Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Nancy Thompson is all smiles as Ken Faus puts dip on her food during Wednesday's Christmas dinner at Trinity United Methodist Church.
Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Larry Merriman plays Christmas music as guests walk in during the weekly dinner at Trinity United Methodist Church on Wednesday December 20, 2017.
Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Gigi Hostetler, 10, sets out Christmas sheet music on the tables during the weekly dinner at Trinity United Methodist Church on Wednesday December 20, 2017.
Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Joe Delarosa, left, and David Simmons stir the food Wednesday at Trinity. The church has brought back its free Wednesday night dinners.
Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Fruit is set out by one of the volunteers during the weekly dinner at Trinity United Methodist Church on Wednesday December 20, 2017.
Sunday, December 24, 2017 1:00 am
Congregating with needy over free meals
Trinity United Methodist works to help its neighbors
ROSA SALTER RODRIGUEZ | The Journal Gazette
In late November, a Fort Wayne couple were asked to leave the friend's home where they'd been staying – without being on the lease.
When the Rev. Debbie Smith of Trinity United Methodist Church in Fort Wayne's Bloomingdale neighborhood met the two, they had nowhere to go and had just spent the night sleeping in their car.
So, she invited them to park overnight in the church's parking lot. She even gave them a note with her phone number if law enforcement told them to move.
The couple, Smith says, are just two of the people her congregation has tried to uplift – people who live, just scraping by, in the church's Bloomingdale neighborhood north of downtown.
They're people who are all but invisible, Smith says, but they're there. The way she looks at it, they're the church's neighbors. And, well, she doesn't need to be reminded what Jesus had to say about how to treat neighbors.
Still, faced with the realities of her small church, with many members getting up in years, Smith this year found herself having to discontinue a cherished neighborhood ministry – free dinners on Wednesday nights – because of a shortage of volunteer help.
“It was a heartbreaker for me to cancel the dinners because I had formed relationships with some of the families, and I missed seeing them,” she said. “I also know there are many children in our neighborhood who don't have much food in their homes, and ... parents who had come to rely on eating supper here one day a week.”
So, Wednesday night, when people began to gather at the church for a special Christmas dinner, the event represented a small victory for neighborliness.
This fall, Smith was able to round up enough people to resume the dinners, which are now attended by a dozen or two weekly. They have been rechristened “Meet Your Neighbor” nights.
As they have in previous years, Trinity members Joseph “Joe” and Mary Delarosa again recruited about a dozen friends from among their golfing buddies to come cook and serve the Christmas meal.
They and other volunteers dished up plate after plate of baked ham, cheesy potatoes, candied yams, a mixed-green salad, veggies, cheese and crackers, rolls and, for dessert, pistachio pudding and cupcakes.
Christmas carols were sung to piano accompaniment, and everyone took time to pray together.
Ashley Donahue, 32, dining with her sons Briar, 9, and Liam, 8, said the warm, homestyle food turned a horrible day on its ear.
That morning, she said, the family found out that the bikes they rely on for transportation had been stolen. They had to walk to a doctor's appointment. But then she by chance ran into Joe Delarosa, who invited her to the dinner.
She'd been to the church before, when it offered a Halloween event for kids. But she didn't know about the dinner.
“We don't go to church here. We're Lutheran. Being invited was really great today,” she said. “A godsend.”
Diner Brian Walker, 35, said he appreciates the dinners because he works 12 hours a day, six days a week and is just coming off what he calls “some unfortunate living arrangements.”
Smith, he said, helped him line up a new place to live by connecting him with a church member who had a place to rent. He began coming to the dinners, and now he's become more active with the church, cutting the grass and taking care of odd jobs.
“I think it's great. It's awesome,” he said of the Wednesday night events. “You come here, and you learn a person's name and a person's story, and you can help them sometimes. And sometimes they can help you.”
“For me, it's all about these people,” said volunteer Ken Faus of Fort Wayne, wearing a Santa hat while delivering a plate of food. “I like putting smiles on their faces.”
He added: “You know, my wife and I, we've had so many good opportunities in life. I feel humbled to be able to come and do this.”
Smith said she has a vision for the congregation. When she was desperately trying to keep the dinners going, she wondered if there couldn't be a way to link up with members of other churches – in the neighborhood or maybe even elsewhere in the city or suburbs – to help provide manpower.
Trinity, 609 Putnam St., is only about 12 minutes from the outskirts of the city, she said.
“My dream is that people who want to make a difference in the lives of people would see this as a mission opportunity within their own community,” she said. “People right here in Fort Wayne need to know there are people who care about them.”
But, in deciding to continue with Meet Your Neighbor, she's gotten help from a seemingly unlikely place. Some of those who have come to the dinners in the past are volunteering to help keep them going.
Remember that homeless couple? Through the church, they've found stable housing, they now come to worship services and they've even helped with a church painting and remodeling project, Smith said.
Wednesday, the couple attended the Christmas meal. The two likely will be helping serve in upcoming months, said Tonya, who asked that she and her partner, Richard, not be identified by last name.
“They've done everything humanly possible to make sure we have a way to take care of ourselves.” Richard said of the congregation.
“They just surrounded us,” Tonya added, “and loved on us.”