. “We just felt like, we felt led by the Lord. This is where our calling is,” Haywood says.