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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published March 04 2012

Williston residents reach out to newcomers with hot meals

WILLISTON, N.D. – All it took was a hot bowl of potato soup.

That’s how a group of Williston residents reached out to newcomers this weekend.

Williston residents associated with the Assembly of God Church had been taking home-cooked meals to people living in their vehicles or campers in the Walmart parking lot.

But after Walmart recently stopped allowing people to stay overnight, the church members had a more difficult time finding them.

This past weekend, they distributed fliers throughout the community and hosted the first of what will become a weekly meal at the church.

Lynelle McKenzie, a church member who helped deliver many meals, said she saw the project as a way she could help.

“I would want to have a hot meal. That’s something really simple,” McKenzie said. “This is just a small thing we can do.”

Bruce Johnson, who helped organize the meal, said there were complaints about people living in the Walmart parking lot, but 95 percent of the people he met were good people who had jobs but no other place to live.

“Was it poor planning? Yes, but they don’t deserve the scorn that they’re getting,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he’s trying to challenge other church members to step out of their comfort zone and get to know some of the new residents.

“There’s a huge mistrust,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of us against them, and I don’t really like that.”

Many of those who attended Saturday night’s meal live in campers or sleep on the floor of a church. One said it was his first home-cooked meal in a month.

“I think it’s just phenomenal how people just came here with the hope of a future and the hope of a job,” McKenzie said. “If they’re desperate enough to come here, then how desperate was it where they were living?”

Jack Raczka, who came to Williston from New Jersey for work, said some local residents seem nervous around the new population.

“If they would let their guard down a little bit and get to know us outsiders, they’d see that we’re just like them,” said Raczka, who lived in a car in the Walmart parking lot before getting a spot to stay at a local church. “We just happen to be here because a lot of work’s here.”

Raczka also attends a Sunday night meal in Williston called the Banquet West Community Dinner, which has grown to as many as 100 attendees.

Jim Chouinard, a truck driver who moved to Williston from Plymouth, Minn., said he’s found most Williston residents to be welcoming.

“There’s some animosity, but when you talk to people they’re good people,” said Chouinard, who attended Saturday night’s dinner. “It’s kind of a tough transition for them, too.”

Dalrymple is a Forum Communications Co. reporter stationed in the Oil Patch. She can be reached at adalrymple@forumcomm.com or (701) 580-6890.