EDMONDS — The line outside Edmonds Lutheran Church begins to form more than 20 minutes before the doors open on a warm Wednesday evening in early October.
People arrive by car, bicycle and foot, a few aided by canes and walkers.
Before long, the queue surpasses three dozen. There are homeless, working poor, children, widowers, elderly couples and plenty of folks somewhere in between.
For 10 years, Annie’s Community Kitchen, a ministry of the church, has provided a dinner each Wednesday to whomever shows up with an appetite. Many leave with bags of food and clean clothes after they have finished their meal.
From the gleaners who hit the streets to collect the food, to those who prepare and cook the weekly feast, to the servers who fill the plates and the dishwashers who clean them, it is a major undertaking. Dozens of volunteers contribute.
Around dinner time, there is a rhythm to the organized chaos. Conversations around white-clothed tabletops take place over the din of clanging metal pots and pans in the kitchen.
“There are a lot of moving pieces, pastor Tim Oleson said.
The church serves more than 10,000 hot meals a year with salads and desserts.
Annie Fortnum, for whom the Annie’s Community Kitchen is named, mingles among the volunteers and guests. She’s the catalyst, working with others a decade ago when three Edmonds Lutheran churches — St. Peter by the Sea, St. Matthews and Christ Lutheran Church — merged into one congregation. She has been attending Lutheran churches in Edmonds since 1956.
Fortnum is diminutive and determined at 83, wanting to make sure her church is a caring neighbor. For many years, she wore an apron. People would slip donations into its pockets to support the kitchen.
The other day, a regular visitor to the Wednesday gatherings handed Fortnum a $500 check, explaining that she’d received a modest inheritance. It was an affirming moment for Fortnum to see someone who’d received help be so willing to offer help.
It would be hard to imagine Wednesday nights without Fortnum, her fellow volunteers say.
“Every time she turns in her resignation, we tear it up,” said Bob Snyder, who once owned a Lynnwood mortgage and escrow company and now heads up the kitchen’s gleaning team.
Snyder and his volunteers gather and distribute one to two tons of food every week. Together, the roughly two dozen volunteers typically spend 80 hours a week picking up the food and making sure it is not wasted. What’s not used in Annie’s Kitchen is donated to food banks, shelters and to other churches for community meals.
Snyder is cheerful and engaging when he and others make the rounds to local grocery stores on a recent Friday morning. He has mastered the gift of gab, but there is a purpose behind it. He knows that the more people know about the kitchen and understand the need, the more they are willing to give.
Everywhere he goes, he greets workers by their first names and can share an anecdote about each one.
At the PCC Market in Edmonds, he introduces a visitor to the sushi chef, the lead meatcutter and the deli manager who makes sure 25 turkeys are roasted and ready for pickup each Thanksgiving.
When he leaves a QFC in Lynnwood, he gets a call on his cellphone from the florist insisting he come back for flowers.
At the Fred Meyer down the street, he pushes a cart through the swinging doors and greets the receiving manager like an old friend. Along the way are parking lot hand-offs of boxes of food with volunteers from other churches.
Snyder, 76, thrives on staying busy with a purpose.
“A lot of people retire and don’t do anything and die,” Snyder said. “I’m warding off death here.”
On Wednesdays, the first volunteers arrive in the late morning, washing and chopping vegetables.
Servers and cooking staff arrive in the afternoon.
Larry Ringstad, 60, a recently retired Boeing worker, has been cooking meals at the church from the start. He remembers that first night when they were told to prepare for 150, but very few people showed up.
That changed as word spread.
“People that come generally come back,” he said.
Bill Anderson, 74, has spent a decade of Wednesday nights quite contentedly washing dishes in the kitchen. It’s meaningful duty for the retired Morgan Stanley investment advisor and branch manager who is a member of the Woodway Town Council.
“Once you start something, you don’t want to let it go,” he said.
Fortnum has taken the time to visit many of the people in the Wednesday night crowd.
She nods toward an aging figure who is one of the last to arrive. He is alone. His eyesight is failing and he lives in a shack in need of repairs. She’s glad to see he made it.
To Fortnum, a widow, the dinner is about much more than food. It is a chance for people to connect.
That’s why she kept encouraging Jack Schweiss, 91, to attend. His wife died a few years ago.
“There are people who are lonely, people who lost spouses,” she said. “They come every Wednesday night, just to be with people.”
Fortnum and Schweiss met decades ago when they worked at a Lutheran Bible college. He was a teacher and counselor; she was a school nurse. They were friends then and are friends now.
Schweiss was initially reluctant to come to the church for dinner, figuring he didn’t need a free meal.
He is glad she persisted.
“She is a caretaker from the word go,” Schweiss said. “She has taken care of so many people.”
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about Annie’s Community Kitchen, go to www.annieskitchen.edmondslutheran.org or call Edmonds Lutheran Church at 425-744-8090. Meals are served from 5 to 6:30 p.m. each Wednesday at the church, 23525 84th Ave. W, Edmonds.