CEDAR RAPIDS — They could be overprotective uncles. Or worse. Two big brothers who care enough to be concerned and are ornery enough for some good-natured ribbing.
“Here she comes now,” said the other. “Do you think it’s one of those guys with her?”
Jessica Dickson, 15, had barely entered the kitchen before the two men — the Revs. Phil Rogers and Keith Pitts — greeted her with a barrage of questions.
Seconds later, when two 16-year-old boys walked into the room, the two men asked, grinning, “Is one of you Jessica’s WPA date?”
It’s not Thanksgiving or a family reunion. Instead, it’s just a typical Thursday lunch at Roger’s house, which is also St. Paul’s United Methodist Church’s parsonage and at 2122 Country Club Pkwy. SE backs up to Washington High School’s property.
Every Thursday for the last seven years anywhere from 75 to 100 teens have trekked to Rogers’ house for lunch.
Rogers, 46, is the youth pastor at St. Paul’s. Pitts, 34, is youth pastor at Valley View Baptist Church. The only overtly religious element to the lunches, though, is the blessing of the meal.
“It’s where ‘seekers’ can come see what Christians look like and where Christians can come and see other Christians,” Rogers said. “It’s just an outreach ‘we love you’ thing.” Rogers said.
“It gets the kids off campus for just a little while so they can come, have lunch and just hang out,” Pitts said.
The gatherings started accidentally when Rogers first moved into the parsonage and two members of St. Paul’s youth group walked over from the high school to get to know their new youth pastor.
“All I had was peanut butter and jelly and Coke, but we sat down and had lunch,” Rogers said.
As they ate, they made plans to get together each week on Thursday.
The next week the two teens became 12, then 35, then 50. The numbers continued to grow and few years later, Pitts and the youth at Valley View joined the St. Paul’s crowd.
At first Rogers paid for the lunches out of his own pocket. Now donations from the congregations at St. Paul and Valley View fund the meals — which cost about $130 a day, he said.
“We try to make sure the lunches average about $1.50 per kid,” Rogers said.
The cooks — whether it be Rogers and Pitts or church members, like Joanne Kimber, who cooked the meal Feb. 25 — usually prepare food for about 100 students. On this particular Thursday the meal was chicken tender wraps, applesauce made from apples picked at a congregation member’s orchard and cherry bars for dessert.
If they run out?
“I’ve got Marco’s Pizza on speed dial,” Rogers said.
The program has been so popular Rogers now holds something similar for students at Kennedy High School, where many of St. Paul’s members also attend, on Tuesdays at Lovely Lane United Methodist Church.
For the students who come to Rogers’ house on Thursdays, the lunch is a chance to get off campus and to “hang with friends, said Pitts.
For some, it’s also a chance to have a homecooked lunch — and more of it than they’d get at school.
“We can have seconds,” said Josiah Javier, 15, a sophomore at Washington High School.
“This is really the highlight of my week,” said Kaelen Abernathy, 15, also a sophomore.
Hunter Loushin, 16, agreed.
“At the beginning of the week, we’re all like, ‘Four days till lunch at Pastor Phil’s,” he said.
The boys sat at a table with three more of their friends. All six said they attend church, but none go to either St. Paul’s or Valley View.
“These are kids from all over,” Rogers said. “We have kids who wouldn’t see each other or know each other in school who come and hang out and have lunch together.”
Dani Willson, a 16-year-old Washington junior, has been coming to the lunches since her freshman year. She said she’s met a lot of friends through the lunches that she wouldn’t have met otherwise.
“A lot of these people I don’t see in school, so it’s fun to get to come here and hang out,” she said.
And, despite the ribbing she gets from Rogers and Pitts, Jessica Dickson gives both a hug before making the short trek back to school.
“It’s really fun and it’s great food,” she said.Then, with a little prompting from Rogers, she added, “Phil’s cool.”