EPWORTH, Iowa — The sound of cheerful chatter and laughter came from those at the tables in the social space of Epworth United Methodist Church on Wednesday.

More than 30 people filled the seats around the tables, plates filled with homemade Italian-style casseroles, garlic bread, salad, fresh fruit and pumpkin bars.

Andrew Harriman, 8, of Epworth, led the group in its opening prayer. He said he not only enjoyed the meal, but the social time with those around the table.

“I like eating the food, and I like visiting with people,” he said.

The group was gathered as part of the weekly community meal that takes place at the church. The summer meal is a continuation of a similar event that takes place during the school year.

The Rev. Stephanie Schlimm, the church’s pastor, said the motivation to continue the program beyond the school year was to “provide another point of connection (for people) throughout the summer,” as well as give them a home-cooked meal.

“I think that when people do life together in simple ways, like having dinner together, that’s the way that walls and barriers are broken down,” she said. “The more connections and relationships we have in life, the healthier we are. And it has a ripple effect and makes a healthier world.”

The meal, which is free and open to the public, is made, served and cleaned up entirely by volunteers. Organizers especially seek to be able to provide a meal and social time for those who might be struggling to get food on the table.

Kris Frommelt, of Holy Cross, was one of those helping prepare Wednesday’s meal. She called the opportunity “a great way to be a part of the community.”

“It creates a sense of helping and community and what the church values are in taking care of your friends and neighbors,” she said.

She added that she appreciates the chance to socialize with both old and new faces on what she feels is a more personal level.

“It’s an opportunity to talk face-to-face instead of being on Facebook or on the phone,” she said. “You have kids and older people and middle-aged people all together (talking to one another.)”

Doug and Rachele Rickels, of Worthington, came for dinner, but also stayed for the optional bible study that is held after the meal.

Rachele said that she enjoys the fellowship element of the community meal.

“It’s really nice to be able to, at some point in the week, touch base with people that you’ve been with or that you have friendships with,” she said. “It’s not like we get to see them at other times — maybe in the grocery store or that kind of thing — so that part of the fellowship is really nice.”

Shelly Rollins, of Dyersville, who also takes part in preparing food for the community meals, spoke of the importance of “getting people back to the table.”

“I don’t think people spend enough time around the table, but it really meets our needs in more than one way,” she said.

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