SANFORD — On Tuesday, July 13, teens from St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Sanford and Holy Spirit Parish in Kennebunk and Wells will do what they do on the second Tuesday of every month: serve a free meal and cheer to anyone in need of either.
Now in its fourth year, the Matthew 25:35 Meals have become a community staple, a place to be reminded of the kindness of strangers, the enthusiasm of Catholic youth, and the power of service.
“We show our dedication to this service, and I think this is one way we can show people their community cares about them,” said Colby White, a recent graduate of Cheverus High School and member of Holy Spirit Parish.
Devised as a way in which to teach local teens about the importance of giving back, particularly the Bible verse Matthew 25:35 (“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me…“), the dinners have become so much more. They have built community, delivered delicious food and joy, and inspired generosity.
The dinners run from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. and are held in front of the St. Ignatius Gym at 25 Riverside Avenue in Sanford. The meals, traditionally served inside the gym at carefully set tables, are still currently in pandemic mode with curbside service, which does have its benefits.
“One of the best things about curbside though is there are almost no dishes and cleanup is faster!” joked Emma Houston, a teen from Holy Spirit Parish.
It’s an initiative that has brought support from local businesses and organizations that are moved by its motivation.
“Over the past four years, the St. Mary’s Ecumenical Food Pantry in Wells has provided food, Congdon’s Doughnuts has provided our condiment containers and flatware packets. When they were trying to get us take-out containers, one of their vendors, Favorite Foods, decided to just donate hundreds of take-out containers to the project. Parishioners donate gift cards, fruit cups, and cookie packages. After our first meal when it became apparent that we would need portable electric roaster ovens, the Springvale Knights of Columbus just went out and bought them for us. This has truly been a blessing,” said Carolyn Houston, director of faith formation at Holy Spirit Parish.
The path to this successful ministry has not been without obstacles. Like most programs, the Matthew 25:35 Meals were temporarily halted by the pandemic, unable to operate for a few months in 2020. Under the conditions, to quickly return, the sit-down meal approach would need to be altered.
“Our team at Holy Spirit and St. Thérèse of Lisieux brainstormed about how we would tackle the COVID-19 dilemma and somehow get a hot meal to those in need,” said Lisa White, a catechist at Holy Spirit Parish. “What an amazing team effort it was.”
Curbside service to cars and pedestrians was the answer. There was trepidation about how the new format would be received but thankfully, those concerns were short-lived.
“We were very nervous about how it would go for our first meal since the pandemic began, but at the end of the night, we were thrilled with the turnout and how well our plans were implemented without incident,” said Lisa. “With the teens standing outside taking orders, they were able to be more visible to the public and interact more with patrons. The teens did their jobs so well. It made me proud to see them at work, making an impact on the community and being the hands and feet of Christ.”
“Even though things have been different as to how we are able to serve our community, the people are so appreciative and still look forward to the meal that is served,” said Theresa Guillemette, a teen from St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Despite the temporary absence of the camaraderie and conversation during the meals served at the tables inside the hall, connections continue to be made at the curb.
“I always look forward to talking to the people we serve and hearing the life experiences they share with me,” said Colby. “There is more to the lives of the most vulnerable than meets the eye, and I am usually taken aback by their deep wisdom. I usually hear something along the lines of: ‘Don’t make the same mistakes I made when I was your age.’ The meal is truly a communal experience, in which we all can learn from each other.”
“I think the curbside meals may be teaching our youth that service isn’t about convenience. If there is a need and an obstacle to addressing that need, we as a community should find a way to overcome the obstacle,” said Carolyn. “We are so blessed with a caring community.”
And those being served end up receiving more than a meal when they swing by Riverside each month.
“In light of the Pope’s encyclical of brotherhood, Fratelli tutti, I think the Matthew Meal plays a role in this fellowship,” said Colby. “I think that the meals have demonstrated what it means to be compassionate, to show understanding, and to stand in solidarity with all.”
“My prayer is that all who serve and all whom we serve are able to see that these kinds of small gestures are driven by the same Spirit who cherishes each one of us,” said Carolyn.
Currently, organizers are encouraging all interested parties looking to donate to offer Hannaford gift cards, pre-packaged cookies, and fruit cups (no sugar added). Donations labeled “Matthew Meal” can be dropped off at either St. Martha Church (30 Portland Road in Kennebunk) or St. Mary Church (236 Eldridge Road in Wells). For more information or if you can help the cause with a financial donation, contact Carolyn Houston at 207-985-6252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.