"I've been here since December of '97 and they go just about every Tuesday," said Greg Flowers, executive director for Hickory Log, an assisted living home in White that provides shelter for developmentally delayed men and teaches them independent living skills. "It benefits them because they get a chance to go out and interact with other people besides being here. The church has always been really friendly to them. They really enjoy for the guys to come up and our guys really enjoy the cooking."
Started in 1993, the Friendship Table offers complimentary meals to the community, especially those who are in need, every Tuesday at 6 p.m. Held in the church's Fellowship Hall, the ministry has served more than 65,000 plates since its inception.
"It really began [as an impetus] to help alleviate hunger in the community and a sense of wanting to reach out to folks in the community that were in need and welcome them into the halls of our church," said the Rev. Ted Smith, senior pastor for First Presbyterian Church of Cartersville. "We dubbed it Friendship Table because we wanted to be not simply giving food but providing fellowship and friendship as well. And we've made some good friends over the years.
"We've not only opened our doors for folks to come in from wherever they're coming but we actually send our church buses out to pick some folks up as well. ... This is a ministry of the church. What we do, we do in the name of Christ. And we want folks to know that, that this is something we do because we feel like Christ has called us to do it, [it is] not just a humanitarian effort."
Through the years, Smith said the Friendship Table has evolved into a communitywide outreach, with volunteers hailing from different churches and denominations.
For Laura Lindler, a member of Expedition Church in Cartersville, assisting the First Presbyterian Church's ministry is an opportunity to reconnect with old and new friends. On the third Tuesday of each month, the Cartersville resident and her husband, Bruce, volunteer with three other couples, with their tasks ranging from serving food to cleaning the kitchen.
"It's been at least five years, maybe longer than that," Lindler said about volunteering at the Friendship Table. "We just like serving our community and this is a real need in our community, particularly right now with grocery prices so high and people that are struggling with losing their homes and jobs. .... The ones that I serve with -- we don't attend the same church [but] we've done Bible study together and we've just continued [volunteering] through the years.
"... [The Friendship Table is] a wonderful ministry. We have gotten to know some of the folks through the years that have come and we look for certain ones that we have come to recognize and they recognize us. And we wear the name tags so that they know our names. I think it's just wonderful. Any of us could find ourselves in that position."
While meals are served every Tuesday, this year the Friendship Table is highlighting the culinary talents of area chefs on the third Tuesday of each month.
"That came about really as an idea of one of our members of our Friendship Table mission committee, Dennis Collier," Smith said. "And Dennis has spearheaded that, just the idea of inviting some of the folks in the community who are kind of well-known chefs or restaurant owners to come in and prepare the meal and provide a service to those in our community that might not get a chance to eat at their restaurants or can't afford to. We provide all the food and the chef just comes in and prepares it in his or her style.
"Last month was our first time with Johnny Mitchell [with Johnny Mitchell's Smokehouse] and he did a great job with that. Our guests really loved it. We let the chefs know what kind of food we have. One of the things we established three, four years ago was a relationship with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, so we're able to purchase some food in bulk ahead of time. Like we knew Johnny was coming and we purchased chicken and kept that available, frozen until he was ready to use it and he made barbecue chicken."
For Cortney Hultman, owner of Moore's Gourmet Market in Cartersville, being a part of this ministry was a rewarding experience. On Feb. 21, which was Fat Tuesday, he prepared a New Orleans inspired meal. Along with chicken with Creole seasoning, the diners were treated to various side dishes, including English peas with roasted red peppers, french fries and salad.
"[I enjoyed] being part of a community [offering]," Hultman said. "Seeing the need of it and the gratitude from the people that were attending, it just felt good to be part of it."
Along with Johnny Mitchell's Smokehouse and Moore's Gourmet Market, other businesses that will be featured in the celebrity chefs program are Cartersville Country Club, Louie's Café, Antonino's Italian Grotto, Swheat Market Deli, Doug's Place, Stonewall Manor, Gourmet on the Go, Grand Oaks, Frankie B's Catering and The City Cellar and Loft.
Echoing the comments of Hultman and Lindler, Smith stressed the need that exists in the community as far as financially struggling residents seeking quality nourishment.
"There are a lot of people -- a lot more than we might think -- [who] are hungry and who aren't nourished very well because they can't afford to buy quality food," Smith said. "This is one way of trying to help meet that need. There are any number of different folks who have a need, not just the homeless folks but folks who are working poor or those who work on minimum wage and this gives them a chance to supplement what they're able to afford themselves and pay for. And in addition to that this provides for some people a chance to have friendship [and] fellowship that they might not otherwise have.
"For instance, some of our regular folks are some of the men from the Hickory Log school. They come almost every week. They get a chance to be together and be with folks in the church. And we've actually had one family too, where grandparents were having to raise five grandchildren because of a situation in their family. And they've been coming for years and bring their grandchildren and now some of their grandchildren have gotten old enough to come in and start helping volunteer. They don't attend our church but they feel like family to us because we've gotten to know them over the years."
For more information about attending or donating to the Friendship Table, the First Presbyterian Church -- 183 W. Main St. -- can be reached at 770-382-3511.