Dinner Bell ringing to fight hunger in North Texas city

By Joan La Barr, Special Contributor…

SULPHUR SPRINGS, Texas—You never know who is going to show up for lunch when the Dinner Bell rings each Wednesday at First UMC, Sulphur Springs. It could be someone down on his luck, a professional from a nearby business or, as on Feb. 6, the bishop of the North Texas Conference.

Bishop Mike McKee came to help serve the tasty meal of fried chicken strips with all the trimmings, but once that task was done, he sat down and enjoyed fellowship with his tablemates.

Judy Gilreath heads up the cooking for the Dinner Bell ministry at First United Methodist Church in Sulphur Springs, Texas. PHOTO BY JOAN LA BARR

The Dinner Bell began in January 2012 after church member T.C. Hamilton completed a Walk to Emmaus and felt inspired to launch a mission to feed the city’s hungry. He and his wife, Sally, visited a similar program in Longview. They brought along Gena Prickett, whose husband, John, is president of Grocery Supply in Sulphur Springs and chair of the administrative council at First UMC.

The group returned convinced their church could host a similar program. Mr. Hamilton shared his idea with his Sunday school class, which includes Judy Gilreath, a longtime church and conference leader who had just retired from her catering business.

With the backing of the class and Ms. Gilreath lined up to coordinate cooking, the Dinner Bell would soon ring.

Mr. Hamilton offered to fund the program with a $5,000 challenge grant if church members would match it. Members raised the money within the week, and now all the Sunday school rooms have mason jars labeled “Change for a change” for contributions.

The Dinner Bell board and other supporters started networking for supplies and other help. Board member Sharon Hughes wrote to companies and individuals. Robot Coupe U.S.A. sent a demo model of one of their professional food processors. Celebrity chef Paula Deen sent items that will be auctioned off at a fundraiser next fall. Ace Mart, a wholesale restaurant supply company, gives the program a 15 percent discount.

The local post office donated a third of its canned goods from its annual food drive. And the Dinner Bell has affiliated with the North Texas Food Bank and receives fresh foods and other bounty from a monthly delivery. Grocery Supply helps by storing food in its big freezers.

After all the hours of work and effort, Dinner Bell volunteers and supporters were ready to serve the first meal in February 2012. They had publicized that all were welcome. They had decorated Fellowship Hall. At noon, the food was ready and the doors were flung open.

Seven people came.

The next week, a few more people showed up. At the end of the month, 282 meals had been served. The next month, the number grew to 335, the next to 373. By last August, including meals served at the local Boys and Girls Club, the number had reached 736.

Now there are usually more than 100 guests each time the doors open. The meals are free to everyone, but those who can afford to pay know their $5 contribution supports the ministry.

Each Tuesday, Ms. Gilreath and Susan McCary show up at the church to start the food prep and do desserts. At 7 a.m. Wednesdays, the full crew arrives. Ms. Gilreath and the team assess the ingredients on hand and dream up tasty, nutritious menus. The kitchen becomes a beehive of activity, but the crew keeps it lighthearted with compliments and teasing.

The team also hosted last June’s East District Laity Dinner to rave reviews—with all proceeds going back to the program.

What keeps the team motivated and working week to week to week?

Ms. Gilreath offers the simple answer: “We do it because we love it.”

The Rev. La Barr is the former director of communications for the North Texas Conference.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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