Coastal communities often attract retired residents or winter visitors with plenty of spare time. Rockport, Texas, is no different. But there, community members are using their time to serve others.
Seven years ago, members at Rockport’s First Presbyterian Church were discussing local hunger issues and decided to offer a free meal every Tuesday night. First’s pastor, the Rev. Charlie Schuler, took the idea to other local pastors to see if their churches would be willing to contribute time and money to the ministry — now, seven churches in Rockport help with the weekly meal.
Many of the 300 people who show up to Community Table every week are homeless or poor, but others are looking for the sense of community the dinners provide.
“From the very beginning, we said we’re feeding everybody,” Schuler said. “There are no requirements, there’s no credential search, nothing. If you’re hungry, walk in and we’ll feed you.”
Volunteers focus on hospitality, serving guests at their tables.
“Jesus said, ‘If you love me, feed my sheep.’ You can’t get any closer to what he said than when you carry a plate of food out of the kitchen to somebody who’s hungry,” Schuler said. “I think when your feet are hurting from being on the concrete for three hours and somebody comes up and thanks you and says, ‘This is probably the only hot meal I’m going to have all week,’ your feet stop hurting. It’s good for the heart.”
Community Table’s ecumenical nature builds on another local project. Castaways, which started as a rummage sale led by members of an Episcopal church, is now a full-fledged thrift store operated by five local churches, including First Presbyterian.
Schuler is amazed at the volume of items donated to and sold by the store.
“The Presbyterian room — we share a little room with the Methodists — you couldn’t even get in the door because the stuff was mounded so high,” he said.
Donated items can be designated for a particular church or left undesignated, in which case they go into a fund for local non-profits. Schuler estimates First Presbyterian receives about $10,000 per year from store proceeds.
This money goes into other church programs, such as Neat Feet, an initiative by the church’s Presbyterian Women that buys shoes for any child in need in Aransas County.
“Clearly we’re meeting a need,” Schuler said. “It’s worth getting dirty over.”
Community Table, along with Castaways, has helped to foster a common purpose among the churches who participate, both for the members as well as the clergy.
“We’ve really become over the seven years a Christian community,” Schuler said. “The denominational stuff kind of goes by the wayside and we all work together.
“We don’t see ourselves as competitors. Being a connectional church we already know this, but it’s good to have a reminder. Together we can do so much more and make a much more powerful statement of the gospel and have a good time while we are at it,” he said.
That Christian spirit carries over into some of the special services the churches hold together at Thanksgiving and Easter.
And working together allows the churches to pool people and resources to better meet ever-growing needs.
“We try to cover the waterfront, but as soon as we think we’ve got it something else comes up,” he said. “In addition to all the traditional stuff that churches do, I just like the idea that these folk are never satisfied that they are doing enough.”
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.