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By Carol Stiffler

Nick Derusha hopes you’ll come to the next Presbyterian Community Fellowship meal. But don’t ask him for a to-go box: He wants you to stay and talk awhile.

“The point is the fellowship,” said Derusha, who launched the monthly meal in May 2014.

Derusha is the director and health officer of the LMAS District Health Department.

Approximately 65 local residents attended the most recent Free Community Fellowship meal, which was held Thursday, January 16. That number was a little lower than normal, according to Derusha, who said the meal usually averages 100 guests.

Derusha and his team, which includes his family and some close friends, cooked and served beef tacos and Spanish rice. Volunteers contributed desserts.

The fellowship hall filled quickly, was comfortable and warm, and had a feel of ease.

Ninety-four year old Pearl Schnorr attended with friends Francie Waybrant and Mary Nutkins, all from Newberry. Schnorr is a popular guest with a kind word for anyone.

“I see a lot of people I knew from when my husband was pastor here,” she said.

Though the meal is hosted at a church, it is not a religious event. Approximately half the people who attend aren’t members of the Presbyterian church; some don’t attend any church at all.

“They have taken great pains to make it a community meal,” said Chris Ison, who often attends the dinner. “It’s not about religion, it’s about people.”

Ison is CEO of the Tahquamenon Area Credit Union, and says he sees more paper than people most days.

“When I have the opportunity to go to a social event, it’s neat for me to go to,” he said. “A lot of these are people I’ve known all my life.”

It’s a free meal, but it’s not just for people who might be in need of free food. Everyone is invited, and the event feels more like a gift than anything else. A lot of senior citizens attend the meal to enjoy a rare night out. Some entire families come, too.

“Some folks might not get another opportunity to pack up, leave the house, get a meal, and not have to worry about dishes,” Derusha said.

Expenses for the meal are covered by a donor, Derusha said, though the meal loses about $100 each time. A donation can is perched near the entrance to the hall, but Derusha says donations are never expected.

Sometimes there’s music; other times the room is simply filled with happy chatter. There really are no expectations, other than to come and stay a while.

And the food is good.

“They haven’t served a bad meal yet,” said Susan Bergman, who attended the recent dinner.

Derusha cooked and served spaghetti at the very first free community fellowship meal, and has never repeated the dish since. But he’s also never canceled the dinner, even when he didn’t have enough help to put it on. He’s all in, every time.

“It’s a way to give back,” Derusha said. “I am able to do it, and I enjoy doing it.”