Outside Simpson-Temple United Parish in Altoona, a food bank, a thrift shop and the Salvation Army are in sight of the church.
It was a natural for the church to begin catering to the needy 13 years ago.
Providing free meals to the community made perfect sense, Pastor Denise Arpino said.
(Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski) The Rev. Rebecca Zeek, pastor of Twenty-eighth Street Church of the Brethren, (left) and volunteer Judy Arthurs set tables.
"There are people in need that are walking by this church all the time, and our doors should be open to them," Arpino said.
On Valentine's Day weekend in 1997, Simpson-Temple began offering free meals to the public and called them Love Feasts.
"It's just a way of expressing God's love for people," said Patty Shoup, chairwoman of the Love Feast committee and one of the original organizers.
Simpson-Temple celebrated the 25th anniversary of uniting Lutheran and Methodist congregations 13 years ago and wanted to do something special for the community.
The church has a kitchen and social hall, so church members decided it was a good idea to provide a free meal to the community. Initially, the church served five meals a year. Now 30 meals are served every year.
"Being a faith-based ministry it's rewarding to be able to do this. We just feel blessed that our church has been able to do it for such a long time," Shoup said.
The Love Feasts occur every second, fourth and fifth Saturdays of the month, and usually about 100 to 150 people are served.
Simpson-Temple is providing continuity for the regulars at the St. Vincent DePaul Food for Families Soup Kitchen. Just like at the soup kitchen, everyone is welcome at Love Feasts.
John Arthurs of Altoona enjoys the Love Feasts and also is a regular at the Food for Families Soup Kitchen. He's thankful for the free meals and enjoys the camaraderie.
"I'm retired, but I still work, and it helps me out a lot," said Arthurs, who started going to Love Feast about a year and a half ago.
"We seek to welcome everybody equally and feed them heartily and connect with them and do what we can to help them. We never want to make them feel uncomfortable or embarrassed," Arpino said.
"Certainly as we look to Jesus as the model of the godly life, he reached out to those who were hurting and said, 'Let's have a meal together and sit together.'"
The food is good and the menu is varied: pasta, roast beef, pulled pork, meat loaf, chicken and dumplings, stews, hamburgers and hot dogs.
Local churches and the Jewish community rotate providing the meals. Along with Simpson-Temple, groups providing meals include Sacred Heart Catholic?Church, Wehnwood United Methodist Church, St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Bethany Lutheran Church, Christ Community Church, First Lutheran Church, Second Avenue United Methodist Church and Twenty-eighth Street Church of the Brethren, all in Altoona, St. John Catholic Church in Lakemont, Zion Lutheran Church in Hollidaysburg, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Pine Grove Mills and Clover Creek Church of the Brethren in Martinsburg and the greater Altoona Jewish community.
About 20 volunteers show up for each Love Feast to prepare the food, serve the people and clean up. The volunteers enjoy helping and often get to know some of the people they serve.
Rebecca Miller Zeek, pastor at Twenty-eighth Street Church of the Brethren said her church has been participating in the Love Feast for five years. Shortly after getting involved with the ministry, Twenty-eighth Street Church of the Brethren began Free Soup Saturdays on the third Saturday of every month, when there was not a Love Feast.
"In doing this for our brothers and sisters around our community, we are doing ministry," Zeek said. "It really does serve a need."
With the increase in economic woes during the past two years, more people seem to be attending the events. Some weekends as many as 200 people come for free meals.
The church also keeps food on hand for emergency situations and doles out vouchers for the food bank.
The other day a woman called Simpson-Temple, asking for food for her family of eight.
"I think we're known in the community as the helping hand," Arpino said.
Others need someone to talk to. Zeek often spends time with an older man who comes to Love Feast, she thinks, looking for company.
"He didn't want anything to eat. He just wanted some conversation," Zeek said.
Whatever the reason they come, people are always welcome, Arpino said. "When we looked at where God has planted us in the city, we knew it was part of our ministry. It just has to be. And our doors are open," Arpino said.