Muncie’s radio station 104.1 WLBC, plays over a speaker.
A child dribbles a basketball on the sidewalk leading up to the steps of Avondale United Methodist Church on the corner of S. Sampson Ave and W. Tenth Street. Bounce, bounce, bounce.
People drive down W. Tenth Street and walk on the corresponding sidewalk to wave and say hello. Someone even has a Target shopping cart stacked to the top with supplies.
Each side of a picnic table is filled with people, and the table itself is loaded with food.
People come and go, loading up plates with the provided meal and stuffing shopping bags with canned and non-perishable food items.
This is the scene Nov. 10 at Avondale. 5-6 p.m. every Thursday of every week, volunteers from the church hold a Thursday night meal to serve the Muncie community.
“This is one of the things that really means so much because this church is on this corner, everybody knows where it is and they keep coming back,” Jeff Watters said. “It's a safe place for everybody, and it just means everything. I mean, it's amazing.”
With a cane in hand and his knee brace on, Watters has been attending Avondale for over 50 years. While he has been involved with the church for over half a century, about 10-20 people currently attend Avondale Methodist Church consistently every week. However, Watters said sometimes there are 100-150 people, not including volunteers, who come to the Thursday meals.
Brian Carless began volunteering for the Thursday night meals in 2018. After graduating from Ball State University in 2016, Carless moved back to his home area of Lafayette, Indiana, only to move back to Muncie in 2018, mainly because of Avondale and their mission to serve.
“We're here in the neighborhood, [and] we want to be here for the neighbors, as opposed to just doing a Sunday worship service and sending people on their way,” Carless said. “[We want to be] more destinational and a place of peace and hope for neighbors in the neighborhood.”
The Thursday night meal idea began with The Revolution, a church on Ball State’s campus, before they partnered with Avondale to make it a weekly event. At first, the meals were supported by Avondale, before the event began drawing so many people they couldn’t support it alone. Carless said the 8twelve coalition writes grants to fund the meals with additional funding and help from the nearby First Presbyterian Church and Tabor Baptist Church.
At this point, Carless said many people expect this event to be where they get their meals on Thursdays and for their friends and neighbors too. Carless said the event has become a necessity due to the Southwest side of Muncie being classified as a food desert or “an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality, fresh food,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
When COVID-19 affected the community in 2020, the church knew they couldn’t stop providing Thursday meals because many people depended on them. So, the church began to buy food in bulk, put that food in grocery sacks and send people with it, rather than the traditional Thursday meals that came beforehand where most got a plate of food and ate at the church.
Carless has noticed for most people who come to the Thursday meals, their money comes at the beginning of each month, whether that be in disability checks or just general income. With that in mind, he said the first couple of weeks of each month aren’t normally as busy as the last couple when necessity begins to grow.
“[We see] a lot of familiar faces. Sometimes, there's months between seeing faces, and that could be for so many different reasons, but one thing people can always expect when they come here is [there are] no questions asked,” Carless said. “There's no expectations, you can come here even if you haven't been here for years. We're not gonna ask you why, we're not going to ask you any invasive questions, just feel free, feel safe.”
Carless told a story about a woman named Trula who came to the Thursday night meal almost every week. She rode a bike around the community, greeted people and affected many lives through her heart, grace and peace, Carless said.
Oct. 16 Trula was hit by a train and died 11 days later. Nov. 17, Avondale is hosting a Celebration of Life in her honor where those involved with the Thursday night meals will provide food for the community, as well as the local restaurant Twin Archer, one of Trula’s former doctors and more.
“We've had five plus memorial services since we've been doing this meal for people who have come to the meal often, faces that we knew who have passed, [overdosed and] died,” Carless said. “... What's nice is we can all share that struggle together like we celebrate fun times. We have block parties, we get petting zoos, we have dunk contests, we have hot dog cook-offs, all kinds of things, but then we also can really share the hard times together.”
Carless said Thursday night meals started as a way to provide food to the community and to build community and relationships but quickly developed into a way to make connections to provide services such as vaccinations, COVID-19 testing, heart monitoring, HIV testing and more.
“Thursday is something that everyone can come to because it's here in the neighborhood, and it's not far, and so, if we can bring amenities and access to amenities here, that bridges a huge gap, and so now, we're looking at more of the whole health of a person,” Carless said. “It's not just spiritual health, it's mental health, it's physical health, being able to eat, feeling safe, engaging in relationships and connections.”
Carless said while sometimes the lack of volunteers compared to the responsibility Avondale takes on can become stressful and cause burnout, he’s always encouraged when he hears stories of those who come to the Thursday night meals making connections with organizations and people. These connections can end up providing members of the at-risk community with healthcare and other essentials.
Among the numerous organizations helping Avondale with the weekly event is Open Door Health Services. Joseph Castillo and Alicia Wilson, neighborhood ambassadors with Open Door, help those in the Muncie community get connected to resources they may not know are available such as doctors appointments, housing and help paying for things like utility and rent bills and food stamps.
“The main thing is to not only make sure they have a meal for that week or for that day but also to have them congregate and talk amongst each other and have that socialization with everybody, [and] know that they have a place where they can talk to each other [and] come to us about help any way we can,” Castillo said.
Wilson pays special attention to the amount of children that attend the weekly event, as she has children of her own.
“[Youth] can reach out for help, and we kind of see what the kids are going through,” Wilson said. “I think the kids kind of get forgotten about because a lot of adults are out here, we're struggling, and so, sometimes we're [so] worried that all we see is our next meal. I think that's good that we're all centered right down the street with the kids, it's really like a community here.”
Jen Cleveland is a teacher for the Indiana Digital Learning School of Union School Corporation, so like Wilson, she too is involved with children in the community and has noticed the impact both the weekly meals and the church itself have had on the youth.
“We have kids that come to church on Sundays without their parents because they know the church is a safe space to be in and they’re at the [Thursday] dinner too,” Cleveland said.
Cleveland said there are few words to describe the importance of people of all ages and walks of life attending the Thursday night meals and other events put on by Avondale.
“[For] a lot of people, this group of people is their family,” Cleveland said. “They go into hard times, one of us picks them up, one of us takes them to the hospital, one of us spots some cash when they need it. We've done all that for people, and they've done [it] for each other too, just from knowing and making connections here and then bringing those out into the community.”
With seasonal holidays fast approaching, the crowd is normally smaller on Thanksgiving or around Christmas. However, Carless said the people who need to be served the most are the ones who attend. .
“Some people don't have that family, someone to really sit with and have a meal [with] or be thankful for,” Castillo said. “... The holidays are something for everybody to enjoy, and we don't want to exclude anybody, everybody's welcome. We want to instill that in everybody to just know they can come back, they can come whenever, every week, even on holidays.”