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The Last Supper

Denver's free weekly feed for the multitudes could be pasta point of no return.

Kathleen Gomendi is preparing for the last supper.

For the past ten years, she's run Grant Avenue Street Reach, which hosts an every-Monday spaghetti meal for the city's homeless and impoverished. Held in the basement of the First Baptist Church of Denver, right across from the State Capitol at the corner of 14th Avenue and Grant Street, the all-you-can-eat spread feeds up to a thousand hungry folks each week.

But First Baptist recently gave Gomendi's group written notice that it must clear out by April 30 so that the church can do some much-needed repairs on its basement and foundation.

"When I got the letter, it was like hearing about a death in the family," says Gomendi, an owner of Ichabod's, a used-book store in central Denver. "It's not just the homeless we feed. We have senior citizens, day laborers, all kinds of people. We had a group of students come in and volunteer from Highlands Ranch; they saw their former classmates in line."

The closure of not just the Reach, but the 110-bed Shelter on the Hill -- open seven days a week -- that shares the church's basement, comes at a particularly bad time, when assistance budgets are shrinking even as the needs of the poor are growing. Over the past two years, as the economy hit the skids, Gomendi noticed that the type of people coming to get their free meals was changing. Today the group includes more laid-off workers and their families, particularly children, as well as senior citizens who are starving on fixed incomes. "People say, 'We need to do something for the people in Iraq; people are starving over there,'" she says. "You know what? People are starving right here in your own back yard."

But First Baptist's pastor, Gary Bowser, says the church didn't have a choice. The west side of the building's foundation is sinking, and the basement floor is buckling -- and, in one section, collapsing. "We're concerned about somebody getting hurt," he explains. "You can't fix the boat while you're in the boat."

Some of the boat's passengers don't appreciate the analogy, however. "I think it sucks," says Larry, who's been eating at the church for years. "It will be a big hurt if this place closes. People will survive, but it's going to be a lot harder now."

On the last Monday in March, the basement buzzes with activity as two sides of society -- people needing help and people wanting to help them -- happily intersect. "This program is irreplaceable," says Randle Loeb, a formerly homeless man who writes for the Voice, the print mouthpiece for Denver's streets. The Reach does more than feed people good spaghetti, he points out. It's a place where they can satisfy their hunger for company as well.

Gomendi has sent out feelers to local churches and social-service groups that might want to house the program. So far, though, she's found no takers. One reason for that could be the sheer size of her effort, which involves 45 people feeding twenty times that many each Monday. "We have these wonderful people who want to come down here and serve the food," Gomendi says, "but they wouldn't want this in their own back yard."

Patrick, in safari hat and pink Elvis glasses, is a longtime visitor to the Reach; he's been on and off Denver's streets since 1974. "This has been a great rescue place for me," he says. "Part of it is the gorgeous, upbeat spirit of the staff here. And the food and excellent service."

"I live on $90 of food stamps a month," Larry says. "I eat a lot of peanut butter. And spaghetti on Monday."

Gomendi's feast starts with Salvatore-brand egg noodles and marinara sauce that she buys from Silver State Canning at a discount. "It's the same stuff you eat in fancy restaurants around town," she says proudly. Diners have a choice of meat or vegetarian sauce on their spaghetti, which is served with bread, salad, fruit and day-old pastries donated by local stores.

"We use real china," she adds. Keeping things nice for her downtrodden clientele is important for Gomendi. As she hugs volunteers and accepts thanks from diners, grinning servers greet newcomers, clear plates and pour punch and water with an efficiency worthy of any fine restaurant in town.

The group's charitable efforts don't end with spaghetti. The Reach lets people take food to go -- even if they've been through the line a couple of times already. Visitors can also look through tables stacked with donated clothes, and mothers can pick up free formula and diapers.

Volunteers get their own rewards. Tracy Abell began coming to First Baptist just after the shootings at Columbine, when she decided her family needed to do something to help the community. "This is really important for these people," she says, "and it's a great way to start your week, doing something for someone else. I wanted my kids to know that there are people who live differently than we do, in another spectrum of life." Her kids have learned that lesson well: One initiated a food-and-clothing drive at his kindergarten to benefit the Reach's patrons; another has learned to play chess from the regulars.

Abell is mad that the spaghetti dinners are about to end, and she's not alone. Sue, another volunteer, wonders why no one has stepped up to rescue the Reach's dinner. "This is the most amazing group of people I've ever met," she says. "We're not asking for money; we have all these people willing to help. We just want a place to keep doing this."

Jay Keppel, an Iowa minister, is touring soup kitchens across the country with a group of volunteers from his church. "We've been in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and we haven't seen anything this big anywhere," he says. Encountering so many needy people in Denver has changed his perception of the city; so has word of the Reach's impending demise. "It's extremely disappointing news," Keppel says. "This is a phenomenal expression of caring."

And Gomendi is determined to see it continue. "I'm going to find a spot," she says, smiling. "I'll put it in the park if I have to. I told my volunteers, 'We're not going to close.' We have to do something; there has to be someplace we can go."

Before this meal ends, Randle Loeb interrupts the din in the basement lunchroom to announce a vigil set for April 28, the last Monday meal here. Guests will join hands outside of First Baptist and encircle the building. They'll pay tribute to the hard work of the Reach and draw attention to the grim reality that it's all about to end.

"I hope these people aren't mad at the church," Gomendi whispers. "It's not the church's fault."

On his way out of the basement, Steve, a homeless man wearing a weathered Roslyn Grill cap, picks up a cheese shaker that's chained to a tabletop and sprinkles Parmesan across two plastic containers loaded with spaghetti. "I'm pissed about this," he says. "I pray the good Lord will get this place back open again."

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