BETHEL -- At the end of the work week, the promise of a hot meal and warm company lures the hungry and the lonely to an old airline terminal along Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway in Bethel. The old building found new life as the Evangelical Covenant Church in this busy hub town in Alaska's western region. But here, as winter starts its long, cold grip on this river delta 400 miles from Anchorage, on Fridays it's not God that draws the crowd. It's the Friday Night Supper Club.
"Feeding and caring for your neighbor is such a meaningful, simple way to meet a need," Pastor Hugh Forbes explained Sunday, taking time to meet with this reporter mid-afternoon after the day's service.
Beginning in October and running through March, the church opens its doors to volunteers and diners every Friday night. What began nearly eight years ago as an effort to provide hot meals to the needy has grown into a well-organized meal service. Between 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m, whoever crosses the threshold is warmly welcomed.
One week ago, they served so much Hoisin Chicken -- chicken glazed with a soybean-garlic-chile sauce sometimes known as Chinese barbeque sauce -- that they had to make an emergency soup to help stretch the meal, and volunteers who usually join in the meal went home hungry. Guests are the priority.
Over the years, the supper club has averaged about 65 diners per sitting. Last year the average jumped to at least 90, according to Forbes' wife, Lynette. And for reasons Forbes and his wife can't quite pinpoint, last Friday 130 people came through.
It's always a diverse mix of dinner guests, including the occasional handful of kids who come through without their parents in tow.
The rotating hosts are also diverse, and adhere to a strict "no proselytizing" rule. "We have been real careful to keep it a community effort, not a religious effort. We are here to serve a meal. We keep it very neutral," Pastor Forbes explained. If people are interested in prayer or guidance, they are encouraged to write it down and leave it as a note in a prayer box.
Regulars of the supper club will know the Bethel Covenant Church runs the meal for the first and fourth Friday of each month, but for the remainder of each month kitchen duty falls to others. A volunteer group from the district attorney's office takes the second Friday, the Catholic Church takes the fourth Friday, and for months with a fifth Friday the LDS church takes over. The Korean Church and the Moravian Church also assist with volunteers and donations. Even youth -- from residents of the youth correctional facility to the Girl Scouts -- have been involved.
The Friday after Thanksgiving, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner will be served.
The supper club also comes with a unique atmosphere, one that's classic Alaska. It's located inside a church that's housed inside a re-purposed Alaska Airlines terminal (the building was driven down the highway and relocated in 2000). Even with the renovations, people who remember it as an old airline building can still recall where they used to stand to collect their luggage, Pastor Forbes said.
Another unique feature of the club? It's more reliable than the U.S. Postal Service.
"We never skip a Friday," said Lynette Forbes. And she's serious. In 2009, when Christmas fell on a Friday, Lynette and her family chose to forego the family meal at home, and instead made and served food for the supper club.
"I was very moved by the number of people who showed up to help," she said.
It's also a place where no questions are asked. People don't need to sign a paper or identify themselves to enjoy the supper club. They just need to show up. The lack of head counts and other records has at times made it difficult for the effort to get grants and other funding, but Forbes says he and the other organizers aren't ready to do it differently. "We don't define need," he said.
As people exit into the night, they usually stop to say thank you, the Forbes said. It's good work, and work they're happy to be a part of. Why? There is need. And there is gratefulness.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com