As a small group of children played outside, the noise from the dining hall at St. Anthony of Padua overflowed with dozens of conversations. Seated at long rows of tables, a few hundred men and women talked Monday Nov. 5 over trays of beef stew, rice and salad or lingered over cups of coffee. All were guests of the Padua Dining Room, which has served hundreds of lunches six days a week since 1974.

The dining room is a portrait of the service of the church in an area notable for its economic inequality. Many of the parishioners at St. Anthony of Padua in the North Fair Oaks section of San Mateo County, where the dining room is located, have financial struggles. According to Data USA, 19.6 percent of North Fair Oaks residents make less than $25,000 a year. A redwood fence running on the edge of the parish grounds marks the border between Atherton and North Fair Oaks. On one side of the fence lies the most expensive zip code in 2017, according to Forbes. On the other side are hundreds of people “hungry enough to stand in line for a meal,” Bob Dehn, the dining room’s volunteer coordinator, told Catholic San Francisco.

As families begin to think about Thanksgiving, the Padua Dining Room is preparing for its biggest day of the year. Dehn said the holiday was “by far” the biggest day for the dining room, estimating that each year they serve a traditional Thanksgiving meal for 750 to 1000 people.

Dehn said an important part of the dining room’s success is its approach to its guests. Padua Dining Room “charges no fees, asks no questions, and turns no one away,” he said.

The staff of the dining room take pride in the lack of barriers to service. Mimi Melvin, who has volunteered with the dining room for 29 years, told Catholic San Francisco the open-door policy was important to her. By embracing hospitality without any conditions, the dining room can serve the largest possible number of people, without concern for whether they qualify for a meal.

“Maybe their income is $100 dollars over qualifying, but that money could be going to medicine, or to pay for groceries,” she said.

According to Dehn, most of the people they serve are working poor, and less than a fifth are homeless. Many of them belong to the community: He sees them Sundays at church. About 40 percent of visitors to the hall are older adults.

“They’re doing anything they can do to stretch their limited budget,” Dehn said.

The other need the Padua Dining Room addresses is for community and socialization. Dining room guests come to enjoy a conversation as much as a meal. That need for community extends to the guests on one side of the dining line and the volunteers on the other, Dehn said.

“People come to Padua for community, and the ability to do something meaningful, and that’s what we especially celebrate,” he said.

Full story at Catholic San Francisco.