Free Monthly Meals Build Community

What’s for dinner? How many of us husbands ask that of our wives when coming home from work? We query the answer when drawing up our grocery lists before going to the store every week or two. It’s also the question many people who are blind ask as they anticipate a free monthly meal offered by many outreach centers across the country hosted by a loose network of Christian congregations.

The idea for a free monthly meal came about in 1998 when Bob Mates of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania approached his pastor at First Trinity Lutheran Church. Having been blind most of his life, Bob saw how many of his blind friends and neighbors lived isolated from each other unless some common event brought them together. While he himself was an active churchgoer, he observed how ninety-five percent of blind and visually impaired people are not connected with a local congregation (and that includes all denominations and worship styles). His idea was that since this gap persisted, he and his congregation could gather people for a time of friendship and devotion. Of course, he knew of how active consumer organizations like the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind strive for people’s dignity and independence through their advocacy. But, not all people who are blind get involved in these groups. Sports such as goalball and judo attract another sizable segment of the blindness population. But, not everyone’s an athlete. Mates saw the opportunity that a meal could give for anyone to just come for an afternoon or evening to be with others, catch up and support each other on their coping journey.

Then as now, free monthly meals for the blindness community take place toward the end of the month. With the unemployment rate eclipsing seventy percent across the country for people who are blind, fixed income resources run low at that time. That means shopping lists grow shorter and trips via a city’s paratransit services become less frequent. So the meal can serve as an oasis of sorts.

It’s been twenty-three years since First Trinity Lutheran Church hosted that first meal of the month. Since then, outreach centers have opened in places like Austin, TX; Santa Barbara, CA; Anderson, IN; Kansas City, MO: and Maplewood, MO.

The Rev. Dave Andrus, himself blind since age eleven, took Bob’s original vision and ran with it over the next couple decades. He connected with many of us who, like Bob Mates, were blind and active in our local congregations. We could provide a safe, welcoming environment during and even beyond the meal to lend our hands and advice in caring for our blindness community’s needs.

Some centers like the one in Pittsburgh hosted emotional support and guide dog user support groups for those who wanted to make connections beyond the time a meal could provide. Many groups like the one where I served in Kansas City, MO started up newsletters that offered practical daily living tips for people who were blind such as recipes, community calendars for events hosted by other blindness support organizations in their area, and a devotion drawn from the Bible.

Wherever I’ve been privileged to serve as a director, we’ve always said to newcomers, “You don’t have to join anything to join us for dinner.” In saying this, my goal was to emphasize that anything we did or offered was free. My phone was always an open door for people’s concerns. Like many other directors, I also enjoyed being an informal consultant for finding resources in places like our local gyms, grocery stores, or banks that lent themselves to being more blind friendly. Of course, that depended largely on word of mouth-and in an  oral culture, though isolated, that’s how many bits of information spread. So the stores that offered more courteous help drew a larger percentage of those in Kansas City who were blind. Doctors offices whose staff seemed more attentive to the needs of someone who can’t see became the topic of dinnertime conversation at our meals of the month.

Check out this link to see more of a history behind the growth of outreach centers and their free meals of the month during the years prior to the COVID pandemic.

AN Internet Component Takes Shape.

In 2014, just after his service with Lutheran Braille Workers ended, the Rev. Dave Andrus formed Not-Alone Ministries for blind people who, though isolated, had web access. You can find his ongoing programs and devotions, some of which are co-hosted by Cecilia Lee, at www.not-alone.net. Like at any given meal of the month, spiritual encouragement comes from the Bible as Pastor Dave teaches it in a very conversational way. He’s right in addressing the feelings many people have, that “The universe is big. We are small. We are not alone.” God extends His love through Jesus Christ, His Son, that all who believe have eternal life. (John 3:16) Pastor Andrus plans on resuming some items in the future like the online newsletter for outreach centers and support services who have lent their hands over the years.

Along with this theme, Not-Alone Ministries also seeks to dispel a notorious and sadly persistent myth that blindness is a result of some unknown sin or caused by someone’s lack of faith. Instead, blindness can prove to be a blessing according to Andrus and those of us who have shared in his work over the past few decades. Yes, a blessing! For through monthly meals and down-to-earth support, we who are blind can reach others who are coping with vision loss in ways that bring that firsthand touch beyond the joyous milieu of legislation, techie gadgets, and striving for equality in the workplace can provide.

Now, as the pandemic seems to be waning, more outreach centers are opening their doors again to hosting free meals of the month. It was a joy being served by one on this past Saturday at Concordia Lutheran Church here in Fort Wayne, IN. If you are blind or visually impaired or you know someone who is, perhaps, you might wonder if a congregation in your area offers free meals of the month like what we’ve discussed here. If so, reach the Rev. Dave Andrus via the contact link on the Not Alone Ministries’ website. He can let you know if an outreach center is in your area or, if not, how you can get one started.

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