Ministry receives private donation to continue for another year

Aug. 18, 2011 at 3:18 a.m.
Updated Aug. 26, 2011 at 3:26 a.m.

A female  inmate settles in for lunch at John Wesley Methodist Church.  In 2010, the church lost its funding for the inmate luncheon program, but  private donations will keep it going for another year.

A female inmate settles in for lunch at John Wesley Methodist Church. In 2010, the church lost its funding for the inmate luncheon program, but private donations will keep it going for another year.

As a group of 14 black-and-green-striped inmates from the Victoria County Jail strolled into the John Wesley United Methodist sanctuary two weeks ago, Gene and Eva Studer took their place in the kitchen.

Three long tables were decorated as they might be for any special occasion: white table cloths, floral centerpieces and dish settings placed carefully before each chair.

And hanging on the wall, behind the buffet table of stainless steel serving dishes, a quilted sign read, "Be present at our table Lord. Be here and everywhere adored. These favors bless and grant that we may feast in fellowship with Thee."

"Are we ready?" Gene Studer asked the John Wesley Inmate Luncheon Hospitality team, observing them scoop strawberry pudding into bowls, pour lemonade into glasses and walk steaming platters out to the tables.

In mere moments, the team would be sitting among the inmates, guards and other visitors - a group of about 40 people - eating the chicken spaghetti feast they'd been preparing all morning long.

The Studers initiated the inmate luncheon program 11 years ago as a lay ministry at John Wesley. The lunch is held six times a year for the inmates, and the church team desires nothing more than to prepare and serve home-cooked meals for the Victoria Jail trustys, demonstrating God's love in the process.

"This ministry is absolutely about showing the inmates God loves them," Eva Studer said.

But only eight months ago, when funding for the program didn't come through for the 2011 year, it seemed the Studer's beloved inmate luncheon program would not continue.

"Last year, nobody's to blame, but we just failed to get our application in (to Formosa), and we didn't have the money to do it," Gene Studer said. "At the time, we didn't know if we'd be able to continue or not."

It was devastating news for the Studers, who'd poured their energy into the community service program for more than a decade.

"It means a lot to us to have this ministry, and we were really disappointed when we thought we were going lose it," said Eva Studer, still dressed in a khaki-colored apron.

However, through the help of two generous donations earlier this year, the inmate luncheon program was able to survive 2011, and the Studers are once again back on track to apply for the near $2,100 Formosa loan that, when approved, will carry them into their 12th consecutive year.

"We're applying this month, so hopefully it will be approved . I'm confident it will," Gene Studer said. "We made it through this year, and when we get the loan for next year, we'll be able to continue on like we always have."

Before everyone grabbed their plate and made a single file near the buffet table, John Wesley's senior pastor, the Rev. David King, invited the group to make a circle, join hands and bless the food.

King thanked God for the blessings of the community and fellowship the group would share that afternoon, and asked that he remind everyone that God sees them all as one people, no matter what they've done in the past, and recalled how Jesus often dined with Pharisees and lawbreakers alike.

"This means a tremendous amount to the inmates. People stop me on the street and say, 'Pastor do you remember me? I was out the inmate luncheon, and now I'm out,'" King said. "Inmates have told us when they've had Christmas dinner, they'll say, 'let's circle up, hold hands and say a prayer like we do at John Wesley.' When you hear stories like that, you know you're doing something good and something right. It touches a lot of these guys and these young women in ways we'll never know."

King reflected on the inmate luncheon's long run, remembering how the Studers' vision even predated his tenure as pastor at John Wesley.

"This ministry has survived three pastors," he said. "It is the best example of a lay-inspired, lay-driven ministry that I've ever come across. Ninety percent of what I start at church will not survive after I'm gone, but 90 percent of what's lay inspired will survive long after I'm gone."

And that's exactly what the Studer's and King both desire: for the ministry to continue years into the future so inmates will always know there's at least one dinner table where everyone is seen as equals.

"I want them to know when they come here, they're being received with the heart of Christ because Christ sat at the table with Pharisees, with high church people and with the prostitutes with the sex offenders. He sat down with everyone and gave them the same kind of love the Father had given him," King said.



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