Inside a Kensington church, a group of low-income families sat, quiet and expectant, at cloth-covered tables adorned with fresh flowers.

Crime and deprivation are everyday elements of their lives in the neighborhood, in the First Congressional District, one of the hungriest places in the United States.

But within the sanctuary of West Kensington Ministry in Norris Square, this was a moment of sweet civility for around 70 people gathered for a free Thanksgiving dinner.

The meal was part of a weekly program known as Sunday Suppers established by Mount Airy activist Linda Samost in the spring.

"The suppers give us time to spend as a family," David Garcia, 16, said as he sat Sunday with his two siblings, a niece, and a nephew. "No matter what we go through during the week, we catch up here. We feel safe here in God's house."

Though the real estate may belong to God, it's run by Adan Mairena, the high-energy minister who founded the ministry in 2008, after his desire to help the underprivileged spurred him to abandon a cushier post at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church.

Having read a series of stories in The Inquirer at holiday time last year that chronicled the district as well as Mairena's ministry, Samost, a former chef and consultant to nonprofits, contacted Mairena to start Sunday Suppers.

With just $250 in the bank, Samost, 52, raised $20,000 online, receiving donations from as far away as England. The suppers began in May.

"I believe this program will transform lives," said Samost, mother of two college students and wife of Ira Goldstein, a housing expert with the Reinvestment Fund, which finances neighborhood revitalization. "It's just my obligation to be of service in the world.

"I researched the family meal, and learned that families that eat together have better communication. Also, the kids tend to do better in school, not get into drugs and alcohol, and delay sexual activity. All they have to do is sit together as a family."

Once a chef at the former Ristorante DiLullo in Fox Chase, Samost is an expert in community health-care programming, having worked for 25 years as a consultant to local nonprofits, including the Health Federation of Philadelphia, which improves access to health care for underserved communities.

Athletic-looking, with intense eyes that don't miss details, Samost was sweating in the ministry kitchen along with her volunteers on Sunday.

They cooked, then served a traditional Thanksgiving meal, knowing that many of the diners - immigrants from Puerto Rico - wouldn't necessarily rave about it.

"A lot of people can't eat a meal like this because they're not used to it," said cook Mike Torres, who was preparing turkey, corn bisque, yams, cabbage, and cranberry sauce. "Children will taste the bisque and not like it. But it's important that they try it. And we're making 20 pounds of rice and beans anyway."

Torres, 45, who spent four years in prison during his youth, volunteers because he wants to give back to the neighborhood he once "took so much from," he said. "I used to sell drugs here, and I lost my son, who was into drugs in his early 20s then was shot dead. It's good for me to help out."

Tim Nassar, 24, a Baghdad native, has been volunteering for four months, not long after arriving from Iraq, where he served as a linguist and cultural adviser for the U.S. military.

After he got wind of a plot by Iraqi insurgents to kidnap and kill him, Nassar left his mother and siblings and was resettled here by the U.S. government. He's now taking courses at Community College of Philadelphia to work in the dental field, but he looks forward to his Sunday Suppers time.

"I want to change people's lives," said Nassar, who lives in the Northeast. The suppers remind him of his family. "It's not easy trying to make it by myself," he said. "Here, we're a big family of volunteers, hosting another family."

Volunteer Joel Brazy, who owns an audio- and video-design and installation company in West Chester, commutes to Kensington for Sunday Suppers.

"I had a good sales year and started sending money," said Brazy, 52, relative of Holocaust survivors. "I grew up with the idea that you never say no to charity."

Soon enough, Brazy went from donating money to donating time. "This is a great opportunity to give back," he said.

One of Sunday Suppers' first diners was Madeline Neris, 37, a widowed mother of five who is the only salaried member of the organization.

Neris serves as the intake person for Sunday Suppers. Participants must be recipients of either food stamps or WIC - the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. They have to commit to coming to dinner every Sunday, and they must volunteer to help out at Sunday Suppers two hours a month.

At the end of each meal, each family of diners is given the ingredients to make the meal they've just eaten - meats included.

A natural host, Neris helps run the meals, serving as a kind of emcee.

Wielding a microphone, Neris instructed the diners to put away cellphones and asked them to really talk to one another. Samost had placed a card containing a question to inspire conversation on every table. On Sunday, people were asked, "What would you like to be an expert in?"

As Spanish guitar music played on the sound system, Neris walked around the room, asking children what they were thankful for.

"My family."

"My friends."

"My clothes," the children said.

At one point, Mairena broke the growing solemnity by pounding on the table and yelling, "Pumpkin pie!" Soon, all the children joined him in a chant for dessert.

Ultimately, the suppers are a respite from life in a broken neighborhood, said Victor Negron, a friend of Mairena's and director of marketing and public affairs at Keystone Mercy Health Plan.

"People can breathe for two hours, and talk about stuff, and not worry about the milk, the electricity, the other bills. You get to ask, 'How are you doing? How are we doing? Are we OK?' "

The Sunday Suppers program relies on donations and lives in a constant state of needing more. It must pay for the food it gives away, though it sometimes gets donations from the SHARE Food Program of Philadelphia, a 22-year-old nonprofit that serves a regional network of community organizations engaged in food distribution, education, and advocacy.

Steveanna Wynn, SHARE's executive director, enthusiastically praised Samost. "I think she's fabulous, dynamic, and amazing," said Wynn, a leader of the city's antihunger advocates. "She's very committed to this."

For her part, Samost said her vision is to grow Sunday Suppers into a program that includes nutrition education, community gardening, and food budgeting. She said she'd like to expand the program to other communities.

No longer working at anything else, Sunday Suppers is all Samost does these days. And, she says, she gives it everything.

"This is my second family here," she said. "And this church has become my second home."

To watch a video featuring the Sunday Suppers program, go to www.philly.com/sundaysuppersEndText

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.