By Steve Clark
What do you call a church supper where good food and good fellowship are enjoyed by members and non-members? At St. Mark’s, Richmond, it is called “Neighborhood Dinner,” an evening meal prepared by volunteers and held in the parish hall on the first Tuesday of each month, except August.
Tonight, this highly-popular social affair celebrates its 5th anniversary.
It began in the fall of 2011 when Frosty Owen was encouraged to revive a church supper program that had been discontinued several years earlier. Frosty proposed the idea to the Vestry and recommended it be a neighborhood dinner open to friends, neighbors, co-workers and residents of nearby neighborhoods. A come-one-come-all dinner, which meant — Heaven forbid! — some of the diners would not be Episcopalians!
The Vestry gave the proposal its blessing and Frosty ran with it.
“Frosty recommended we restart the dinners as a neighborhood event with no other agenda than to provide a time for good food and fellowship for any and all who come,” recalls Malinda Collier, St. Mark’s Director of Lay Ministry.
The cooks in the beginning were Bill Harrison, who had cooked for the previous supper program, and Steve Bailey.
“I was very happy to be brought back when the dinners started again,” Bill says. “Preparing the suppers was good therapy for me. I love cooking and grew up on church suppers at Adams Grove Baptist Church in Emporia, so church food has always been a part of me. I often used recipes from church cookbooks. I loved being in the kitchen and working with the other volunteers. Nothing builds community like food, be it cooking as a group, or sitting down together and breaking bread.”
Bill and Steve eventually turned the cooking chores over to others. Since then several people have done the cooking, including Mickie Jones, whose team cooked tonight’s anniversary dinner.
“I have always found people tend to relax and forget their troubles and differences over a good meal, and that is what I see happening at our community meals,” says Mickie. “People who may or may not know each other share a table and, I hope, a good meal. New friends are made and old friendships are rekindled.”
Mickie has high praise for the people who help her prepare and serve the meals.
“I have a wonderful team that works to get the food cooked and on the table,” she says. “We have fun planning and cooking the meals. We also enjoy the community in the kitchen, and it’s a bonus when we walk out and see everyone enjoying themselves.”
One of Mickie’s faithful helpers is her 13-year-old granddaughter, Kumiko Sulla.
“Kumiko is the absolute best,” says Malinda Collier. “She knows everyone’s dessert preferences and she caters to the crowd like a 5-star restaurant server. She helps in the kitchen, with set-up, whatever is needed. Always with a smile and a suggestion for how we might do it better.”
Other cooks and servers include the following with their comments:
Dolores and Jerry Ramiza: “Jerry and I both agree it doesn’t matter if the meal is homemade or brought in pre-cooked. The neighborhood dinner isn’t as much about the food as it is about the fellowship. It’s so great to see people getting together and enjoying each others’ company beyond that hour and a half on Sunday.”
Bill Martin: “The neighborhood meal has been a wonderful ministry that has created another congregation of people who think of St. Mark’s as their church home even though they may not be in the pews on Sunday morning. The meals were begun at a time when St. Mark’s was trying to find itself again after a difficult and divisive time. This ministry has shown the congregation and the surrounding neighborhoods that St. Mark’s is not going away, but is looking outward and upward to do God’s work in the neighborhood and beyond. I am proud to be a part of this valuable ministry.”
Beth Wentworth: “I think the congregation we serve at the neighborhood meals is more diverse, more festive, and more celebratory of community and love than most every other community that gathers at St. Mark’s, with the possible exception of the crowd at the blessing of the animals. This makes it particularly rewarding to participate. Plus, I really enjoy cooking with St. Mark’s friends, and I enjoy the genuine fellowship of that ministry.”
Elaine Wittel: “Being in the kitchen and cooking is just plain fun. I really enjoy it.”
Other volunteers who have made this ministry a success include Mandy Cline, Kathleen “KK” Wilson, Fred Crowley, Mike Kilbourne, Dan Hartman, Karen Franklin, Hal Wright, Elam Jarrells, Howard Pugh, Tommy Clifton, Christine Unger, Papa Bland, and Malinda Collier. Also, Bobbie Aiken, who provides the flower arrangements on each table, and Noah Cozart, the church sexton who does a wonderful job with the after-dinner cleanup and dishwashing.
And, as Beth Wentworth noted, “Make sure to heap praise on that energetic steward of the Lord, Frosty Owen.”
To make sure the dinner would be true to its name from the start, Frosty invited a number of people who are not St. Mark’s members. One was Martha Hrank, who in the spring of 2011 had moved to Tuscan Villas across the street from the church.
“I invited Martha and she asked if I were recruiting people to attend church,” Frosty recalls. “I said no, that wasn’t our goal.”
Martha started attending the dinners and has been a regular ever since. Also, she has become active in several St. Mark’s ministries. She helps organize Frosty’s annual yard sale that has raised thousands of dollars for charity. She assists with the food pantry and has started a clothes ministry that is open when the food pantry is open.
“I started going regularly and sat with new folks each month,” Martha says. “I met Bill Martin early on after tasting a scrumptious black walnut coconut pound cake and tracking him down as the baker. We have become close friends and always attend the dinners together. And I often bring one or two guests with me. The first Tuesday of each month always is highlighted on my calendar, because for five dollars I get a complete meal and can take home a beautiful bouquet of flowers.”
Five bucks? Yes. That is the cost per person Frosty set in the beginning. To make sure the church did not have any start-up expenses, however, he raised $1,000 in seed money by donating $333 of his own money, and using his powers of persuasion to persuade Buck Aiken and Ed Street to donate the same amount.
Over the past five years, the money needed to purchase the food has been covered by the $5 donation for the dinner (some people give more) and by donations from sponsors, including individuals and businesses. Individual sponsors have included George and Malinda Collier, Ed Street, Jo Tyler, Carole Shahda, Pat Pearman and Minnie Isabell, a member of historic St. John’s Episcopal in Church Hill. Business sponsors have been Bliley’s Funeral Home and the restaurant at Westwood Pharmacy.
The success of the neighborhood dinner has been rewarding for Frosty Owen.
“This ministry means a lot to me,” he says. “It warms my heart to see the friendships that have been formed over the past five years.”
This ministry also means a lot to St. Mark’s rector, the Very Rev. David Niemeyer.
“We don’t have just one congregation at St. Mark’s, we have many congregations,” David says. “The neighborhood dinner congregation is one. And all of the folks who participate in any one of them are just as much a part of St. Mark’s as the people we see on Sunday morning.”