Brad Bridges has been going through some tough times.
But each Wednesday evening, the local man can find friendly faces and a nourishing meal at Salem Lutheran Church in Fremont.
Eli Rodriguez, who comes to the church for the English Language Learners class, attends the meal with her three boys, too.
“The people are really nice,” Rodriguez said. “When I’m in class, my kids stay in the daycare. They love it.”
Bridges and Rodriguez were among more than 80 people who gathered Wednesday at the church at 401 E. Military Ave., for what meal organizers call a “Feast for All.” Every Wednesday, from September through about May, the church provides a free dinner from 5:15-6 p.m. in its fellowship hall.
The public is invited and freewill donations are accepted for the meals, which are served prior to programs for children and youth, and the ELL classes.
“It’s an outreach of our Christian education program — to bring people together so they get to know and meet each other,” said volunteer Sandy Terry.
Denise Burns, former director of Christian education at the church, actually started the meals in the fall of 2010 as an intergenerational activity. It’s continued since then.
About 60 to 70 people — adults and children — typically attend, said the Rev. Cindy Cone, a former Fremonter, who works with education for the younger children.
Not only intended for Salem members, the meals probably are attended by more non-members.
Families and individuals who attend The Table are invited as well.
Launched by student Elena Wright and her family, The Table is a project that provides free bread and meat for between 50 and 70 people each Wednesday and about 40 to 50 on Saturdays in the church’s “Common Grounds” (annex) building.
Elena earned a $1,000 grant from the Fremont Area Community Foundation to start the project and two local grocery stores (plus one from Omaha) donate edible food that might that because of merchants’ rules might otherwise have been thrown away.
Those who come to Feast for All have been served a variety of meals including spaghetti, chili, chicken noodle soup, ham and cheese sliders, sloppy joes, hot dogs, chicken and rice casserole and macaroni and cheese.
On Wednesday, Terry and fellow volunteer Jaki Heinrich dished up hefty portions at a taco bar to the larger-than-normal crowd that showed up on the blustery cold night.
Cone anticipates more dinner guests as winter temperatures dip.
“Weather will make a difference, because people will want a hot meal,” Cone said.
Volunteers said they get plenty of “thank yous” and “God bless yous” from the diners.
“Last week, we were told we were beautiful women,” Terry said.
Dinner guests of all ages — from babies to older folks — dined together Wednesday night. One older man held onto a cane as he carefully made his way through the line.
Cone said volunteers hear sad stories of health issues that people have talked about.
“What we can do is pray and say, ‘We’re here if you need something,’ help maybe find a resource if we can,” Cone said.
Volunteers have shared in happy times, too.
“We’ve gotten to see new babies — just weeks old,” Cone said. “Watching moms and dads growing into being families has been rewarding.”
And maybe a little interesting.
“One week, I had three toddlers crying and you just had to pick them up and love them. We were in our class time,” Cone said.
Heinrich enjoys seeing everybody together.
“And it doesn’t matter what culture you’re from or what income level you’re from, everyone is just together,” Heinrich said. “We’ve built relationships with people we haven’t known before or wouldn’t have known.”
Cone has enjoyed seeing barriers broken and relationships built among dinner attendees.
“So many of all of our people just want to be unconditionally loved,” Cone said. “And all we can do is share with them.”
Cone also has taken note of the dinner guests’ appreciation.
“I think people are surprised that we do it,” she said. “It’s not expected. It’s not something you’d anticipate and yet we do it just because we can. We have the financial ability and the giftedness of people to serve.”
Guests at the Wednesday night dinner expressed their appreciation for the meal and other programs.
“It helps through the month,” Bridges said about The Table and Feast for All. “You can get some groceries and you can get a free meal every Wednesday. It (the meal) tastes good. It’s nourishing. It’s hot.
“They know how to cook and they always have some sweets, too.”
Alecia Rush of Fremont was complimentary as well.
“We get full by the time we leave here,” she said.
Joshua Rodriquez, 10, who comes to the meal with his mom, Eli, and brothers, Nelson Alvarez, 5, and Major Alvarez, 3, has enjoyed being in the daycare provided for children of ELL students.
“They’re super nice to us,” Joshua said. “Before we leave, we get a little snack. The kids I play with are really kind to me.”
At a nearby table, Bridges expressed his appreciation for those who serve at Feast for All.
“They’re decent,” he said. “They’re really nice and always willing to talk. I feel welcome here.”