Meal of Hope Serve Much More Than Dinner
There were only eight at the first dinner. By the second week, 18 arrived. Week after week, a few more trickled in. Word began to spread, and the numbers jumped to 100. A year later, in 2016, more than 200 people were attending Meal of Hope, a dinner for the community put on by a few special people at the Riverside Church in Washougal, Wash.
Paul Ybarra, affectionately known by most as Yogi, is the organizer and creator of Meal of Hope. Yogi envisioned the outreach as a community meal to show God’s love in a tangible way. And that is exactly what it is, for the people who attend regularly. Word of the homemade, delicious free dinner has spread. They come from nearby in Washougal and Camas, from around Clark County, and even from Portland, Ore.
After being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, and with a 5 percent chance of recovery, Yogi experienced a miracle and beat the odds. He was cancer-free. One day he was sitting on the couch and said, “An angel hit me with a 2-by-4 and said, ‘I did not cure you to sit around. Get with it.’”
With the support of his wife, Dianna, Yogi began processing the idea. Soon other Riverside Church members began to see the vision. The dinner merged into a food and clothing bank. After getting it passed by the church board, Yogi and friends began to get to work. A recently vacated building got a face-lift thanks to a work bee and some volunteers. It soon began to take shape and became the food and clothing bank. Shelves were set up, as well as racks for clothes.
Fast-forward to 2019, and Meal of Hope consistently serves at least 150 people once a week. The menu changes each week, from spaghetti, stew or hot dogs to stroganoff or haystacks. Yogi credits his volunteers, individual sponsors and donors for much of the success of the dinner and the community center.
One of these sponsors, Dot Donuts, regularly gives whatever donuts are left at the end of the day. Everyday Deals has become a sponsor as well, donating cereal, peanut butter, cans of soup and nonperishables to the community center. Cash and Carry (Smart Foods) is another sponsor.
Columbia Sportswear came on as a sponsor in 2017. In February and March, they donated more than 120 boxes of coats. This created a significant outreach for the community center. Yogi and volunteers, like Merle Ettestad, go out to community and specifically invite the homeless to come the last two Sundays of the month. They are invited to take up to two coats per person. Word spread quickly about the coats, and by the second Sunday, more than 115 people came. Other organizations have benefited from Columbia Sportwear’s generosity as well. The Boy Scouts were welcomed to choose some of the coats. In January 2019, two dozen coats were sent to Paradise, Calif., to those experiencing homelessness as a result of the tragic Camp Fire.
One week, during one of the Tuesday night meals, several scouts from the Washougal Eagles, a local business in Washougal, walked in and gave a surprise presentation up front. They gifted Yogi $500, saying, “This is because many of our patrons talk about what Meal of Hope has done for them. Thank you for what you do for our community.” The organization has given $1,000 to Meal of Hope so far.
Meal of Hope has greatly impacted the community. It gives people a warm and safe place to come once a week. The meal is home-cooked, hearty and free. Rose, a kind and friendly face often seen at the dinners, said, “I love coming here and finding happiness and peace of mind. Thank you for the warm meal and your much needed prayers of encouragement. No matter what is going on outside of us, I know that there is a Jesus who loves us.”
Each evening after the meal, a Bible study takes place. Many of the members stay for it. There are handouts, GLOW (Giving Light to Our World) packets and prayer requests that happen at the beginning. Tim Kruger and Merrill Caviness, Riverside Church pastor, usually run the Bible studies. Caviness says, “This is what Jesus said we would be doing as we wait for His coming: feeding, visiting and loving our community unconditionally. God’s love works in reaching hearts. It is amazing to watch God work as we create an environment that is safe and loving. The church is here to create time and space for loving relationships.”
Yogi’s favorite story is a modern-day miracle. One day, in the early days of Meal of Hope, he made 10 pans of lasagna, planning to feed around 140 people. More than 220 people came. Not sure how he was going to feed everyone, Yogi and Dianna, prayed, “Please let there be enough.” Each time they went to the oven, there seemed to be one more pan. There was miraculously more than enough and even leftovers that evening. Yogi tears up when telling this story. “It gives me goose bumps to be able to experience God’s love like this. And the volunteers can see that this is a ministry that God has approved,” he says.
So far, there have been six baptisms as a result of these meetings. The dinners are meeting the immediate physical needs, but it’s the relationships that are keeping Meal of Hope going. Spreading the good news is central to the mission and the core of why it is successful.