Giving Thanks – St. James’ Community Soup Kitchen

img_1709-478x640If you drive through Titusville on a Tuesday morning just before lunch time, you may notice how busy the corner of Main Street and Franklin Avenue is compared to the rest of town. Cars line the edge of the roadway, and people walking singly or in groups of three or four make their way down the sidewalk towards the doors of the St. James Parish Hall. Outside the hall a white sign proclaims “St. James Community Soup Kitchen Today 12 – 1 pm. All are Welcome!”

All are indeed welcome to this particularly busy ministry of St. James, as I came to find out. I spoke with Eda Scales and Noni Stanford, two of the soup kitchen coordinators, last Tuesday as they were preparing to serve over 200 people for the annual Thanksgiving dinner. Even though I arrived at 11 am, well before the usual serving hour, most of the tables in the hall were already full of people chatting and having steaming cups of coffee, enjoying each other’s company and relaxing before the beginning of the meal. Volunteers zipped back and forth, topping up glasses and making last minute preparations, but everyone I passed had enough time to smile and say hello as they went about the business of Thanksgiving dinner.
The food program at St. James has been running continuously since 2001, serving hot meals once a week to anyone who drops in. The first few dinners had perhaps a dozen people in attendance, but numbers have increased steadily to the point that on any given Tuesday there are img_1706-640x478at least a hundred people in and out of St. James’ hall, sharing a meal and fellowship (and double that for the Thanksgiving celebration).  Volunteer participation is both ecumenical and community-oriented: at least four churches in the area send helpers to aid the St. James’ crew, and they are often joined by women from the St. James House – a shelter program run by the local YWCA that is housed in the old church rectory. On the few occasions when Canon Martha Ishman is unable to attend dinners, Pastor Terry Brown of the Methodist church in Enterprise gives the blessing before the meal.

The program was given a jumpstart in its early days with a grant from the Diocese, but between donations from parishioners and support from local groups and businesses like Northwest Hardwoods, the VFW, United Way, and a partnership with the Second Harvest Food Bank, the soup kitchen ministry is now self-sufficient and able to provide hot meals and groceries for people in and around the Titusville area. It is also one of the only regularly scheduled soup kitchens in the area that doesn’t charge a fee for the meal. Eda pointed out to me that not only does the program meet financial, social, and spiritual needs for attendees in general, it is particularly valuable to people with special circumstances: the working poor, people on fixed incomes or Social Security, and others who may not qualify for assistance programs, but still find themselves in need. There are no qualifiers to participate in the food ministry, and everything is on the honor system – if someone says they have a need, they may receive.

The program also encompasses the God’s Abundance Cupboard food pantry, which began on an emergency basis whenever the church was open, and has since grown so that there are now twice-monthly scheduled pickup days where families can come and get a bag of groceries including fruit, cereal, soup, vegetables, and (thanks to a grant from Giant Eagle) two packages of frozen meat. The food pantry now gives out approximately 70 bags of groceries each pickup day.
The financial benefit of the meals and grocery donations is readily evident when you see the number of people who participate in the program. As I walked around the tables and chatted with people the social and spiritual benefits made themselves known. For many of the attendees, the soup kitchen is about much more than a hot meal – it’s an important social space, and a church outside of church. From Noni: img_1689-599x640“If you miss a week or something, they ask ‘where were you last week?’ They feel like this is their church, even if they don’t all come on Sundays.” It’s obvious that the people visiting last Tuesday felt at home. Chatter passed back and forth between people and tables with a familiarity that only comes from regular interaction. I sat down near the kitchen to chat with one young woman and her 14-month old daughter, and she mentioned that she was there because her parents came regularly. Her father was seated further down the table, and he introduced me to his wife, one of his cousins, and another relative (who was one of the volunteers, and not able to sit with them as he was working). He said how much they appreciate the church, and his wife jumped in to tell me a story about how one of the previous priests, after seeing that she had been crying at one of the meals, was able to get them help that saved them from being evicted from their home. Both volunteers and people sitting at tables stopped me as I walked around and asked if I needed a seat or a plate, and there wasn’t a single table where someone didn’t have a story or a joke to share (or a groan about the upcoming snow in the weather forecast). As Eda had said while we talked, “you see the face of God in everyone around the tables.” If the smiles on the faces of the volunteers are any indication, they receive as much joy in giving as the attendees do in receiving.

Noni walked by with a large tray filled with slices of pumpkin pie, signaling an end to the first wave of dining, and I waved goodbye and worked my way back through the tables towards the exit. Knots of people who had finished eating or were waiting for spaces to open up at the tables stood in the entry hall and outside on the sidewalk, and several folks wished me a happy holiday as I zipped up my jacket and headed down the street.

I walked out the doors of the hall that day far more uplifted in spirit than I had been prior to arriving. The weather may be getting colder and the days shorter, but God’s presence in this ministry will continue warming hearts throughout western PA’s people for hopefully many years to come.

Megin Sewak, Communications Specialist for the Diocese of Northwestern PA

Valentines and the Inexpressible Love of God

As I write this, Love is on my mind. Not some specific someone love – although that would be nice – but Love as an ideal and as a reality. I guess the near proximity of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday this year got this train of thought going. And when thinking about love I can’t help being a little frustrated by how pedesheart-534793_1280trian my understanding of the concept frequently is. The fault lies in the fact that our English language is so imprecise; we use the same word “love” to refer to the pleasurable/enjoyable to the sentimental/romantic to the awesome divine. I can actually say in the same conversation that I love chocolate, I love my children and that God loves me.

Churchy-types have long resorted to the Greek language to try to clarify things. C.S. Lewis wrote a wonderful book called The Four Loves where he explores the different types of love expressed in that language. So we have storge for affectionate love, philia for brotherly love or the love of friends, eros for romantic love and agape for unconditional or Godly love. Of course Lewis also explores how these types of loves are expressed in wholesome and unwholesome ways and spends time differentiating between love based on need, love offered as gift and love resulting from appreciation.

For me, this questions of understanding love matters because it is so central to our understanding of both God and what it means to be a Christian. St. John goes so far as to say in his first letter that “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

Taking a cue from Mr. Lewis we need to be deliberately aware that our ability to love is a reflection of God’s love, is in fact, part of the way that we are created in God’s image. We accept that we cannot love with the perfection of agape – that is God’s love – but we know that we are called to strive toward that. When we love one another in familial, friendly or romantic ways, we are to be always seeking to let that love show glimmers of the higher, truer love that is known in God.

So as we enjoy the hearts and flowers of Valentine’s Day and the many types of human love we commemorate on that day, let us also be mindful of the inexpressible love that God has for us as shown to us in Christ. That love tells us that while we were yet separated from God, strangers as it were, Christ died for us.

As this month unfolds, may we be given grace to see the ash crosses we are marked with to begin our Lenten journey as God’s Valentine to us, his beloved.

The Rev. Stacey Fussell, Rector of Church of the Ascension in Bradford