Living Together: It takes many to help those in need

Photo by Caleb Kenna

Sixth in a series by the Addison County Homelessness Task Force

Twenty years ago — March 26, 2004 — members of the Congregational Church of Middlebury (UCC) cooked and served the first Friday Night Community Supper. Twenty-two guests gathered around a few tables in the church’s Fellowship Hall that night. There was more than enough spaghetti and sauce to go around.

Initially, the idea was to offer a hot, monthly meal to address hunger and food insecurity in the wider community. Within a few months, the meal became a weekly one. And before long, Friday evenings in Fellowship Hall included tablecloths, and floral centerpieces, and live piano music. Lots of food, guests and volunteers. It was a bigger and bigger version of us. 

That’s what I’ve been told, anyway — and it tracks. 

When my pastorate began in 2009, Friday Night Community Supper was humming. Fellowship Hall was full of guests, all of whom the program’s leaders seemed to know by name. Coming to Middlebury from New Haven, Conn., I heard “Community Supper” and thought “soup kitchen.” I thought wrong. The guests at Friday Night Community Supper were waited on restaurant style, and people at the tables passed plates family style. To be sure, many of our guests faced chronic challenges, but I was struck by the tenderness of so many interactions between guests, many of whom showed up early to set up, and between volunteers and guests. 

Week to week, the meals were purchased and prepared by waves of volunteers, from civic groups to Middlebury College athletic teams, to local businesses, to faith communities. As the pastor of the host church, I was especially moved by my colleagues’ involvement and commitment to the work. What could have been a territorial dynamic was graced with generous collaboration. 

This same spirit animated all the services offered by Charter House Coalition. When I arrived here, Charter House was more than the address for our congregation’s offices and Church School classrooms. It was home of the church’s first nonprofit, Charter House Coalition. This interfaith, community-minded group launched and led a midday meal program and an overnight shelter at Charter House. Building on Memorial Baptist’s early efforts to provide emergency shelter during the colder months, Charter House Coalition continued and expanded this outreach. For years, our Church School classrooms were converted into sleeping quarters, and converted back into classrooms on Sunday mornings. Then, several years ago, with the completion of the church’s addition, the Congregational Church voted to give Charter House to the Coalition to increase their capacity to serve. 

At each turn, this work of feeding guests and housing neighbors has been made possible by the people from within and beyond our faith communities who have shown up to help. 

These days, the shelter in Charter House is at capacity. And Friday Night Supper is providing more than 400 meals each week. Most of these are delivered throughout the county by a team of volunteers who have, since the outbreak of COVID-19, logged considerable miles and made meaningful connections. These drivers provide meals to individuals and families whose health or lack of transportation make it difficult to attend the gathering in person. About 50 deliveries a week are made to families with younger children. About 90 meals a week are picked up at the church in take-out fashion. And, more and more, as we emerge from the pandemic haze, guests are returning to the tables in Fellowship Hall. Given the insights in “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” a 2023 report by the U.S. Surgeon General, the human connections around those tables may be as important as the nutritional meals served. 

Over the past year, I have seen basic needs in the community outpace our ability to meet them. I have heard the critique that our faith communities are not doing enough to house the unhoused. Even with the outstanding efforts of Gather, an in-town community ministry of Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community, and the ongoing work of Charter House Coalition, and the countless ways our religious communities quietly serve those whose needs outrun their means, we still have a housing problem. We still have a food insecurity problem. In fact, the local needs are greater today than they were in March 2004.

So, what are we going to do? Will volunteers from churches, town and college continue to lean in? And will others become part of the response to the community’s needs? Will we — that big us — advocate for our neighbors who do not have what they need? Will we do everything we can to ensure that the arms of this community are wide enough to hold us all? 

Neighbors caring for neighbors, especially where the needs are deep, is work I see at close range on a regular basis. “How can I help?” is a question I hear a lot. Maybe it’s donating a meal or cooking one on Friday night. Maybe it’s baking some of the 700 cookies for our guests. In any case, for the doers among us, there’s plenty to do. Dottie Neuberger, who was one of the cooks that Friday night in 2004 and remains the program’s beloved coordinator, is an expert at putting hands of all ages to work. She would be happy to hear from you. Feel free to contact the church [email protected], if you’d like to connect with her and that truly amazing team of workers.


Rev. Andy Nagy-Benson is the senior pastor of The Congregational Church of Middlebury, UCC.

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