Church provides comfort food

Respite: Members of St. Matthew in Bowleys Quarters help Isabel's victims by serving meals.

October 09, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

When Tropical Storm Isabel tore through eastern Baltimore County last month, the ladies of St. Matthew Lutheran Church got out their casserole dishes and stockpots and started cooking.

They roasted turkey and chicken for devastated Bowleys Quarters residents as they waited for insurance adjusters and federal disaster officials. They stuffed sandwiches with lunchmeat for crews working double shifts to repair utility lines and remove debris. They seasoned spaghetti sauce and warmed bread for neighbors exhausted from hauling away sodden furniture, clothes and photo albums from flood-ravaged homes.

And they haven't stopped cooking yet.

Weeks into the herculean task of repairing and rebuilding the waterfront neighborhoods nestled between Frog Mortar and Seneca creeks, St. Matthew's fellowship hall on Red Rose Farm Road has become a well-known respite from mildewed walls and waterlogged kitchen appliances, worries about growing bills, and applications for federal aid.

The people of Bowleys Quarters will tell you that although they were among the hardest hit by Isabel, the smell of home cooking at the end of the day has helped soften the blow. Here, they say, is evidence that neighbors still take care of one another.

"It not only feeds your body," said Lucille Stricker, 63, whose Chester Road home needs major repairs. "It helps to be away from the mess for a little bit and to see other people in the same fix as you, some worse off."

She and her husband, Charles Stricker, 64, have been coming for dinner every day. "These people have worked hard," she said. "And their food is delicious."

Although the church stopped serving lunch last week because the daytime crowd dwindled, members plan to continue dinner service through at least this week.

Any given evening, 100 to 300 people file through the fellowship hall doors to dine with their neighbors. Round tables covered with white tablecloths are set by 5:30 p.m., and iced tea and coffee are brewing. A table with crockpots and warming trays keeps the main dishes hot, and the dessert table is piled high with cakes and cookies.

Deborah Brill, 59, and her friends fill one table, swapping stories about their cleanup efforts. "This has been a godsend," she said, pointing out that she and her Bowleys Quarters neighbors can no longer take for granted such conveniences as electricity and being able to sit at a table in a dry room. "I can't even cook in my kitchen. This has been such a great help."

Across the room, Bette Moore, 69, a gardener whose cottage will have to be rebuilt, is enjoying a chicken dinner with a neighbor and her two sons. "I think this has been a lifesaver to a lot of people," said Moore, who says she figures she'd be eating sandwiches for lunch and dinner if it weren't for St. Matthew.

Since Sept. 21, eight St. Matthew members -- people such as Dottie Coppell and Bea Magsamen -- have been starting their days in the fellowship hall kitchen about 9 a.m., when they begin preparing meals. They usually finish cleaning up about 9 p.m.

Several St. Matthew members also deliver about 50 meals a day to families who cannot get to the church.

"This is just what a church is supposed to be doing," said St. Matthew's pastor, the Rev. John Kulczycki. "We're glad to be able to do it. The people at this church are salt of the earth, really caring. I think people feel comfortable here."

Within days of the first dinner, other volunteers were offering to help. A retirement home started sending desserts. A Pennsylvania farmer dropped off two bushels of green beans. The man who owns the pit-beef joint a few miles away catered dinner one night.

Another night, a church in Piney Grove made a meatloaf dinner and churches from Edgemere, Rosedale and Parkton sent boxes and boxes of sandwiches. Last week, a local Chinese restaurant provided a lunch buffet, and a group of mothers from the athletic association at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church made cream chicken over hot biscuits for dinner.

"We just wanted to be able to help with this," said Louise Doherty, one of the Mount Carmel cooks. "We have about 75 families displaced by this storm. But those of us who didn't have damage want to be able to do something for those who did. We've had people volunteering even though they have to clean up their own homes."

Dottie Coppell, who coordinates fellowship programs at St. Matthew, has taken vacation time from her secretarial job at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County to keep the meals coming.

Coppell is desperate to find a warehouse and volunteers to distribute donated clothes, cleaning supplies and food. The hallway in the fellowship hall is barely passable because of the overflowing pantry, and several Sunday school classrooms are filled with clothes and blankets.

She wants to be able to continue serving dinner, but soon there won't be room for people.

"There is such a need for this here," Coppell said. "I feel like God dropped this in my lap. ... To be able to sit with these people, let them tell their story and hug them -- that's so important."

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