O'FALLON — While any congregation hopes to add to its flock, at Faith Lutheran Church, the search is on for diners.
"We'd really like to get the word out about our community dinner," said organizer Carol Beeman of the free meal offered every Monday at the church.
As she stood in the church kitchen about 4 p.m. on a recent Monday, three big casseroles warmed in the oven, while green beans simmered on the stovetop. Dinner is served from 5 to 6:30 p.m. so the hustle and bustle were well under way.
Church member Ron Dormer arrived with bread donated by Jersey Mike's in Shiloh. Homemade brownies baked by Doreen Klages were plated. Joe Shepherd crushed cornflakes that would top the casseroles.
Since Jan. 16, Monday has been Community Meals night. Five teams of two-person cooks claim a Monday night as their own and prepare casseroles and other dishes. Other volunteers sign up -- there's a master list of about 50 -- and help out, opening the doors to anyone who would like to sit down and have a hot meal served to him in the fellowship hall.
There is no cost and no proselytizing, just a good-sized portion of a hot casserole, salad, roll, vegetable or fruit, beverage and dessert brought to your table by a server.
Seconds? Absolutely. You can even take extra with you when you leave.
Want to eat at home? Pick up a meal and take it with you.
Donations are welcome but not required.
"I come for the friendship mostly," said Shirley Bauer, who had just moved back to Shiloh from Mascoutah with her daughter. "I cook at home. I'm big on sweets. The desserts here are very good."
No questions are asked about why people come for the meal. The congregation is very aware that the hungry are everywhere and that individuals and families can use such a dinner to help stretch food dollars.
"We all wanted to do something more for the community," said Carol, 65, a retired manager for SBC. "We certainly don't have to prove a need. We are reaching out to our neighbors. It's not a unique idea."
But it was an idea that, while it took some pulling together and seed money, had instant impetus.
"People started coming to us. We didn't need to recruit," said Carol.
Jodie Gregory, of O'Fallon, saw the church billboard one day while driving on U.S. 50, said her husband, Jeff. Now they are volunteers, though not church members.
"Here you go," said Jeff as he slipped several plates of food on a tray for server Susan Jones, of Fairview Heights.
"We get to nourish the body as well as the soul," she said later.
The volunteer cooks have earned certification through the state's safe-food handling program. The kitchen also was inspected by the St. Clair County Health Department and approved for serving food to the public. The church held one fund-raiser to pay for the training and for new pots and pans -- and a freezer to hold casseroles prepared in advance by each team.
A food wish list went out and continues to be filled. The kitchen pantry and freezer are full. An offering box sits in the dining room by the kitchen pass-through.
"We never mention it, but there is always something in it," said Carol.
Any food remaining at the end of the night is packaged and sent to the O'Fallon Community Food Pantry for distribution.
A by-product of the venture is that congregation members who didn't know one another began working together to prepare meals, while others began coming to the meals.
"We started out to serve meals to hungry people and it's become fellowship," said fellowship chairman Karl, 50. Church members number 566. That Monday, 32 meals were served and another six were taken out. Numbers were down in the summer but have picked up again.
Monday was chosen as the day for the community dinner because it was the night when the least amount of activities were going on in the congregation.
"But now, a lot of groups are planning for Monday nights so families can come and eat beforehand," Carol said.
Lisa and Roelof Melzer ate dinner with their daughters, Sophie, 14, Molly, 11, and Elana, 9.
"My girls have practice for a Christmas musical tonight," said Lisa of combining a night of not cooking with church activities. They always leave a donation in the box.
"I think it's great and I hope people come and enjoy it. You don't have to be a member to come."
Pastor Freida Snyder stopped in to visit.
"I'm humbled by the way people in this congregation have stepped up and taken this on," she said. "This is something we see as a need and really believe in."
Carol is not ready to stop with just her church, though. She dreams of a united front to feed people.
"We have Monday night. I wish all the nights were covered -- a church for each night -- so no one would go hungry."
When: 5-6:30 p.m. Mondays
Where: Faith Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall, 520 E. Highway 50, O'Fallon
Here is one of the casseroles served on Mondays for the Community Meal. The directions are for a dish that will be frozen for future use.
On Nov. 18, the congregation at Faith Lutheran Church will taste test a new batch of casseroles, picking the top five to serve in 2013.
12 ounces spaghetti, uncooked and broken into 2 1/2 -inch lengths
5 cups chopped cooked chicken
3 small cans sliced mushrooms
2 cans cream of mushroom soup
1 1/2 pounds grated sharp Cheddar cheese (reserve half)
3/4 cup red bell pepper, chopped
3/4 cup green bell pepper, chopped
1 1/4 cups chopped yellow onion
1 can chicken broth
Pepper, to taste
1/2 pound Ritz crackers, crushed into crumbs
Cook spaghetti in boiling water 8 minutes (or a little less). Drain well.
Mix rest of ingredients with spaghetti, except the reserved cheese and the cracker crumbs.
Pour mixture into a large rectangular casserole pan sprayed with cooking spray.
Cover, label and freeze. Attach a freezer bag of the reserved cheese and cracker crumbs.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Uncover pan, sprinkle with bag of cheese and cracker crumbs. Bake 90 minute to 2 hours, or until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees for 15 seconds.
-- Adapted from an online recipe by Betsy Layfield and Ginnie Phillips