By ANGIE CARNATHAN
Casserole Kitchen is a community food ministry made up of churches from Starkville and the surrounding areas that provides a hot, nutritional meal to anyone in need at no charge. All meals are served in the Fellowship Hall of the First Presbyterian Church of Starkville, located at 307 University Dr. in downtown Starkville. The kitchen serves the meals on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6-6:30 p.m. and on Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. until noon.
According to the group’s mission statement, the Casserole Kitchen in an ecumenical effort supported and run by numerous churches in an effort to provide healthy meals in a safe, warm and caring environment, free of charge to anyone invited by the Helping Hands Ministries of Oktibbeha County, the Salvation Army and local Starkville Public School counselors. The group also aims to provide opportunities for volunteers to give of themselves in service to others.
MSU Stennis Center Director Rex Buffington said the group works together in the Christian spirit of giving to meet the needs of our neighbors, and Casserole Kitchen makes Starkville a stronger community because of the work the group does together.
“It would be difficult for any church to provide three meals every week, but working together we can do it,” Buffington said. “It is a wonderful demonstration of what we can do when we work together. Our churches are so much stronger when we work together rather than separately.”
Buffington said there have also been some terrific student leaders from Mississippi State who have helped serve meals.
“They lend a lot of energy to the program and are a great encouragement to all of the adult volunteers,” Buffington said.
Loren Zimmerman said the idea for the group came from all the way from New Jersey through the strength and determination of Gery Cummings.
“Gery had worked with a similar program while living in New Jersey before moving back to Starkville several years earlier,” Zimmerman said. “Gery saw a need for Casserole Kitchen and he laid the foundation, organized the churches and made it his mission to see that the program got off to a good start. Gery was very ill with cancer at the time but he never wavered from his goal.”
Zimmerman said Cummings’ hard work establishing the program while struggling with cancer inspired him to get involved.
“I’ve never seen a more determined and faithful leader,” Zimmerman said. “He labored hard on Casserole Kitchen in the face of many obstacles up until just a few weeks before his death. I always think about him when I see people enjoying a much needed hot meal together at Casserole Kitchen. One person can make a difference. Gery made a difference in my life and in the lives of so many who were inspired by his faith and commitment.”
Buffington said volunteering at the kitchen feels more like receiving a gift than giving one.
“Every time I work at Casserole Kitchen I feel that I am blessed even more by the experience than the folks who enjoy the hot meal,” Buffington said. “Spending time with the volunteers from the other churches and seeing how generous they are in giving their time and food is awesome. One night I served along side a man who was celebrating his 93rd birthday that day. It is hard to put into words, but I always leave Casserole Kitchen giving thanks for the blessings of being a small part of this ministry.”
Buffington said everyone involved puts forth their very best effort, even when the circumstances are less than great.
“One night, Janice Kinard from First Presbyterian Church put together a meal single-handedly from the church freezer with about 20 minutes notice,” Buffington said. “It is the first time I have ever seen ice cream served as an appetizer. What Janice did was almost as miraculous as the story of the loaves and fishes!”
Buffington said the one thing the group has learned is effective ministry does not require perfection.
“It just requires all of us coming together and doing the best we can to lend a helping hand,” Buffington said. “Those who come to eat at Casserole Kitchen are grateful for the help. Some express their appreciation more freely than others, but everyone there has a need and some are struggling with multiple hardships. We are all glad to help, but we are also meeting our own need to express our faith through action.”
Zimmerman said his continued involvement comes from his deep religious beliefs and knowing how much the program helps those in need in our community.
“As Christians we are taught to take care of individuals who are in need,” Zimmerman said. “Several weeks ago one of our guests brought a thank you card and had it signed by everyone in attendance for that particular meal and then presented it to our host and the church who had prepared the meal. It was a wonderful expression of appreciation from our guests to all of our volunteers.”
Zimmerman said he is overwhelmed at all the group has been able to accomplish.
“We have now served close to 9,000 meals since the program began in February 2009, and this does not include the countless meals that have been sent home with our guests,” Zimmerman said. “I think that is amazing. I don’t know of another program in our community that is truly an ecumenical effort by so many of our churches in our community. The people who prepare the meals, serve the meals and host the meals are absolutely wonderful.”
Julia Heard, a member of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, said she got involved with Casserole Kitchen when she joined the church in 2006.
“I was looking for outreach opportunities to provide hands-on service to the community,” Heard said. “A meal ministry, especially an ecumenical ministry, was just the right opportunity.”
Heard, like Zimmerman, said she believes that we are all called to help each other, and she personally gets so much out of the experience.
“I think when we help those in need, we are experiencing real community,” Heard said. “We meet people we wouldn’t have otherwise met.”
Heard said working with the program also offers her an opportunity to keep her own problems in perspective.
“We are given opportunities to give and receive, and an opportunity to learn to acknowledge the ways we are all the same and to celebrate our differences,” Heard said. “We are given the opportunity to love each other. We are given opportunities to stop judging those we don’t understand because we get a chance to understand.”
Heard said she appreciates the wonderful new memories she is making through Casserole Kitchen.
“I love that I’m getting to know new people, and I love watching even the people from my own church get to know each other better,” Heard said. “The people who come in show us how much they appreciate the good food and how much fun it is to be there, and that’s a wonderful feeling for all of us.”
For more information on Casserole Kitchen, please call Loren Zimmerman at 662-312-8403.