by Paul Ronningen
Over the past seven years another discovery has been made in Bismarck that has nothing to do with oil, gas or agriculture. Cooking beneath the frozen tundra is a woman who orchestrated the production and serving of over 104,000 meals during this time period. Tudy Fennern, Director of The Banquet could be found at Trinity Lutheran Church, in their basement kitchen, working with one of the 50 organizations that have been recruited to assist with THE BANQUET.
It all started about eight years ago. Steve Sathre, pastor of Trinity Lutheran, kept hearing about a feeding ministry in Sioux Fall, which had been duplicated in Yankton SD. With some exploratory work at the church, Tudy stepped forward and indicated her interest in cooking. She had not intended on directing the operation but soon said yes to the challenge after seeing the Yankton operation and further “encouragement” by Trinity Lutheran Church.
Thus, The Banquet was started in 2005, to serve Thursday evening meals to people who need a meal and companionship. The Banquet provides a complete, hot, home-cooked meal. This is not a soup kitchen – guests are seated at a table and served on real china plates. The meal is free to anyone – no questions asked, and anyone who wants to be at The Banquet for any reason is welcomed. To date, 82,636 guests have been served, plus take outs to those who take a meal for the next day. A total of 12,000 volunteers have donated their time to this effort and 50 organizations will be serving a Thursday evening meal this year.
As Tudy has reported, “It is hard for me to comprehend the impact we have had on Trinity Lutheran Church and the Community. Yet, I know we have touched many people’s lives in a way that has given them hope, and have opened their hearts to God’s love, shared by all the volunteers who give of their time and faith”.
As one participant reported, “I usually eat alone and really look forward to Thursdays when I can have the companionship of others as I share a meal.” Another said she was coming to Bismarck for chemotherapy every Thursday and “I’m so worn out after my treatment, so I come to The Banquet for a nice hot meal and good conversation.”
Tudy’s organizational skills, honed by a career in the military, coupled with faith and compassion for all people, shine brightly as one examines the success of The Banquet. Matthew 25:35 guides Tudy and The Banquet: “For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
The Banquet has drawn statewide attention and one of the highest compliments possible – other communities are now working with Tudy to duplicate her efforts in building a strong sense of community and demonstration of compassion for their neighbors. In addition, The Banquet has also attracted national and international attention. It was featured as part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s national ad campaign, “God’s Work, Our Hands.” It was also part of a BBC broadcast on hunger and farming issues in America.
After firmly establishing The Banquet as a part of the community, Tudy has announced her retirement from The Banquet at the end of August. Summing up her work she states, “It has been my life, my passion for seven years. It will always remain in my heart. I am looking forward to spending time with my family and will now be able to go places and do things with them.”
Yes, Tudy Fennern is a community organizer who has created a strong sense of community and is an unwavering role model for Christian values that she lives each day. Pastor Steve Sathre praises Tudy’s work. “Tudy has been a blessing to our whole community,” he said. “Every week she has provided a warm, caring mix of food and fellowship. Those who eat and those who serve are equally touched by the experience. Every Christian has heard Jesus’ command to “feed my sheep”, and Tudy has given us a practical, meaningful way to do that.”Paul Ronningen is the Board Chair on The Banquet, State Coordinator of the Children’s Defense Fund-North Dakota and just began a term on the Burleigh County Social Service Board.