On the first and third Tuesday of the month, the fellowship hall of the First Baptist Church of Dalton, Ga., looks especially hospitable. Tables are set, affirming messages roll quietly across a screen and Jane Jarrett faithfully provides soft piano music.
There is no program but a clear purpose: to provide a good meal and an enjoyable night out for families who otherwise might not have such an opportunity.
“Soul Food” is a dream turned reality for Gail Duke who found her fellow church members and ministers eager to pitch in to provide such hospitality for the working poor in a community hit especially hard by the economic downturn.
“They come as families and we feed them here,” Gail said of the simple, but effective event that occurs on the first, third and fifth Tuesdays of each month.
Balloons, banners and birthday cakes on this particular evening mark the celebration of three years for “Soul Food.” Children with icing on their fingers finish their hearty meals and head over to tables where teens engage them in face painting and balloon art.
It is apparent that more is being fed than empty stomachs.
“The stories are amazing,” said Gail, during a rare break from moving table-to-table to greet families and to invite them to complete a survey that will help volunteers know what other services might be helpful.
Some of that is already taking place. One Sunday school class assisted those needing help with tax return preparation. And a “Soul Food” children’s choir is being formed.
Gail credits the church’s kitchen staff and many volunteers with the enthusiasm that continues to grow after three years. Seven teams work the kitchen, serving line and tables on a rotating basis.
For some church members, their turn doesn’t roll around often enough. Betty and Charles Langford showed up even though it wasn’t their turn to serve.
“It’s addictive,” said Betty. “You get to know the people.”
Pastor Bill Ireland, who came to the church after “Soul Food” was already going strong, said it takes no motivation from him or other ministers. He might offer a suggestion or give feedback to an idea, he said, “but mostly I get out of the way.”
Twice a year, when the weather in North Georgia is especially good, the dinner moves outdoors and becomes a cookout.
While attending a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia meeting, Gail heard someone from another congregation talk of serving “the working poor” and was intrigued.
Various programs fed homeless persons regularly, she knew. But Gail wondered if there were families in Dalton who scraped to get by and could use a night out on occasion. On the drive back from the meeting she filled the ears of her then-pastor Bill Wilson with her growing plan.
“The church was doing renovations,” said Gail, who served on the missions committee at the time. “So I stayed quiet for a little while.”
Soon afterward, her proposal was well received and a planning committee was formed. The first dinner was set and flyers were placed in the city schools — although most promotion was by “more word of mouth,” she said.
Thirty-five persons attended the first dinner. Now anywhere from 250-450 people attend regularly — causing the kitchen crew to show great flexibility.
“They feel loved here,” she said of many families who return repeatedly. “They keep saying they are welcomed here.”
(Taken from an article in Baptists Today)