WOONSOCKET — One by one, they file past the chow line to pick up a ham sandwich and some soup served up in paper plates and Styrofoam cups. Many vanish after picking up the free meal, while others enjoy a seat at one of the picnic tables under the gazebo at nearby Veterans Memorial Park.
But it's no picnic for Suzanne Billington. It may be her only meal of the day.
“I'm homeless,” she says. “I actually live in a tent in the woods.”
She's not the only one. The organization that provides this basic relief to some of the city's most destitute citizens is on the street, too. Literally.
For 25 years, Because He Lives Ministries served up a free lunch for the poor six days a week from the basement of the First Baptist Church at 298 Blackstone St.
In April, church leaders informed the non-profit group it could no longer serve food in the basement because the plumbing in the church had malfunctioned, said Pat Dempster, who founded Because He Lives with her late husband, Paul Dempster.
For a few weeks, says Dempster, she didn't know what to do. For the first time since 1986, the organization stopped serving meals.
Then it dawned on her.
She went mobile.
She and her loyal corps of volunteers continued to prepare food in the church basement. They just didn't serve in there.
Instead, they began putting it in a beat-up Dodge utility van for delivery to the outskirts of World War II Veterans Memorial State Park, behind a gas station on Social Street.
As long as the weather holds out, it's an acceptable way of keeping the program alive, says Dempster. By mid-autumn, however, it won't be feasible to be serving meals outdoors any longer, however.
“We can't do it in the wintertime,” she says. “We're going to have to find another place.”
Dempster doesn't know where that place will be. She's made inquiries about relocating to other churches in the city, but she hasn't gotten any commitments yet.
“I'm not panicking about it,” she says. “I'm trusting the good Lord will tell us where to go.”
Carol Waterman, a longtime kitchen volunteer for Because He Lives, hopes she's right.
“We're looking for a place and we're getting pretty desperate,” said Waterman as she worked the food line.
Ray Rivera, the chairman of First Baptist Church's Board of Trustees, says he doesn't know when the church will be in a position to welcome back Because He Lives and its clients. The problems at the church are so serious, he said, Sunday Mass has been relocated to the chapel at Hospice St. Antoine in North Smithfield for the foreseeable future.
Rivera said there have been issues with a leaky roof and plumbing problems that have affected some toilets and running water. But that's not all.
Several months ago, someone broke into the church and stole many of its essentials, including computer equipment for running the office and several pieces of antique furniture. The culprits also stole the safe, which contained a small amount of cash.
Although it's been nearly four months since plumbing problems forced Because He Lives to serve meals elsewhere, Rivera said he's still trying to get a quote on how much it would cost for repairs.
“We're trying to get that done as soon as possible,” said Rivera. “We've had a couple of plumbers in here, but we're still waiting for them to reply.”
Ideally, says Dempster, a restaurant-like location would be ideal for Because He Lives – something with a commercial-grade kitchen and a dining room.
There's little doubt she fills a significant need in the community. Dempster says that while she was at the church, Because He Lives served as many as 5,000 meals a month on cycle of six days per week, three hours per day.
The schedule has tightened up a bit at the park, where meals a served for just an hour a day, Monday through Thursday. But she's putting out just as many meals as she was before leaving the church.
Those who join the soup line can be young or old, parents with children, homeless and jobless — or both.
Many are emotionally exhausted, says Steve Brassard, a spiritual counselor from United Methodist Church who frequently offers them support.
“They're broken people,” he says.
Broken, homeless, or just plain hungry, people like Billington know it's not likely Dempster will keep showing up at the park after the weather turns cold. But unless her situation changes soon, Billington says she'd keep coming to the park for help even if it were snowing outside.
“I would if I had to,” she says.