It all started with a group of friends in their late teens and early 20s who decided, rather than sitting around complaining about the problems of poverty, they would do something about it.
It is the Canton Sunday Picnic – now a church-sponsored community meal that draws hundreds of people to a Canton, Ohio park for lunch every Sunday at 1 p.m.
"As much as the picnic is about meeting the hunger needs of people, it's also about making connections," said Skylark Bruce. "This particular community might only meet for an hour a week, but some folks don't get this type of connection anywhere else."
Bruce should know. A member of New Vision United Church of Christ in Plain Township, Ohio, Bruce has taken over as the self-proclaimed organizer of the weekly gathering, and is quick to explain that she and her group have a lot of help.
"On any given Sunday we'll have between a dozen and three dozen people contributing to the meal," she said. "Everybody pitches in. On the last Sunday in September, we had 250 people show up and we had more than enough food."
Members of New Vision UCC and two other Canton, Ohio churches – Grace UCC and Congregational UCC – discovered the joy of sharing food with their homeless and impoverished neighbors as they helped fill the gap in the meal schedules of the area homeless shelter. Volunteers provide a hot dish on Sundays, donate food items that can be used to make future meals, or bring plates, utensils and take out containers.
"We have hungry neighbors. We feed them," said Karen Mazdia, another member of New Vision UCC. We do not expect anything from them in terms of identification, sobriety or mental health stability. There is no eligibility criteria except being hungry."
The community effort got started about five years ago by a group of area students. After they left, a couple locals stepped in to continue it. Bruce got New Vision and the other UCC churches involved when she joined the congregation of about 50 members in 2010. Church members now work alongside a group of coworkers from the local hospital, and volunteers from the Pilot International Club. Other regulars include folks with no organizational connection, but as Bruce pointed out, "They have loads of heart, and usually they have a personal connection to someone else who makes food for the picnic."
"The picnic is a way to take a small amount of their burden away from people just like me," said William Beighley, a new member of the Plain Township congregation. "We have a wonderful small core of people at New Vision who help those who do this regularly in every way they can. I pray that they realize how much their smaller gestures mean to the whole event."
"I focus on ensuring that we have enough plates, forks and napkins available for everybody," said Mazdia, who functions as the event coordinator. "I make sure that all the dishes have a utensil to serve it up with, and before we get there, I make sure that every plastic container has a lid so we can keep the lines moving."
"The spontaneity and creativity a cook has to have when it's all uncoordinated donated food is truly a lot of fun," Bruce said. "I get a kick out of introducing people to a vegetable they've never eaten (or only had ruined) and they discover they like it."
The regulars who bring food get help with donations, whether already-prepared foods or ingredients. Some people bring hot meals to be eaten at the time, and others bring food that can be easily carried away and eaten later. When the weather turns cold, hats, scarves, and gloves are given away with the meals.
Beighley says that he's been helped as much as the people they feed. "Through this service, I am learning a new outlook on the function of food in our lives, one of the steps I needed to help me to establish a new way of living to improve my health through healthy weight loss. My willingness to follow where the Spirit leads has taken me to where I did not know I had to go to get what I needed."
"Being with these people in the park every Sunday is the highlight of my week," Mazdia said. "[Jesus said] ‘Feed my sheep.' Literally, we are!"
"Be prepared to see God working through people who you might not think you could work alongside," Bruce concluded. "They might not ever use religious language; they might not claim any labels you hold dear, but the divine is there in what they do."
"What keeps me going back each week is knowing how many faces of God I will miss if I am not there."