Young Life Lite

When Shelly and Tom Anderson and their family host Club Dinner on Wednesday nights they could serve 15 kids from Downingtown East and West high schools — then again, they could serve a crowd of 32. Shelly never knows how many to expect, but she welcomes any and all who come.

Club Dinner started inauspiciously enough when the Andersons’ son started attending Young Life as a freshman in 2004. Inviting a friend or two to dinner on Wednesdays was just a convenient way of getting Blake and his friends off the football field, fed, showered and on to club. Besides, what’s another barbecue pork sandwich?

By the spring of the next year, 10-15 “regulars” were joining them for dinner every week. The Andersons encouraged those kids to invite others. And what started as a convenience soon became an intentional inconvenience for the Andersons in their Chester County, Pa., home.

Tom Anderson isn’t always sure about the number of kids who attend, (was it 24 this week, 30 last week?) but a busy night always nets two full dishwasher loads. Shelly isn’t usually available to take a final head count. Once she is finished cooking and serving, she leaves for club where she is one of the Downingtown leaders. Blake reflected on their hospitality and said, “I took their efforts for granted for a while. Then I realized the time it took my parents and what they were really doing.”

The Andersons are doing whatever it takes to get kids to club, welcoming kids like family and treating them like honored guests. That hospitality means a kitchen table extended with four leaves abutting a 6-foot craft table joined to a 4-foot card table, each topped with its appropriately-sized table cloth and flanked by a mix of chairs and benches as eclectic as the dinner guests themselves.

No hot dogs, paper plates or plasticware, either. In a grab-and-go culture, the Andersons serve a come-and-stay dinner. Regular diner Alyssa Ritter attests to that. “We fill up their entire kitchen and family room for a real family dinner — real food and real plates when it would be so much easier to use paper. It shows how much they care about us,” said Alyssa.

The Andersons’ sophomore daughter, Mackenzie, has joined these dinners since she was in eighth-grade. She’s had a front row seat to witness the Andersons’ care of guests around their table. She saw what happened when Shelly quietly attended to the dietary restrictions of Amro, a practicing Muslim who started coming to Club Dinners a year ago. Shelly started preparing a different dish for Amro whenever she served pork. Mackenzie recalled the first such occasion when her mom placed a specially prepared plate in front of Amro. “Why’d she do that?” asked Amro.

“Because you can’t eat pork,” Mackenzie said.

Amro persisted, “But why would she do that?” Mackenzie remembered the look of amazement on his face. “I think that was his first glimpse of what people who love Christ will do for you.”

People who love Christ and kids do some crazy things — like tearing out a half-wall when it limits the length of a growing family dinner table. They serve meatballs by the dozen, and favorite dinners like homemade stromboli and “anniversary chicken.” And they prepare multiple menus when necessary so that every guest can feel at home.

Blake, now a college freshman, has his parents pretty well figured it out. “They know that Club Dinner helps bring kids to club and ultimately to Christ. That’s what they’re all about.”