Outside Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Landisville, Pa., a banner invites the world to a Thursday night community meal.
The sign went up in October 2007, and the church has opened its doors ever since to older adults, young people and families who attend the weekly supper, which draws an average of 65 diners.
"People who are short on cash or are hungry or lonely — they are all welcome," said Joanne Grim, the project coordinator.
Winnie Linn, 83, learned about the 5:30 dinners through a friend who invited her to the initial evening nearly four years ago.
"We've been coming here ever since," the Landisville resident said at the first dinner of 2011. "We saw the sign out front: 'If you are lonely or widowed, come to dinner.' "
Each week, she gathers with a group of five friends for home-style food, conversation and laughter in the church's social room.
"I knew them before, but we've become better friends," Linn said of her tablemates.
Nearby, Pauline Hess, 85, of Lancaster, sat with several friends from the Leisure Club of Mount Joy. "You never know what's going to happen," she said with a grin as they each ate homemade turkey tetrazzini.
"We all sit together every week," Hess said. "That's what makes it so nice. For me, when you live alone, it's the companionship of being with friends."
In early 2006, Grim traveled to the Gulf Coast to help with the clean up of Hurricane Katrina's destruction. She came away wanting to do more to help people in her own community.
"I guess God was talking to me and said, 'This is something you can do to help others,' " Grim said.
She and several other Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church members visited another area church that runs a similar program. They picked up pointers for creating the mission that cuts across denominations, age, social strata and walks of life — among the volunteers as well as the diners.
"The food isn't what matters," Grim said. "The socializing with each other is what matters."
Some of the guests each week — about two out of 10 — attend as a way to stretch their limited grocery budgets. To help meet that need, the church also operates a food pantry that's open to residents of the nearby area on Mondays and Wednesdays.
But most come just to eat, laugh and visit with their friends on a regular basis, Grim said.
"It's such a good group of people," she said.
Most of the diners are older people from Landisville and the other nearby towns that dot the area outside the county seat, Lancaster, in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania.
"Community meal programs represent an important safety net for older residents struggling to make ends meet in a difficult economy. The activity also encourages personal independence and social engagement, which are hallmarks of livable communities for older adults," Chevrefils said.
When they arrive, the guests make themselves comfortable at folding chairs and tables that are decorated with tablecloths and disposable utensils and cups. The servers, from teenagers to retired adults, hustle in and out of the church's kitchen, delivering a plate of food to each diner. One week it's ham, another night it's spaghetti. Dessert — often homemade — is always a hit.
The volunteers who cook, serve and clean up always have smiles on their faces and offer kind words to the appreciative diners.
Food is prepared by a different church or community group each week and brought in or cooked in the church kitchen. The volunteers come from churches of other denominations, including Mennonite, Church of the Brethren, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ, as well as from Zion Evangelical. Volunteers also sign up from Girl Scout troops, the Hempfield Rotary Club, a women's club, faculty at Lancaster General College of Nursing and Health Sciences and the student council at Hempfield High School.
Businesses in the community donate money to buy the supplies.
The church describes them all as people who "want to fill your bellies and your hearts."
Brian Sherwood, 13, an eighth-grade student from Centerville, helped serve dinners alongside his mom and brother, making his way from table to table.
"It makes you feel good," he said of volunteering. "When you have a lot, and they don't, it's nice to help out."
His twin, Andrew, agreed. "You have so much to give, and they are so nice," he said of the diners.
Camaraderie over a shared meal won't guarantee that people live longer, said an expert on aging. But there are other benefits.
"For the seniors, it most probably helps to strengthen and reinforce existing relationships with one another and with the volunteers. Having caring relationships in their lives can contribute to their mental and physical health. They are more likely to be active, to feel understood and trusted by others. This can lead to other opportunities for civic engagement," said Matthew Kaplan, a professor of intergenerational programs and aging at Penn State University's University Park campus.
Henry Zerphey, 80, and his wife of 60 years, Arlene, 79, sat at the end of a long table surrounded by friends who laughed and joked through their dinner.
When the Mount Joy couple heard of the community supper program, they hesitated to attend because they weren't comfortable accepting free meals, he said. "They wouldn't take any money" for the dinners, he said of the church. The Zerpheys soon found a compromise and now donate to the church's food bank.
"I still feel guilty eating this meal," he said. "We come for the fellowship. These people are having a great time."
Jim Vogel, 88, of Landisville, lives across the street from the church and has been coming to the Thursday suppers since they began.
"It's just the getting together," said Vogel, a longtime member of the church. "You get to know people you've never seen before. It's so nice to meet these people."
The weekly visits keep him active and involved since his wife died two years ago. "It's nice to get out," he said. "It just seems like one big family."
Todd R. Weiss is a technology journalist and freelance writer who lives in East Petersburg, Pa.
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