PALMYRA, Maine — As patrons in this full dining room were being served a menu of chicken legs, boiled potatoes, green string beans and chocolate cake on a recent Wednesday, Herb Pearl, 54, shook his head.

“I dunno how we do it, but we do,” Pearl said.

As pastor of the Palmyra Baptist Church and overseer of its food cupboard and soup kitchen, Pearl on this night is feeding his “family” of more than 60 people who travel from Greater Palmyra twice a week for a free hot meal, a spiritual uplift and plenty of camarade-rie.

While young families and senior citizens ate heartily at their tables and booths, Pearl wiped his brow and looked a little weary. He and his wife, Joanne, had risen long before daybreak for their early morn-ing to midafternoon shifts at GE in Pittsfield before they headed to the soup kitchen to prepare for the evening meal.

“People don’t realize what it takes to run a soup kitchen — it takes commitment, … and it takes passion to do the things the Lord has called me to do,” Pearl said.

For the past several years, the Pearls have funded most of the cost of the soup kitchen from their paychecks, but with the rising costs of utilities, food and fuel, the couple find it ex-tremely difficult to keep their heads above water, keep the church afloat, pay the rent, and still feed the hungry. For two weeks in August, the soup kitchen was closed for lack of funds.

“A lot of things have gone on in the last month with my wife and myself, everything is fal-ling apart, our car fell apart, our truck fell apart — we have no car anymore,” Pearl said. “Most people say, ‘Why do you give so much money to a soup kitchen when you can go buy yourself a new car?’” he said, and then replied, “That’s not my calling, God will take care of that.”

Pearl said he doesn’t need anything fancy to show he has had a good life. He wears his hair nearly shoulder length, shuns suits and sometimes preaches in shorts and sneak-ers. The tiny earring he wears in his right ear is for a purpose, he notes.

“This to me is a tool to reach people that ordinary churches aren’t able to reach,” Pearl said. It doesn’t matter to him if people have pierced their skin with hoops and rings, color their hair pink, or wear torn clothing, it’s the inside that counts, he said.

“The world has a standard and sometimes churches mold to that standard. I can’t see Je-sus wearing a suit preaching the word of God; I can see him wearing sandals, a shirt and he’d probably wear a pair of jeans if jeans were in that day,” Pearl said. “That’s how I see Jesus. Jesus cares more about the heart than he does the ex-ternal of man.”

His own heart was touched, Pearl said, when he was 23 years old. “I guess I was living a life that wasn’t too pleasing, you know,” he said. “Finally I said there’s gotta be more to life than just eating, drinking and carousing.”

A friend invited him to church and during an altar call, he went forward and gave his life to Jesus, he said. “From that point, it’s been a journey — a struggling journey, but it’s been a journey.”

That journey led Pearl to re-turn to school, where he earned his GED, and later to meet a stranger who touched his life and set him on a path of giving. The stranger, he said, paid his tuition to the Southern Baptist Convention where he did semi-nary work for 7½ years.

From there, Pearl settled in Palmyra where he started a church in a small rented build-ing on Route 2 owned by the Cray family. In 2003, he moved his small congregation across the road into a former restau-rant and ceramics business also owned by the Crays. Pearl said a church was added onto the building with help from young people from the Lakewood Bap-tist Church in Lakewood, N.Y. The assistant pastor of the New York church had disciplined him and trained him in God’s word, he said. Not only did the pastor and the church send workers, they also have mailed a $1,000 check each year to help fund the Palmyra church, he said.

That check, along with about $50 in donations each year and some USDA and locally donated food and clothing, helps stretch the $400 a month the Pearls pay from their pocket for the food cupboard and soup kitchen. In past years, Pearl said, he vis-ited the Good Shepherd Food-Bank routinely but it has be-come more difficult to purchase food in bulk and pay for fuel, so those visits are now done once or twice a year.

There have been times when more people have arrived than planned at the soup kitchen and food was scarce, Pearl said, but he has never let anyone go away hungry.

“We’ve run out of food, so we scurry around to find some-thing for them to eat,” he said. “There’s such a need for these meals and a lot of the need is from the elderly who can’t make their income meet at the end of the month.”

He worries, however, that the need is growing at the same time his wallet is shrinking. But his faith tells him help will come.

“Sometimes things get tough in everybody’s life and I know the Lord will see this through. God will touch somebody’s heart to give, he always does,” Pearl said.

The soup kitchen is open 5 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Fri-days. Donations for the food cupboard or soup kitchen may be sent to the Palmyra Baptist Church, P.O. Box 68, Palmyra 04965.