The Hospitality of Respect and Empathy Yields Kindness and Fairness

Every Wednesday evening for the past 40 years, the Brighton-Allston Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, has served a community supper to 50-60 people who are hungry for a hot meal in a community setting. John Clark has been volunteering in the UCC kitchen nearly every week for nine years. He says that when he sets up his calendar for the month, the first item he puts in is his service at the weekly supper. The rest of the week works around that. John shared why this giving and serving is so important to him.

“I didn’t realize that so many people were hungry and in need of one of life’s most basic needs, to eat. So close to where I live – it shocked me. I have never lacked a good meal, and here were some of my neighbors who needed to be fed.”

It was nine years ago at a community lunch celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday that John struck up a conversation with a local pastor, Karen Fritz, about Christian service and the imperative to “love your neighbor…” She mentioned that her church offers a weekly supper open to anyone in the community (funded through the Allston Brighton Food Bank) – would John be interested in volunteering?

John’s first supper, he says, was a wonderful thing to observe: the UCC supper is a four-course hot meal for each guest; someone is running the kitchen, there are cooks preparing, people serving, and a host welcoming those arriving.

“I have loved cooking and serving food my whole life…and here were my neighbors in need. I started coming every week I could.”

Volunteers come and go, and John filled in wherever he was needed. For several years, he was the main cook so he planned meals, secured food, and every Wednesday arrived about three hours ahead to organize and prepare the meal. What feeds John is knowing that he is fulfilling his core Christian values of unconditional love and care – and this, he feels, requires taking individual action.

“Every Wednesday I think about a quote from Jesus, ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these…, you did it to me.’ The need is not getting less. That is a fact. People are living on the street, in cars…it is pretty rough.”

One Wednesday some years ago, the supper was hopping with lots of dinner guests and too few volunteers. So one of the regular guests, Dave, offered to help. Turns out, Dave had previously worked as a cook in a nursing home. From the start, it was obvious he was comfortable with the pace of a commercial kitchen. Since that first time, Dave has taken on more and more responsibility in the kitchen. In fact, he sat through the ServSafe Certification course required of food service managers, passed the exam, and received his ServSafe certificate from the state! He knows the rules and is the one in charge to make the kitchen safe and sanitary. He runs the whole kitchen!

Dave has a unique role in the Community Supper: he knows a lot of the people who are served, he has hung out on street corners, ridden the bus with them, shared drinks…he relates to the guests. Dave is the perfect link between the purpose of the church and the street life – he understands what the guests were doing in the week between Wednesday suppers.

Dave’s mission to serve has changed his life. It’s been a big boost for him.

The guests – his friends and neighbors – love it when Dave leaves the kitchen to come out and talk. His leadership role is good for the guests, and it is good for Dave. Every Wednesday, John greets Dave with a big hug.

Now John’s role is to welcome the guests as host, which he does intentionally with respect, kindness, grace – the full spirit of hospitality and the wide-open comfort of love and peace in this place. He wants to make sure each individual knows that everyone in this place is glad they are here.

“Every time I serve, I sit with someone who wants to tell me their story. Many people don’t have social time to just sit and talk at a deeper level, so I listen… I hear how they started out with hope, going in a different direction from where they are now… There are some tough stories and no easy solutions. But just listening, this draws them out. What I think I add is an empathetic ear.”

Occasionally, individuals arrive in a disoriented or disruptive state for a variety of reasons. John helps them settle into a safe spot where they can get ready for the meal. It’s especially important to offer respect and comfort – the spirit of hospitality – to those who have greater needs.

How is John able to be at peace within himself in order to help all his guests?

“I am able to look through the rough exteriors to see the wonderful person within, past the unshaven face or shabby clothes, and to hear what they are hoping for, and how they are coping with disappointments, and have compassion for their tragedies. A couple of guys love to talk about old movies from the 70’s and 80’s… I love seeing much they remember and how smart they are.”

The past nine years, serving his neighbors, listening to their deeply moving life-stories has been illuminating for John.

“If you are tempted to think, Why don’t they pull themselves up? Resist that, don’t go there. Spend time looking at the person, the core person, who they really are. They just got knocked off the path. So be there for the person…you aren’t there to fix people. Being there is enough, listening is enough.”

“This purpose is enough!”

For more information on how you can support the Allston Brighton, MA Community Suppers, go here.


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