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.