By Jessica Connor
GREENVILLE — If there's one thing the members of Monaghan United Methodist Church are really, really good at, it's food.
Whether it s grilled chicken, pancakes or homemade crock-pot macaroni and cheese, they not only cook up some good eats, but also enjoy serving them with gusto.
It s their passion, their mission, said the Rev. Bob Keely, pastor of the small 108-year-old church. This is what they do best.
But it s not just Monaghan members who benefit from the talents of its in-church chefs. The congregation is using its gifts to reach out in love to the surrounding community. Since February, Monaghan UMC has been hosting free monthly community dinners. The dinners are held the third Tuesday of each month and attract gobs of people.
At the July dinner that the Advocate attended, people from five different United Methodist churches broke bread together “ and that doesn t even count the not-yet-churched neighbors who drift in and out to enjoy a smile, a meal and maybe a little piano music.
Connectionalism is what it s all about, Keely said, calling the dinners a blessing for Monaghan, as well as those who come to eat.
One of the churches that regularly bring a flock to the Monaghan dinners is Esperanza Mission Congregation, a Hispanic United Methodist new church start. While Esperanza members typically speak only Spanish, the Rev. Enrique Gordon said his congregation really appreciates the opportunity to share a meal with others in the denomination and feel truly included.
It takes away the ˜us and ˜them, Gordon said, explaining how the dinners help remove the insulated identity church members sometimes form in relating only to their church and not to the rest of the UMC in their community and the world beyond.
Because the Monaghan congregation is so welcome and open, it helps them to see the connection, to know we are all United Methodists together, Gordon added. And it helps them learn to reach out to others.
Indeed, the Monaghan dinners are not some quiet event drawing a handful of insiders. A huge banner proclaiming the event stands sentry outside the church, inviting all to come, no strings attached. Here, free really does mean free “ there s not even a donations welcome box by the table.
Monaghan members have also hit the streets, parading from door to door and spreading the word to neighbors about the dinners and urging them to come. They go out of their way to invite everyone they encounter “ the nursing home residents who come to senior classes at Monaghan, patrons at local restaurants, neighborhood business owners. They sent 57 postcards to residents at a nearby apartment complex, distributed flyers around town and asked their members to invite friends. They also spread the word at The Little Red Store, the popular thrift shop that Monaghan operates.
Charlotte Smith is one of the thrift store shoppers who got invited to the church and to the monthly dinners. She had been invited once and forgot about it, but the second time, she said, I felt God s hands on my shoulders telling me to come here.
She did, and she s been a member ever since. People really welcomed me when I first came, Smith said. It s really the Methodist tradition: open hearts, open minds, open doors.
Esperanza member Leticia Chavez said she first came because her church invited her, and she is glad she accepted.
I like to come here to share with other people, Chavez said through her teenage daughter Emily, who served as a translator. The food is good, and the people are really friendly.
Herbert Potts agreed. You get to meet people you don t know.
And it s a whole lot better than eating by yourself, Lucile Hanby added.
The Monaghan dinners are amiable; members don t sit in packs but instead spread out and get to know their neighbors. It s common to see United Methodists sitting with Baptists, Hispanics with Anglos or older folks with younger ones.
And Keely said it s not always the same people. Each time, 10 to 15 percent are new faces, and people from the community always outnumber the members.
You don t always find that, Keely said. It s really about opening our doors.
In a sense, it shows people that church and community can be fun. And all of that is a soft form of evangelism. Keely said it doesn t matter to him or to Monaghan members whether those who attend the dinners become members at their church or some other church “ even some other denomination. But they want them to enjoy church, enjoy fellowship and see that people do care for them and can reach out in love.
Just because they come to dinner doesn t mean they ll come upstairs on Sunday, but we want them to come somewhere, Keely said. It s baby steps, and it ultimately leads to evangelism.
Today s success didn t happen by accident. Monaghan had tried years ago to host community dinners, but with little funding and orchestrated effort, only two or three people showed up.
Keely, who came to Monaghan in November 2009 in his first appointment, took the place of a pastor on medical leave who had applied for a grant for a grander community dinner effort. When they received the grant in January 2010, Keely said he wasn t even sure it was the right step for the church. They formed a committee and entered a discernment period to see if this was the right direction for the church.
I didn t want to run way ahead with this and find no one behind me! Keely said.
But the church loved the idea, and more and more volunteers signed on each month. Eventually, Monaghan used the grant money to remodel and expand their kitchen, plus used a smaller grant from Hunger Hope to get food. They also got much-needed labor assistance from youth at Isle of Palms UMC, Hilton Head, who spent a week getting Monaghan ready for their neighbors. They planted flowers, painted the interior and cleaned the facility from top to bottom.
Now, going on six months strong with no signs of slowing down, Monaghan members and their pastor are happy with their latest outreach effort and hope the dinners will represent an open-hearted Christianity that showcases the best United Methodism has to offer.
It s really the connection at its finest, Keely said.