Community suppers prove to be a moveable feast of friendship

Karen Rego scoops her homemade chili into bowls at the Trinity Methodist Church in the Oak Bluffs Campground. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

Buddhist teachings encourage compassion and service to others.

“Judaism and the Torah teach the importance both of community and community responsibility for each other,” according to Rabbi Caryn Broitman of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center.

Even young Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts pledge “to help other people at all times.”

Caring for others is a universal ideal, and nowhere as much as on the Vineyard where neighbor-helping- neighbor is a way of life. And there is nothing that says caring like a hot, home-cooked meal. It’s no surprise that when the weather turns cold and, for many, work and resources become sparse, local churches rally to offer food and moral support.

Beginning in early winter, generous cooks and kitchen helpers get to work. Churches keep the lights on late and open their halls to dozens of Island neighbors for the nurturing warmth of supper and socializing.

Feeding hungry neighbors is an ongoing effort on the Vineyard and weekly winter suppers are an important and unique part. The Vineyard Committee on Hunger (VCOH) operates the Island Food Pantry, amassing and providing donated groceries to needy residents through the off-season.

The VCOH also oversees Family to Family, making holiday meals available to needy Islanders under the coordination of Betty Burton. Serving Hands, another VCOH program, distributes donations from the Greater Boston Food Bank to local residents. The Center for Living program of “emergency food cupboards” at town Senior Centers is partially funded by the committee. Town highway departments and the SSA pitch in with the effort, transporting the Boston Food Bank shipments here free of charge.

A number of community groups and organizations — including town fire departments, the Holy Ghost Association, VFW posts, Red Stocking, student groups, and others — quietly make sure that those who need food will not go without. And when it comes time for winter meals, the churches step in.

Each church meal has its own flavor. Some are sumptuous potlucks with varied dishes from parish chefs. Some have themes, like the homemade soup-and-salad at Grace Episcopal and Chilmark Community churches, and the brand-new lasagna luncheon at the Federated Church in Edgartown.

Some churches receive food donations from generous Island businesses to include in the meals. All count on parishioners to cook, contribute, and serve food. Menus feature everything from soups, stews, casseroles, and pasta, to meat-and-potatoes, roast chicken dinners, or pizza. And there is always dessert! Diners run the gamut from elders to young families, church members to visitors. Some cannot afford a good meal; some just want to eat with others instead of alone. Many churches offer to-go containers at closing time if there are leftovers. Many place a donation basket on the table for those who are moved to contribute, but all are welcome to eat free of charge.

“Deuteronomy teaches us to ‘open your hand’ to your fellow and ‘lend him sufficient for his need whatever it may be,'” Rabbi Broitman said. “‘Opening our hands’ could mean opening our hearts to fellowship with one another and opening our kitchens, homes, and checkbooks to make sure that ‘all who are hungry come and eat’ as is written in our Passover Seder.”

Several suppers have been going for 15 years or more. Grace Episcopal Church began offering a Friday evening soup supper in the mid-1990s. In those days donated vegetables were collected from Cronig’s Market. Parishioners gathered in the kitchen to prepare soups and the Black Dog donated bread. Youth group members often pitched in to help prepare meals and clean up. The suppers have continued every Friday ever since. These days kitchen volunteers welcome dozens of hungry church and community members for hearty homemade soups, bread, and salads.

The First Congregational Church of West Tisbury began weekly suppers at almost the same time and is still going strong, serving a delectable spread every Wednesday evening. Cronig’s Market donates meats, which are cooked by parishioners and served with donated Black Dog bread, and a variety of sides are provided by church members. The dinners sometimes incorporate local vegetables gathered by the Island Gleaners.

The Rev. Cathlin Baker said the weekly suppers, with their strong sense of community, are an important way to break the isolation that sets in during the bleak Island winter. “We meet that need as well as providing food to those who are hungry,” she said.

The Chilmark Community Church continues to warm the up-Island night with a Tuesday evening soup supper, as it has for many years.

Another stalwart, the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, has offered a Monday evening supper for years. Sponsored by the United Methodist Congregation of Martha’s Vineyard, meals are coordinated and prepared by Karen Rego, who is Serv-Safe certified, and volunteers. The Rotary Club pitches in to prepare the meals five times each season.

This winter three new community meals — two suppers and one midday lunch — sprang up to fill the gaps, making a hot meal available every day of the week.

The newest of these, a hearty Sunday lasagna luncheon from 1 to 3 pm, got started last weekend, after the inaugural offering was postponed from February 10. Parishioners at the Federated Church In Edgartown have signed on to cook and serve the robust pasta, salad, and garlic bread feast.

Church members Pam and Jim Butterick initiated the idea when they realized Sunday was the only day remaining with no community meal. The Rev. Jerry Fritz and church leaders quickly embraced the plan. Ms. Butterick is looking forward to welcoming hungry guests for the first lunch this Sunday.

“People can come, sit, feed their tummies or their souls,” promised Ms. Butterick.

“To me it’s natural,” said Carole Early of Vineyard Haven, president of VCOH. “If you have it why not share it.” A member of the M.V. Hebrew Center congregation, Ms. Early was also instrumental in launching the new community supper at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Vineyard Haven.

The Hebrew Center and Good Shepherd Parish have joined forces to begin the Thursday evening St. Augustine’s repast. The varied menus feature dishes prepared by volunteers using donations from the Stop & Shop along with potluck style contributions from members of the congregations.

On Saturday evenings, members of the Island’s Methodist congregation gather to prepare and serve a hearty supper at the Trinity Worship Center across from the Tabernacle in the Oak Bluffs Campground.

According to Methodist pastor the Rev. Richard Rego, these suppers continue the format of the Old Whaling Church meals. His wife, Karen Rego, oversees and cooks the meals with volunteer help. Unlike other parishes, the church primarily uses ingredients donated by Island Food Products and Stop & Shop and purchases others as needed. Cooking is done in the church’s newly refurbished commercial kitchen.

“Everyone is welcome,” said Pastor Rego. He said the suppers offer good food and friendly fellowship, both of which are “sorely needed.”

Community Suppers

Monday, 5 pm, Edgartown, Old Whaling Church, 508-693-4424.

Tuesday, 5:30 pm, Chilmark, Chilmark Community Church, 508-645-3100.

Wednesday, 5:30 pm, West Tisbury, First Congregational Church, 508-693-2842.

Thursday, 5 pm, Vineyard Haven, Saint Augustine’s, 508-693-0342.

Friday, 5 pm, Vineyard Haven, Grace Episcopal Church, 508-693-0332.

Saturday, 5 pm, Oak Bluffs, Trinity Church, Campground, 508-693-3780.

Sunday, 1 pm Edgartown, Federated Church 508-693-6871.