Members of a southern Manitoba church are offering the residents of their town a free monthly meal, served with a side of fellowship and fun.
Altona Bergthaler Mennonite Church launched the initiative in September 2022. Anyone who wants a hot meal and time to visit with their neighbours is invited to attend.
The hope with the community meal is that there be no financial barrier and that it would bring people together who aren’t normally together, says Mark Tiessen-Dyck, lead pastor at the church. “It’s a place where everyone is welcomed and is treated like an equal.”
Located about 100 km southwest of Winnipeg, Altona is home to around 4,000 people.
The idea for what would become known as “community meal” started percolating in Tiessen-Dyck’s mind in 2019 after he attended a similar function at the Central Station Community Centre in nearby Winkler. The community centre’s Café 545 initiative serves a free meal to hundreds of people every Monday.
With support from the church council, Tiessen-Dyck formed a committee that started planning what a monthly community meal in Altona could look like.
In a visioning statement he drafted, Tiessen-Dyck pointed out that the idea of bringing people from all walks of life together for a free meal is consistent with teachings in scripture: Jesus fed crowds of people, dined and fellowshipped with people who were ostracized, called for the disciples to provide for the hungry and the stranger, and taught people to love their neighbour and their enemy.
“I hope it builds relationships and connections, and I hope it fosters peace and is a way for us to share our faith,” he says. “I mean, it’s hard to find something more Christ-like than eating with people and sharing free food with people.”
The church advertises the meal throughout town and stresses that it’s for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
There have been 11 community meals over the last 14 months. Altona Bergthaler receives help from Seeds Church, and they host the meals at a local community centre called the Community Exchange.
An average of about 150 people have shown up for meals that have included lemon dill chicken with mashed potatoes, meatballs with rice and vegetables, and chicken tacos.
Susianty Braun, a semi-retired chef who operated a local restaurant called the Jasmine Tea Room for nearly two decades, leads the food preparation.
Four years after closing her restaurant, Braun, who was born and raised in Indonesia, is pleased to be preparing food for large groups of people again.
“I love cooking,” she says. “People are enjoying the food and having a good time with the people around the table. It gives me joy.”
Volunteers help prepare the food, set up the dining hall, serve the food and clean up afterward. For Marilyn Martens, who has volunteered at community meal since the beginning, it’s an answer to prayer.
“I had a feeling in me: God, give me a blessing—something to be a part of,” Martens says. “And this felt like a good thing.”
Martens has attended Altona Bergthaler Mennonite Church since 1987 and says that volunteering at community meal has helped her connect more meaningfully with fellow churchgoers.
It’s also been a way that she can live out the biblical invitation to imitate Christ. “It’s very rewarding,” she says, “even if it’s tiring.”
Organizers are planning to expand the community meal to twice a month next year.
“It’s been really exciting and unifying for our church, because it’s something that we all support and get behind,” Tiessen-Dyck says. “A lot of people from our church of all ages have helped out in a variety of ways.”
Perhaps more importantly, it’s a way for the church to engage the community. Tiessen-Dyck says he thinks of the question that’s often asked in conversations about church work: If your church disappeared, would it matter to your community that you were suddenly gone?
“When I think about that now, I think, well, yeah, there is something that our town would be missing if it weren’t for the initiative of our church,” Tiessen-Dyck says. “That’s really humbling, actually.”