[Episcopal News Service – Stephenville, Texas] The students start streaming across the campus of Tarleton State University here around 11 a.m. every Thursday. They are heading to lunch at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Some are trying to stretch their monthly meal plan, some are looking for a place that feels more like mom’s kitchen than a dormitory cafeteria, and others need the friendly faces that always greet them in the parish hall. They keep coming until 1 p.m., sometimes as many as 400 of them.
More than one of them will tell you that St. Luke’s meal is the tastiest of the four weekly lunches offered by local churches. “It’s the best; that’s a secret, but this place is the best. They always have great food and it’s always put together with love,” said Tarleton junior Nikita Grove. “Everybody’s so nice and friendly.”
That’s exactly what Mary Ferguson and Suzanne Meyers were aiming for when they began the lunch program in 2011 after newly-arrived rector, the Rev. Curt Norman, decided the parish ought to join the Baptists, Methodists and the Church of Christ in the weekly lunch rotation.
The women wanted the students to feel as if they were coming to have lunch in the best mom’s kitchen ever, using what Ferguson called “mom-type recipes.” All the tables are decorated differently each week, ranging from approaching holidays to a color theme and things like “Science Day” with lab flasks filled with colored water on each table.
“We want them to feel the sensation of having a hug when they walk in,” said Meyers. “Our job is to love ’em and feed ’em.”
St. Luke doesn’t require the students to listen to a sermon or prayers before they eat. “The food has been blessed between planning, purchasing, preparing, serving, cleaning up,” Meyers said. The students tell the lunch team that they appreciate that they can come to the Episcopal lunch program “and not feel pressured.”
There’s a prayer box for students to leave requests. Using those slips of paper, the volunteers pray for the students on an on-going basis. They also celebrate life’s passages such as students announcing their engagements during the lunch.
But, St. Luke’s lunch is not just about providing a nice place to get a good meal. “There are an amazing amount of students who have hunger issues,” Meyers said, adding that the university has started a food pantry to help those students. “These are profound issues that they’re having to deal with on top of studying, on top of figuring out what it’s like to not live at home.”
All three of Ferguson’s children attended Tarleton and sometimes ate at the lunch programs. Her daughter told her that “it’s not just the food, mom; it’s the fellowship.”
Students often volunteer to help with the lunch set-up and serving. “It just happens, and I know Jesus has a hand in that,” Ferguson said.
The cooks and servers, who range in age from their 40s to 90s, benefit from fellowship too, the women said. Some members have had health issues but are resolute about coming to help with the lunch because they say it gets them up and out of the house. The team members have achieved a depth of friendship they might not have without the program.
“We’ve all grown from this as a church,” Meyers said.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.