AUBURN — A crowd of eager bowl buyers gathered outside the doors leading the way into the hall at First Universalist Church in Auburn Sunday afternoon. They all had the same secret desire — dibs on their favorite pottery pieces.

In fact, the crowd was so excited, and so large, that organizers even opened the doors early for this year’s Empty Bowls Supper to benefit Trinity Jubilee Center in Lewiston.

“We had to open the doors at 4:15 p.m. this year because people were just waiting in the parking lot to get in,” said Dell Caron Gray, program director for Trinity Jubilee Center, which organizes the event each year. “People just talked a lot about it and put it on Facebook and tweeted it.”

The Empty Bowls Supper is one of two fundraisers held annually for Trinity Jubilee Center, a nonprofit soup kitchen and emergency food pantry dedicated to advocacy for those in need in the greater Lewiston-Auburn area.

Diners purchased bowls created by Maine artists and local students and received a bowl of soup in return.

Gray said that the annual event raises money to purchase grocery items distributed every Thursday at the center’s emergency food pantry located at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Lewiston. The food pantry distributes small bags of groceries and diapers.

Gray and executive director Kim Wettlaufer said that, like the center’s daily feeding program, the pantry experienced considerable growth in the number of families served weekly this year compared to last year. One year ago, the pantry, which is open only from 8 a.m. to noon each Thursday, served about 130 families per week.

Nowadays, that number is pushing 270 per week. And with a limited budget of between $350 and $500 per week to buy a truckload of groceries at Good Shepherd Food-Bank, the center knows how to make very little go very far in today’s tough economic times.

“By Thursday at noon, it’s all gone,” Wettlaufer said. “It’s full Thursday morning, but by noon it’s all gone. It’s remarkable that people will stand in line for 45 minutes for the little that we are able to give away.”

But Gray adds quickly that, “It still helps out a lot. Even if it’s one extra meal for a two-income family that’s now down to one income, that’s a lot.”

In addition to its pantry, Trinity Jubilee Center serves more than 100 meals four days per week through partnerships with Bates College and Campus Cuisine.

For all those attending Sunday’s event, it was more than just pottery and tasty food. It was also a donation to a worthy cause.

Tom Wylie and Janet Miles have attended every Empty Bowls Supper to date. The Livermore couple said they keep coming back each year because of the worthwhile cause the event supports.

Of course, Miles jokes, the pottery is a nice draw, too.

“The world is full of needy people and, prior to the advent of socialism, that was the job of the church,” Wylie said. “You take care of the people in your community.”

Miles works as a paralegal for a law firm that specializes in bankruptcy and sees the effects of today’s economy on everyday people. She wasn’t at all surprised by the growing number of people seeking emergency food assistance from Trinity Jubilee Center.

“It’s just amazing how many people have to go through it now,” Miles said. “It has touched every economical level of people. It’s no longer just the lower middle class. It’s all the way up … these days.”

Gray said that this year’s fundraiser featured bowls designed by dozens of Maine artists and students representing 17 studios and classes. She hopes to raise at least $3,000 this year.

The event’s main sponsors were Little Dan’s BBQ in Lewiston and Cabin Pottery in Edgecomb, but several area restaurants, catering companies and bakeries, as well as the Lewiston Regional Technical Center, donated a wide selection of soups, breads and desserts. First Universalist Church donates the use of its hall each year for the event. Violinist Greg Boardman and his students provide background music for diners, while Sweet Pea Designs donated floral arrangements.

“We’ve had such an outpouring from the community,” Gray said. “They understand the need for people to join together. The way the economy is now, people may not be able to give money, but they can give of their goods. I hope people will walk away like this little old lady earlier who told me, ‘Every time I look at my bowl, I’ll think of the Jubilee Center.'”

JUST IN CASE: Don’t worry if you missed Sunday’s Empty Bowls Supper to benefit Trinity Jubilee Center in Lewiston. Leftover hand-crafted bowls made by local artisans and students will be on sale from 2 to 6 p.m. Friday at the center, located at 247 Bates St.