Church congregations are known for helping the impoverished and performing good works for the needy. But members of one St. Paul church have found another worthy cause.

Once a month, about 15 members of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church get together and eat at one of the restaurants along University Avenue.

How is that helping?

Restaurants along University -- many of them small ethnic places -- have been struggling as the massive Central Corridor light-rail project is built between Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. Torn-up streets keep potential customers from reaching businesses along the route.

Rosa Uy, a member at St. Matthew's, in St. Paul's St. Anthony Park neighborhood, came up with the idea in April when she, her husband and a friend went to a Thai restaurant on University Avenue. The eatery had opened in September, and business was not going great, Uy said.

The owners "were just devastated," Uy said. "The food was really good and nobody was there. We told them we'd bring people from church to come to the restaurant for dinner. And that's how we started."

The church event dubbed "Cooks Night Out" was born and highlighted in St. Matthew's church bulletin. Anyone is welcome to join, and so far church members have been to five restaurants serving Thai, Ethiopian, Cambodian, Mexican and barbecue cuisine. They hope to try a Chinese restaurant next, Uy said.

"We thought we could introduce people to some of these restaurants and kind of help them," Uy said. "It's once a month, so it's not a big, big help. But we kind of felt like at least we can give them some business."

It has turned into a win-win for both sides of the transaction.

"They [church members] thought it was a lot of fun," Uy said. "There's a lot of things they haven't tried before. We're not really big business, but they [restaurant owners] really appreciate it."

Rose French • 612-673-4352