‘Spaghetti church’ feeds the poor on Thanksgiving

November 22, 2012
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Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter
Volunteers, including, from left, Frank Gessler and Suzanne Vincenti, both of Washington, and Mike Lawrence, 10, of Peters Township, served more than 300 free Thanksgiving Day dinners at Jefferson Avenue United Methodist Church in Washington. Order a Print
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Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter
Ciara Stewart, 15, a student at Washington High School, volunteers at the free Thanksgiving Day dinner at Jefferson Avenue United Methodist Church. Order a Print
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Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter
The Rev. John P. Hoffman, pastor of Jefferson Avenue United Methodist Church in Washington, left, examines the church’s kitchen as food begins to arrive Wednesday for its free Thanksgiving Day dinner. Also shown is Ted Gross of Washington, who is one of the founders of the dinners, which began more than two decades ago. Order a Print
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Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter
Shown is the sanctuary of Jefferson Avenue United Methodist Church built in 1890 at 160 Jefferson Ave., Washington. Order a Print

It was still dark one Thanksgiving Day when the Rev. John P. Hoffman was met by a shivering prostitute as he entered his church to open its kitchen to the homeless.

“I had seen her off and on for about year,” said Hoffman, pastor of Jefferson Avenue United Methodist Church in Washington.

“She said, ‘Do you have anything I can eat?’” said Hoffman, who welcomed her inside for warmth and a cup of coffee.

Hoffman and his church’s congregation minister to a growing number of homeless and poor people in the city. He’s preparing to retire in June, a departure that has drawn concerns about whether or not Methodist Church leaders will be able to find a replacement willing to continue this mission.

“That seems to be the contention,” Hoffman said Wednesday, a day before his church at 160 Jefferson Avenue would serve more than 300 free Thanksgiving Day dinners to shut-ins, the lonely, healthy families and the homeless or poor.

“From what I’ve observed, John has an amazing heart,” said church member Leandra Frisk of Peters Township, as she volunteered at the dinner, making sure there was enough food to feed the crowd.

“To minister to this community, (his replacement) has to be someone with a passion.”

This small church is known among the homeless as the “spaghetti church,” because it also provides free spaghetti dinners to nearly 300 people from 4 to 6 p.m. on the second and third Fridays of each month. The church also conducts a clinic every other Monday at 7:30 p.m., offering the homeless medical care and counseling, church secretary Chris Frisk said.

Chris Frisk said she hopes the new pastor will be interested in carrying on with these programs.

“We won’t know until they tell us who we will have,” she said. “Anytime there is a change, it is difficult.”

The church’s annual Thanksgiving dinners began more than 20 years ago as a project of its men’s group, and they mostly attracted fellow members until Hoffman arrived 13 years ago, said Ted Gross of Washington, a lay leader and one of the dinner’s original organizers.

“Now, it’s strictly for the homeless and those who don’t have anywhere else to go,” Gross said.

On Thursday, new volunteers arrived from as far away as Waynesburg, along with a larger-than-normal crowd wanting to eat, Leandra Frisk said.

“We actually had to go out today and buy more food, tons of green beans,” she said. “Green beans were the hot commodities this year.”

Those who arrived were directed to a table. Many of them don’t have the money, she said, to afford to eat at restaurants.

“This is one chance for them to be served,” she said. “That’s the real part of giving, not just feeding people, but making them feel human.”

Over the years, the faces have changed, Hoffman said.

“The homeless people know us, trust us,” he said. “We don’t preach to them. We don’t even know where some of them live.”

“As for the prostitute who was shown inside at 5:30 a.m. several years ago, she stayed until it was time to eat,” Hoffman said. “She left, and we’ve never seen her again.”

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley. He has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's from Duquesne University. Scott spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2004 as a foreign correspondent under an International Center for Journalists fellowship.

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