Crystal Lake church marks decade of free meal service

Community members Peggy and David Benson await their serving of chicken shepherd's pie at First United Methodist Church on Sunday night. The Bensons have been coming since the weekly community dinner began 10 years ago. "We look forward to a warm meal every time," Peggy Benson said.
Community members Peggy and David Benson await their serving of chicken shepherd's pie at First United Methodist Church on Sunday night. The Bensons have been coming since the weekly community dinner began 10 years ago. "We look forward to a warm meal every time," Peggy Benson said.

CRYSTAL LAKE – Every Sunday for the past 10 years, Scott Goodwin has headed into First United Methodist Church to begin preparing a meal for the Community Dinner.

Every Sunday, the amateur chef has cooked for those less fortunate or anyone looking for a free meal.

Every Sunday, Goodwin meets Elyce Meador, who started the weekly Community Dinner, a childhood dream of hers after seeing poverty firsthand on a trip overseas with her father, a pastor. Meador started the dinner to offer a free, warm meal to the homeless.

After 10 years, the weekly dinner has served 15,600 meals, and logged 18,720 volunteer hours.

The first meal was served in 2003 after several years of fundraising. An account for the dinner is separate from the church’s operating funds. Volunteers have raised about $75,000 in the past decade to keep the kitchen running.

“It’s an amazing event. For 10 years, every single Sunday to serve meals with volunteers, because sometimes it’s hard [to get volunteers],” said Mike Weaver, a church member who sits on its Leadership Council.

First billed as a weekly soup kitchen, First United Methodist changed the name to lose the “soup kitchen” stigma and sound more inclusive.

“The phrase soup kitchen is traditionally associated with bread lines in big cities,” said John Parmley, a member of UMC’s Leadership Council. “From the beginning, Elyce was saying it’s not that. It’s for anybody that wants a free meal.”

Afterward, many walk to the nearby PADS shelter – bellies full and ready for a warm bed.

The dinner’s popularity parallels what’s happening in the economy, volunteers say. Meador and her crew initially served only a handful of meals, but as the economy worsened and word spread about the dinner, as many as 50 or 60 people turned out. About 40 meals are served on a typical Sunday evening.

“There are more people out there that need this that aren’t coming,” Goodwin said. “Go to the food pantry. It’s empty. There’s an obvious need.”

Gregory Fairbanks has been attending the dinner since its inception. Fairbanks first came when he fell on hard times, but since has turned around his life.

The 53-year-old was court-ordered to perform community service to pay off traffic tickets that had piled up. He started volunteering by setting up tables for dinner. Now, the Crystal Lake man looks forward to the weekly meal as one of a few constants in his life.

“I’m used to showing up here. It’s kind of expected,” he said. “What I depend on is the consistency in my life.”

As the Community Dinner plans to celebrate a decade of service with an appreciation dinner this month, the church itself is looking ahead at an even bigger milestone.

In 2014, First United Methodist Church will celebrate 175 years of serving the community.

Founded in 1839, First United Methodist was at several locations before landing its current space at 236 W. Crystal Lake Ave.

The church’s first building was constructed in 1858 for $1,400 on Virginia Street, across from what is now McCormick Park. In 1867, the congregation bought the former Congregational Church building, and in 1873 built a church at Brink and Williams streets.

A new church was built in 1954 on six acres at its current location at Crystal Lake and Dole avenues. In 1991, construction began on a 28,000-square-foot addition that doubled its size.

Parmley, who has been a member for more than 20 years, said the church’s mission of creating a community in Christ has never wavered.

“I’m blessed with a church that hasn’t changed and is stable, because there isn’t a lot of stability in the world anymore,” he said. “There’s been a physical change, but there’s never been a spiritual change.”

The church’s yearlong celebration will kick off soon. Parishioners will be asked to reflect on the past 175 years and look to the future. A capital campaign will ask them to consider helping fund some of the many church projects, including parking lot improvements and kitchen upgrades.

“We hope to remember the blessings upon our church,” the Rev. Charles Yoon said. “We will remember the blessings of the past 175 years, and ask ourselves, what does God want us to do in the next 175 years?”

If you go

What: Community Dinner Service of Thankfulness and Appreciation to celebrate 10 years.

When: 4 p.m. Jan. 27.

Where: First United Methodist Church, 236 W. Crystal Lake Ave., Crystal Lake.

The Community Dinner is from 5 to 7 p.m. every Sunday at the church.

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