Free dinner in church the epidemic has passed

Volunteer Emerson Stop puts free meals in the car. Susan Hauser / photo

The monthly free dinner at St John’s United Church of Christ in Chesterton proved to be a huge hit with the community, with guests generally filling the fellowship room downstairs, and friendly conversations over dinner sometimes lasting for hours. Then COVID-19 happened.

“COVID has changed the way we serve,” said Cindy Cohn, deacon of the church. “But we adjusted.”

In fact, even with the easing of coronavirus restrictions in general, church leaders, located at 225 W., have taken no contact with the drive-through. Now, as the cars turn off Lincoln Avenue and head to the church’s parking lot, a team of volunteers waiting on the church’s back porch prepares to receive visitors through their passenger window, take their orders for the number of dinners prepared, and deliver the dinner boxed through the window.

Oftentimes, meal recipients, in turn, hand church volunteers a few dollars or more. In fact, Cohn says, these “free donations” add up so that the day’s total usually offsets the cost of food. “It’s kind of self-sufficient,” she said.

Since the drive-by system was introduced in 2020, the church believes it has reached more people and fed more families than ever before. Church volunteers used to prepare 40 to 80 meals in the basement kitchen and serve visitors at tables in the fellowship hall, and now serve up to 120 meals they expect to be served anytime between 3:30 and 5 p.m.

With only one free meal per month, often on the second Sunday, kitchen volunteers found it easy to come up with a new menu for each month. In July, due to the expected heat, the main course was a cold pasta/chicken salad with a side of watermelon chunks, a slice of bread and two chocolate chip cookies.

In May, dinner is held on the first Sunday, so as not to conflict with Mother’s Day, and therefore usually falls on or near Cinco de Mayo. Due to popular demand, dinner that month is always chicken enchiladas. In November, it’s a traditional Thanksgiving meal, and in December it’s a holiday meal with ham. The next dinner will be held on Sunday, August 14, from 3:30 to 5 p.m.

Left: July's free dinner, cold pasta primavera with chicken.  Right: Volunteers Bill Welfond, Emerson Staub, Cindy Cohn, and Chris Farrell, at the command post.  Susan Hauser / photos

Left: July’s free dinner, cold pasta primavera with chicken. Right: Volunteers Bill Welfond, Emerson Staub, Cindy Cohn, and Chris Farrell, at the command post. Susan Hauser / photos

Cohn said the once-a-month free dinner service began 10 years ago at the behest of the then pastor, who saw in such a dinner an opportunity to bring together the Chesterton community.

The deacons of the church adopted the Supper as their own project, enlisting volunteers to cook and clean. Over the years, the dinner guests formed friendships and regulars looked forward to the next dinner as a way to keep in touch. Their social relationships usually last longer than their meals, sometimes two or three hours.

Although anyone is welcome to enjoy a free dinner, most of the guests were old and poor. “We think two people were living in their cars,” volunteer Bill Welfond noted.

Now that meals are delivered through car windows, many familiar faces are gone, although there are many new faces now. Volunteer Chris Farrell notes that people come from as far away as Michigan City and Valparaiso, with many regular employees from Porter, Burns Harbor, and Portage as well.

Since sociability was an important feature of the sit-down dinner, volunteers make a special effort to strike up a conversation with each person driving, and continue chatting until volunteer Emerson Stobbe removes the ordered number of servings from the cooler and then places them through the open car window.

Once five o’clock arrives and the window of opportunity closes, kitchen volunteers pack up any leftovers. Cohen said the food would go to local charities or, “We know certain families come drive by and only order a few dinners. If we think they can use more, we take leftovers for them.”

The church never missed a second Sunday dinner, no matter what the weather conditions were. “We never canceled, although there were times when we looked,” Cohn said.

“We enjoy and enjoy doing it.”

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