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Worship and a Meal: How One UMC reaches its diverse neighbors

Every Tuesday evening, the dining room at Sarah Jane Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church (SJJ) fills with dozens of diverse residents of the tri-cities of Binghamton, Johnson City, and Endicott. They range in age from infancy to elderly. And a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The director of the program since 2001, Jim Lane, said, "Everyone here is needy in one form or another. Most are low-income and literally hungry. Many have mental challenges or are struggling with addiction. There are also seniors who have no family."

The community meal at SJJ has been offered for 25 years. Each Tuesday, a 15- minute service begins at 5:30 p.m. in the SJJ dining room. Dinner is served at 5:45 p.m. Worship includes sharing of joys and concerns with Jim Lane, Bible reference and meditation and prayer with SJJ pastor Ron Wenzinger, then Christian music throughout dinner. Worship has also included baptisms and reception of church members.

Pastor Ron said, "As this Tuesday night program has grown, it has transitioned from just a meal to a congregation. The people who come every Tuesday see themselves as that…one night, we asked each individual why they came during the service and it was so fascinating that the meal was not the top answer for anyone. The first thing on everyone's list was prayer, fellowship, or learning about God."

   SJJ community meal Director, Jim Lane stands with his sister.

Paul Natelli is the chef. A long-time marathon competitor, he is a healthy, energetic, and vibrant 73-year-old. Paul said, "I love doing this; one day isn't much. It is an 11- hour day, but it is worth it and I can do it now that I am retired." He explained that the volunteer servers come from various churches.

One week, volunteers come from Vestal UMC and/or Conklin UMC; the second week, the volunteers come from Chenango Bridge UMC; the third week, the volunteers are from SJJ; volunteers are sent from St. James Catholic Church for the fourth and fifth weeks of the month.

Many of the people at the SJJ meal rely on churches who serve the community as their mainstay meals.

The community meal at SJJ also serves many teens and young adults, regardless of whether or not their parents or guardians attend. Twenty-one year old Curtis Bixler started coming with his family when he was 14; while they stopped going after a few months, Curtis continued going and hasn't missed a week in the past couple years. Fifteen year-old Nikkia Martinez started coming in 2012 when her 32-year old sister told her mother about it; her mother and sister went regularly until a couple of years ago and Nikkia decided to keep coming; she said, "I have a lot of friends here. The food is always good and it's always a nice time."

Many UNY churches reach their diverse communities by serving community meals. The community worship and meal every Tuesday night at SJJ is a beautiful example of how to physically and spiritually nourish those in need.

Shannon Hodson, The Bridge, UNY AC

One of seven apportioned giving opportunities of The United Methodist Church, the World Service Fund is the financial lifeline to a long list of Christian mission and ministry throughout the denomination. Through the Four Areas of Focus churches are engaging in ministry with the poor which encourages them to be in ministry with their communities in ways that are transformative.

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