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An interfaith initiative coordinated by Manchester University is reducing hunger in North Manchester, and getting national attention.
The University was among just three schools nationwide asked to present on “Interfaith Programming That Works” among hundreds of representatives from higher education and seminaries who gathered in the nation’s capital this fall for the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.
“We like to say we are feeding the mind as well as the body,” said Carole Miller-Patrick, director of the Manchester University Center for Service Opportunities, about North Manchester Community Dinners, offered 4 to 6:30 p.m. every second and fourth Tuesday at Zion Lutheran Church on Main Street.
What sets the North Manchester program apart is that the dinners, offered at one site, are hosted by individual churches in the community on a rotating basis, each taking responsibility to provide food for a month or particular dinner. They are aided by University students who set up for meals, serve them and clean up afterward.
It wasn’t many years ago when several North Manchester churches were working separately to do their part to feed the hungry. Students would come back from volunteering at sparsely attended meals and tell Miller-Patrick “There were more of us than there were of them.”
Announced in 2011, the Campus Challenge invited higher learning institutions to commit to programming aimed at increasing literacy and fighting hunger. MU has met the challenge each year. The University has also been a perennial on the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll since 2006.
After the University accepted the challenge, the first requirement was to find a place that had plenty of space to feed people and a kitchen with a dishwashing machine that could handle the cleanup job. Zion Lutheran, which was already serving meals to the needy, fit the bill. Other community churches – virtually every one in town through the Fellowship of Churches – signed up to provide meals. Now an average of 150 people attend each dinner, sometimes 50 at one meal and 200 at the next.
When the MU-coordinated meals first started, people sat in little groups, looking at the floor, Miller-Patrick said. Now they gather as friends, chatting, looking out for each other.
When she was asked to talk about Manchester’s success at the White House conference, she said others were astounded by the level of cooperation here.
“The big question they kept asking was, ‘Why aren’t these churches complaining?’ ”
She said the answer is simple, “It works.”
The meals are at a regular time, at the same place, and no one church is overly burdened. Each church decides what it will serve, bringing the food “all ready to go,” Miller-Patrick said, and smaller churches get a helping hand when needed. Student and church volunteers see real results, and those who attend are treated with dignity and respect.
“There’s no soup line,” Miller-Patrick said. “They are served on real china. Someone brings them a cup of coffee in a real cup.”
The students, who do most of the serving, will host a particular table, often sitting down to eat and having a conversation. Miller-Patrick said this builds bonds, forms community and establishes relationships.
“There are hugs when we leave,” she said.
The Community Dinners program is so successful that the Center for Services Opportunities actually has to limit the number of students taking part. About 10 volunteer at each meal, and most are regulars.
This is not just a meal, however. There are also informative sessions. For example, chicken soup was served one evening, and those attending got a lesson in making soup and a packet of ingredients. Another time, there was granola, instructions and makings for more.
“We always bring books,” Miller-Patrick said. The University gives away thousands of books each year through a literacy partnership with Better World Books.
There is also a concerted effort to make holidays special, with tablecloths, music and flowers for Valentine’s Day, for example, or a gift for each person and food basket for each family at Christmastime.
Miller-Patrick said the Meijer store in Warsaw has been especially helpful with the baskets. It donates $300 in food for the holiday project, its employees taking the time to carefully pick out items that help stretch that budget as far as possible.
Manchester University has a long reputation for its many service projects and volunteer opportunities for students, faculty and staff. These programs include volunteer projects at Camp Mack, American Red Cross blood drives, Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week and the Indiana Reading Corps. Students last year logged more than 49,000 hours of service.
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