BANGOR, Maine — Maybe it was the unseasonably warm evening, or maybe, paradoxically, it was the traditionally home-centered Thanksgiving holiday itself.
Whatever the reason, the delectable turkey dinner for 100 at the First United Methodist Church had no takers Thursday night, leaving organizers of the church’s fledgling “warming center” a bit deflated but undaunted.
“We’re just trying to find the balance,” said parish secretary Maureen Cipullo. That balance, in these early days of the warming center’s presence, means having enough warm, nutritious food on hand to feed however many people may come through the door — drawn by the warmth, light and promise of companionship — without having too much.
The warming center is a simple idea born of hard times. According to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Randall Chretien, area churches, social service agencies and community groups have been meeting regularly for several weeks, exploring ways to respond to the growing economic crisis. The concept of warming centers came up, he said — welcoming gathering places where individuals and families could take a break from the turned-down thermostats and dimmed lamps of their homes, where they could eat a warm meal, play a board game, work a puzzle, watch a little television and visit with some friendly people.
Three weeks ago, Redeemer Lutheran Church opened its doors from 3:30 to 7 on a Wednesday evening, followed by First United Methodist Church the next evening. The two Essex Street churches will host warming centers each Wednesday and Thursday through the winter, Chretien said.
So far, attendance has been sparse, but Chretien said he would be surprised if it stays that way.
“Word of mouth is the best way to reach people,” he said. “I’d expect we’ll have 40 or 50 who come once word gets out.”
Usually, the evening meal is a simple one: soup, bread, cookies. But the Thanksgiving day fare was more sumptuous: tender chunks of roast turkey swimming in a dark gravy, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, homemade pies brought in by members of the congregation. In a steaming chafing dish, a silky, spicy butternut soup scented the air.
Lesley Whittington, a professional chef and a member of the congregation, looked out over the dining area, where long tables were set with white, lace-patterned cloths, awaiting the dinner rush. No diners, no problem, he said — the hot food would go to local shelters, and some would be frozen for future use.
Cipullo said anyone is welcome at the warming center, but the target population is people who normally are able to make ends meet but may be having a harder time than usual this year.
“We think the need is great,” she said. “Our concern is that people may be embarrassed to accept this help. And some people may think that because this is a church, they’re going to be asked to make some kind of a commitment.” That is not the case, she said — it’s just that the church is reaching out to serve the larger community.
“This is what a church should do,” Cipullo said. “A lot of people don’t want to admit that they’re in a hard place, … but there is more of a struggle going on in this community than most people realize.”