PLYMOUTH — First Friday dinners at Plymouth Meeting’s Church on the Mall usually take place at communal tables in the congregation’s tranquil sanctuary. The free monthly meals are cooked from scratch by church members, open to anyone – congregants, area residents or workers, folks passing through on SEPTA – and seen as “a way to provide a place where everyone belongs, everyone is fed and no one is a stranger.”

In short, the local church’s First Friday dinners were created to bring people together. So, no surprise when their core mission made them one of COVID-19’s countless social casualties – until organizers borrowed a page from virus-triggered restaurant adaptations and began offering the meals via curbside pick-up.

“When everything shut so abruptly in March, we canceled our dinners for the safety of our neighbors and church members,” recalls Sarah Colwill, pastor of the Presbyterian congregation that has been a Plymouth Meeting Mall anchor since the mid-1960s. “This was a tough decision as we had hosted these monthly dinners without even one month off for the past four-and-a-half years. But as our community began taking safety measures that allowed more social events to occur – such as mask-wearing and social-distancing…sanitizing and staying outdoors – we wanted to find a way to continue our dinners.”

In the end, curbside pick-up emerged as the best option for achieving that goal.

“Our main chef, Ellen Pope, and her assistant, Marie Jamison, would be in the kitchen, masked and free of any COVID symptoms,” Colwill says. “We decided to make one hot dish as the safest way to go, with pre-packaged sides…small packets of apple slices, cheese, things like that. We invited folks to drive up to the main church entrance, and we would hand the bags to them in their vehicles. Peggy Smith, who usually decorates our tables, created a beautiful summer-themed bag for our first (curbside) meal on July 3rd.”

Roughly five months later, pick-ups of comfort food favorites like shepherd’s pie and creamy chicken bakes have attracted a steady stream of takers.

“In the sanctuary, our dinners would yield an average 75 diners,” Colwill continues. “(With) curbside pick-up, we’re handing out about 50 meals. There are folks who attend our in-person dinners by bus, so it’s difficult for them to come just for this pick-up. One of the main blessings of this dinner is the fellowship and friendship of the diners. In our sanctuary, we have beautifully decorated tables and music by our music director, Jan Kaupp, often assisted by church member Todd Moody. We miss being able to host the dinners (inside), which attracts 40 to 50 non-church members each month.”

That said, church members intend to resume in-house First Fridays as soon as practical.

“These meals are supported financially by the donations of our church friends and members,” Colwill explains. “The meal served is delicious, nutritious and homemade. It’s a dinner anyone would be proud to serve their family. It’s not just for those ‘in need.’ Not just a soup kitchen…an open meal for the community. Ellen (Pope) pours so much love and passion into what she cooks. Every month, she thinks of something our diners will enjoy…something seasonal and festive depending upon the time of year. Everyone is invited to take their seat at the table…everyone belongs.”

In fact, Colwill adds, “most of the people who attend aren’t church members,” but the Church on the Mall’s all-inclusive, non-judgmental welcome is clearly appreciated.

“Last year, during our January dinner, we had a choir – Ambler Station Singers – perform their Christmas show,” she says. “In the hallway, one our regulars who doesn’t attend church stopped me to thank me for the music and the dinner. He said that a lot of the guys at his table – those he often fellowships with – were alone on Christmas and that this was their Christmas. These stories are the reason we do this every month.”

Such stories also reflect today’s “divided” social landscape, Colwill says.

“The whole world is so divided – by income, perceived social class, politics – and that has such a limiting effect on who we meet, who we socialize with, who we have meaningful conversations with. These dinners put everyone who attends on equal footing. They give people an opportunity to mix with people they wouldn’t normally meet.

“This dinner isn’t based upon need or income or status of life. Attending isn’t dependent upon belief or creed. We long for the day when we can offer that kind of radical hospitality again. But, for now, we’re grateful we have found a way to make these meals possible while keeping our community safe.”

At press time, the next distribution of curbside meals was scheduled for Dec. 4 from 6 to 6:30 p.m. Church on the Mall is located on the east side of Plymouth Meeting Mall, adjacent to Legoland. Additional information is available by phone (610-825-3388) or email (pastoratchurchonthemall.com). The church is currently collecting non-perishables for the food pantry at Norristown’s Patrician Society “and would appreciate it if diners are able to bring something for that drive.” Donations may also be left in the permanent collection bin in the church’s lobby.

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