Dinner @ Five

Dinner at Five logo imageThe St. Stephens UCC congregation in Merrill has restarted a free weekly community meal with support from a $5,000 Catalyst Grant from the Wisconsin Conference.

Dinner @ Five, served at 5 p.m. every Monday, is open to anyone who shows up. The hot meal, prepared by a team of volunteers, attracts families and individuals across the age spectrum. It’s a “no questions asked” environment, said the Rev. Michael Southcombe, St. Stephens’ senior pastor. “Even if you don’t need a free meal, please come. We want fellowship, and we want people treated with dignity and be a community.”

COVID-19 precautions forced Dinner @ Five to shut down. Then, as plans were put in place to restart late last year, the primary organizer – a local resident who used his own money to sustain the project – fell ill. St. Stephens had to scramble, creating a governing board and soliciting local businesses to sponsor meals and provide volunteers. Dinner @ Five reopened in November, shut down briefly in January because some key volunteers were exposed to COVID-19, and was back up and running the first week of February.

The Catalyst Grant was key.

“The grant enabled us to do some additional outreach to other area churches and businesses,” Southcombe said. The grant also enabled the congregation to keep advertising Dinner @ Five in the local newspaper.

Donations from the community wound up exceeding the grant. “People were confident we knew what we were doing” with their money, Southcombe said.

Most weeks, Dinner @ Five attracts around two dozen guests. Most diners are over 70, though there are families with young children. The youngest diner just turned 4.

Food ministry is a key part of St. Stephens’ service to the Merrill community. The congregation also operates Food for Kids, which provides 240 bags of food that go into schoolchildrens’ backpacks for the weekend. And just outside the doors of the church is a “blessing box” where people can grab food if they need it, Southcombe said.

“We have people here who have tremendously generous hearts,” he said. “There is no reason for people in this community to go hungry.”

Does your congregation have an innovative idea for meeting a community need? Apply for a Catalyst Grant by March 31. Learn more at wcucc.org/catalyst. Questions? Email Mary Kuenning Gross, Wisconsin Conference grants and scholarship coordinator. 

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