Mount Vernon area Christians have been sitting down each week in Lent for a soup-and-bread supper and some consciousness-raising about world hunger.
Up to 700 members of 25 churches and religious groups have attended the Lenten Ecumenical Soup Sharing (LESS) to mark Lent, traditionally a time of reflection and self-denial for faithful Christians.
The LESS program has used a number of techniques to put its message across.
During one meager meal, the lights were dimmed every hour and the diners stood to recite a litany as a projector flashed scenes of starving children with matchstick limbs on a screen.
Posters on the walls showed hungry Third World families, with messages such as: "In the United States today, people are hungry, not because there is a scarcity of food, but because they are too poor to buy it."
People also roamed through the crowds wearing sandwich boards that gave statistics on the amount of grain fed to cattle or how food is distributed around the world.
Children, meanwhile, played games with a message. One week, following a story on sharing, they were given 10 beans that they could trade for vegetables and soup ingredients or junk food. Then they put their vegetables into a pot to make "pretend" soup.
After three weeks of the program, Bea and Morris Olson of Epiphany Lutheran Church said they have decided to make some changes in their diets. "At the same time the world is hungry, they're telling us it's healthier to eat more vegetables and less meat," said Bea Olson.
"The point [about how much grain is fed to cattle] is well taken," said her husband, "but I don't think that's going to go over so well in the Midwest."
Younger church members were more vocal than the adults about sacrificing a weekly meal. "I hate soup! Last week we had pea and bean soup, and boy was that yucky!" said Nora Pegerschmidt of Good Shepherd Catholic Church, 16, making a face. "But it increased my awareness about how you can get by on a bowl of soup," she added.
The Lenton observers were also given a list of suggestions for simpler living: having two "homemade" babies and adopting the rest, laughing regularly at TV commercials, living on a welfare budget for a month and "opposing the flagrant misuse of grain" in the production of alcoholic beverages.
Although this is the first year Mount Vernon area churches have joined in a lenten program, they have often gathered for ecumenical celebrations at Easter and Christmas, through a program called Ventures in Community (VIC)
Fasting, however, is nothing new to members of the Good Shepherd parish, who in recent years have spent an entire week of Lent contemplating hunger, dining only on soup to better understand the plight of the hungry.
The Rev. Myron Barbour, pastor of Epiphany Lutheran Church, who thought of the soup sharing idea, said he was "delighted" to see Lutherans sitting across from Roman Catholics and Methodists "talking about their common concerns without letting their historical divisions get in the way."
Barbour who oversees VIC meetings this year as "facilitator," said he was "astounded" when more than 700 people showed up for the first two LESS gatherings.