Tomorrow, the second Saturday of the month, dozens of people will gather at Friendship Baptist Church for fellowship and a free meal provided by the church.
Since 2014, the church at 5200 W. Jackson Blvd. has been hosting a monthly free community meal. The goal: to bring people of the Austin community together in a safe haven and allow them to socialize with their neighbors.
“Our 2nd Saturday community meal is something I find extremely important,” said the church’s pastor, Reginald E. Bachus.
“When the idea was first brought up to me I was like why not? Every member of the community may not belong to the church, but the church belongs to every member of the community.”
When Bachus became pastor in 2006, he said he wanted to build a ministry focused on fellowship and community.
“Offering the community a free meal fit into the model of what I wanted the ministry to be built on,” he said. “I remember us trying to figure out a way to do something good for the community that would bring people together, so when our community outreach minister came across this opportunity I was pleased. “
Sharon Hartshorn, president of community outreach for the church and an active volunteer in Austin, said it was “the grace of god” that brought the opportunity to her church.
“One day I was at a community meeting, and a young lady approached me and started telling me she was a part of a network of four churches that have a feeding ministry,” she said. “The young lady told me due to unforeseen circumstances one of the churches had to drop out. They extended the offer to join the ministry to Friendship Baptist.”
The other churches involved in the monthly meals are: Truth and Deliverance (3 S. Laramie, the 1st Saturday), Bethel Lutheran Church (130 N. Keeler, the 3rd Saturday) and Garfield Park Community Worship Center (4100 W. Jackson, the 4th Saturday). Meals are served from 1 to 4 p.m.
The food ministry has a partnership with Trader Joe’s, which delivers food to the four sites a week before the community meal takes place.
“Trader Joe’s donates food that is close to expiration to us,” Hartshorn said. “We never know exactly what we are going to get and how we are going to prepare it.”
One recent Sunday, the church received 30 pounds of chicken that was used to make fried chicken and chicken noodle soup.
The food is prepared and cooked by the churches’ various ministries and volunteers or organizations looking to serve their community.
“In our church, we have eight ministries, and we ask a different ministry to host each month,” Hartshorn said.
One recent Saturday, it was the church’s Missionary Society hosting the community meal alongside volunteers from 100 Black Men.
John Griffin, 60, an Austin resident, looks forward to the second Saturday each month.
“I think this is good for the neighborhood,” he said. “It helps people to get to know one another.”
Griffin said he loves to see people taking the initiative to bring positivity into urban communities plagued by violence and drugs.
“If the people in the community can come together and find a way to communicate, they can create change,” he said.
The meal brings out an array of people from across Austin and its surrounding communities.
Joshua Dinkins, 22, makes it a goal to attend the community meal every month. The Austin resident said he sees this as a way for him to be safe and fellowship with people just like him and he hopes to start volunteering one day.
“On Saturdays, it’s nothing to do in the area that won’t lead to trouble,” he said. “When I stumbled across this I knew it was a perfect way for me to do something positive and fellowship with my neighbors.”
Dinkins said he loves how welcoming the environment is. “You don’t have to know anyone in the room, but if you speak, they are so friendly and open.”
Betty Gilliam, a church member the last 10 years, has attended every community meal since 2014.
“Even when I am experiencing issues with my legs, I don’t let that discourage me from coming.”
Gilliam loves to see everyone come together to put on the community meal. Her two granddaughters, both praise dancers, often participate and help serve, too.
“It’s great to see all the people of different ages participate in doing something good for the community,” she said. “What people don’t realize is this may be someone’s only meal of the day, and at least they will know it was made with love.”
As few as 75 and as many as 140 people have been served at one sitting. Hartshorn hopes to attract even more.
“I often hear people say, ‘Oh, I’m not coming because this is for the poor and or the homeless,’” she said.
“I don’t care if you show up with a cart with garbage bags of dirty clothes or you pull up in a brand new Mercedes. We open this event to anyone in the community; we want to bring everyone together.”