Community at the Table
By Dawn Alpaugh
I have spent enough time at soup kitchens to know the drill. The volunteers (us) stand behind the table and serve the poor (them). I have always been glad to give time to this worthwhile mission, but I always felt like something was missing. I tried to talk with the people on the other side of the table, but it always fell flat.
As I was exploring a call to a new ministry last year I was struck by the outreach of one of the churches where I interviewed, First Reformed Church in Wynantskill, New York. One of their weekly outreach programs was a Wednesday night “community meal.” When they told me about it I thought it sounded like a soup kitchen with a twist. After I had been offered and accepted a call to the church, I experienced my first community meal.
I stood in awe as an army of volunteers arrived throughout the week—some to set up tables, others to buy food, more to cook, others to serve, still others to break down and clean up. All of them were caring and gracious and there for all the right reasons, but the thing that struck me most was the camaraderie between the church members and the guests who came to eat with us. This was not a “them” and “us.” This was a “we.”
We gathered together, adults and children of the church and anyone who wanted to share a meal. Even church members who weren’t helping that week came to eat. Two young couples, new to the church, called it “date night.” The meal is simple—spaghetti, bread, salad, and homemade desserts—but the fellowship is not simple in the least. It is warm and generous and, to be honest, I’m not sure that first night who were the members and who were the guests; they’d all blended together.
Now that I have been through a few community meals I realize that the dinner tables aren’t the only place that you’ll find guests. There is a young woman with special needs who helps in the kitchen every week. There are neighbors who don’t have much, but they share a homemade dessert. There are people coming home from work, driving by, who stop by to lend a hand. To be honest we’re often tripping over one another in the kitchen.
Last month our church was blessed to receive a $1,200 grant through the RCA CARE Network hunger grant program. (That’s a lot of pasta!) But what I realize now is that every Wednesday, more soul food is being served than Italian food.
That first night a woman approached me and said that someone at her senior housing project had said she shouldn’t go to the dinners because she isn’t poor enough. Her voice cracked as she asked me if that was true. I told her anyone who wants to share a meal is always invited. She bristled off to go tell her neighbor that he was wrong. I hope she invites him! There’s always pasta to spare.
Dawn May Alpaugh is pastor of First Reformed Church in Wynantskill, New York.