Despite abundant sunshine, it’s a bitterly cold January day with temperatures in the upper 20s when guests begin to arrive before noon on a Sunday at the Towson Presbyterian Church, seeking — and finding — warmth and sustenance inside.
There, a group of about 10 volunteers, is preparing two kinds of chili, soup, salad, a variety of baked goods (donated by Graul’s Market Ruxton), coffee and other beverages for the 30 or so folks who will join them for a weekly midday meal.
Paper bags with peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and pieces of fruit are also available for a quick pickup on the way out the door of the spacious community room adjacent to a large, well-equipped kitchen in the church basement.
It’s no accident that the volunteers, one of nine teams that make up the church’s Sunday Community Lunch program, use the term “guests” to describe the people who partake of the meal.
“It’s not ‘them and us’ at this meal,” cautioned Ruxton resident Ruth Anne Randolph.
“We sit and have a conversation, simply people to people,” Randolph said. “We want to get to know people by name. There’s a fellowship there, and it’s been very rewarding for our church.”
The guests come from a wide variety of circumstances, she said, and arrive on foot, in a car, on a bike or by public transportation to reach the Towson site on West Chesapeake Avenue.
Some have permanent housing, while others do not.
Regardless, all are welcome, she said.
“We try to make it work so that our SCL guests will have one hot meal and then can take a (bagged) lunch with them,” Randolph said.
The meal is intended to be a bridge between the church and those in need, said Jennifer Bolster, a Towson physical therapist and the chair of the SCL program.
“We let our guests know that they are not invisible or forgotten and that they are part of our community,” the Southland Hills resident said. “We are here to simply share food and fellowship every Sunday. "We are not here to evangelize or convert anyone — lunch guests or volunteers.
Bolster pointed out that neither volunteers nor guests are required to be church members.
"At the same time, some of our lunch guests do choose to attend church services, and some have become church members,” she said.
Bolster added that the program is an intergenerational effort, with the youngest children setting tables, rolling silverware and taking beverage or dessert orders from the 20 to 40 people who typically show up for the meal.
Wiltondale resident Tim Burkett, manning the sprayer above a sink in the dishwashing area of the kitchen, said that helping others strengthens his bond with the church and “invigorates” all the volunteers as well.
“There is a real sense of community within our own church,” said the director of operations at an architectural firm, whose wife, Kristie, is also a volunteer. “And (the meal) connects us with people in need. They are really good people who are just a little down on their luck.”
Each volunteer team has a name, and Burkett’s bunch goes by the moniker “Let Us Entertain You.”
Bolster, whose 19-year-old daughter, Claire, is part of the group, is the team captain.
Burkett said that when Randolph first brought up the idea, she and other Towson Presbyterian Church congregants were looking for a way to widen their outreach.
“We wanted something more proactive,” Burkett said.
“And we knew that there were more people in Towson who needed a daily meal more than some people would think,” said Dotsie Bregel, a member of the founding committee with Randolph in 2012. “We knew that the Assistance Center of Towson Churches does a weekly lunch, so we wanted to do something on the weekend.”
One guest, who asked not to be named, said that she heard about the SCL program through the nearby nonprofit that, according to Linda Lotz, the ACTC executive director, prepares and provides more than 300 bagged lunches per week for those in need.
“We also provide a list of places where people can find a hot meal,” she said. “It’s one of the ways we work together with area churches.”
The guest has been coming to the SCL for about a year, she said.
“And I think it’s wonderful,” she said, noting that she lives in an apartment in Cockeysville and drove herself to the meal.
She arrived early enough to socialize with volunteers and other church members during a coffee break a half-hour before the meal is served.
Just before the food was placed on a long serving table close to the kitchen, Joel Strom, associate pastor of the Towson Presbyterian Church, offered a brief prayer to the circle of volunteers and guests, who held hands and bowed their heads as he spoke.
“It's often unusual to serve a meal like this within the church building on a Sunday,” Strom said. “You don’t usually experience that in a church. (SLC) is our ministry that engages the the most active participation within our church.”
Some of the guests have joined the congregation, which boasts between 200 and 250 members on a Sunday, he said.
“One of the biggest gifts is that our SCL teams get to establish relationships with the our guests,” Strom said. “And when they see them outside (the church), they already have built a relationship with the homeless and working poor who join us on Sundays. There’s often a line between the homeless and more fortunate people in the community, and that line has definitely been crossed here at TPC. It has helped to foster compassion within us. During our conversations, while sharing a meal, we learn that we have more similarities than we have differences.”
There’s a practical side to having so many teams — the SCL is willing to take on more volunteer teams — as well, considering that putting in a few hours of community service every couple of months helps to keep the volunteers fresh.
Still, when it is their turn to serve, volunteers such as Ann Miller are happy to do their part.
“It’s so easy to just come to church and then just leave,” the Wlitondale resident said. “(SCL) gives you an opportunity to make a difference. A lot of people think of this need as something just for the inner city, but it’s right here in Towson, too. This is our job — to go out and share God’s love. I wanted to come out of my comfort zone.”
Jennifer Bolster said that many guests are regulars and have formed an attachment to the SCL.
“In turn, volunteers have gotten to know the regulars and learned more about their lives,” she said. “They will greet each other on the streets in downtown Towson like anyone else in the community.”
Noting that they are asked to follow certain basic rules of behavior, most guests self-regulate when the need arises.
“Sometimes you will hear one guest say to another, ‘Hey, you can't do that here,’” Bolster said. “When I hear our guests take ownership like that, I feel like we have created something special for all of us — a place where all can really feel welcome and comfortable.”
Anyone interested in volunteering for the Towson Presbyterian Church’s Sunday Community Lunch may contact contact Jennifer Bolster at firstname.lastname@example.org.