It’s Wednesday evening and the doors of St. Augustine’s Anglican Church have just opened onto a quiet residential area of Vancouver. Dozens of people file in, eager for the tasty meal of salad, tomato soup and pasta about to be served.
As they find seats, teenagers from the kitchen take people’s orders. Conversations start up at tables, people walk around to greet friends, young people zip in and out of the kitchen with jugs of coffee and plates of salad and the priest is handing around soup spoons which someone forgot to set on the tables.
This is the weekly community meal at St. Augustine’s. It’s crowded, it’s colourful, it’s slightly chaotic. It’s just what Rev. Patricia Black was hoping for when the program began in 1991. The dinner started after parishioners told her they wanted the church to be more open and involved in the life of the community.
Through this meal, it has become so – indeed it’s an inclusive, vibrant incarnation of Jesus’ teachings. But the meal hasn’t simply enabled the church to be more involved in the community, it has helped create community by bringing people together and by giving at-risk youth job skills.
This is a meal for everyone. Between 40 and 80 people attend weekly – single parents, elderly people, children, people with mental handicaps, people in financial need, people too busy to cook, parishioners and others.
This is not a charity meal or a church meal – there is no preaching or praying. This is a community meal.
“It’s a place where you can go for a meal, meet local people, friendly people. You’re always welcome, no matter who you are or what you look like or what you do – you’re treated with courtesy and respect,” says Simone Slater, who’s been coming to the community meal since it started.
“I’ve met a lot of people through it, people who live in the community, a lot of women who have been a great support for me.”
Ms. Black would be happy to hear that because she has always wanted it to be about more than just food.
“The goal was to have a safe place for community – for children and youths and adults,” she said.
Over the years, support groups for parents have formed from the gatherings, both formal and informal. It’s always a challenge to try to figure out what people may need besides a meal, she said. But it’s a challenge she welcomes.
The program’s success at building community is revealed through several interesting spinoffs that happen after the meal. Every week a group of single adults gets together to socialize and a theatre group for young teens works on skits and plays. Once a month, musicians and poets gather in the church for an open-microphone social.
Of course, food is still the main reason for the meal. It’s free, although donations are accepted, which cover about a third to a half the cost of the dinner. St. Augustine’s provides about $3,000 a year for the meal – its biggest form of outreach – from interest on its investments.
The money goes to Aunt Leah’s Independent Lifeskills Society, an organization offering at-risk youths job skills and life skills. Young people from Aunt Leah’s cook the food, serve it and clean up.
That participation is what makes this dinner particularly special, because Aunt Leah’s has incorporated a restaurant-training program for at-risk youth into the meal. Each Wednesday afternoon, eight to 10 young people – a mix of youths from Aunt Leah’s programs and from the neighbourhood – arrive at 4:30 to set up tables and prepare the meal. They finish cleaning up by about 7:30.
In addition to a $10 weekly stipend, the young people receive a certificate after completing 80 hours of work. Gale Stewart, Aunt Leah’s executive director, said several youths got jobs last summer as a result of their training at St. Augustine’s.
Joel McFarlane is one. Now 17, he works at a busy local café on the weekends. He started out in the “dish pit” at St. Augustine’s in 1996.
“It’s horrible,” he said good naturedly. “You’re washing about 100 dishes of everything.”
After a few weeks learning serving tips and techniques, he began working as a waiter. He said he learned patience, people skills and serving skills at St. Augustine’s.
The patience came from having to respond to many requests from diners. Mrs. Stewart sees these requests in a very positive way. To her, they suggest the diners feel a responsibility to help ensure the youths get well trained. She’s seen greater respect and understanding grow between the two groups as a result of this intergenerational mixing. Generational stereotypes have disappeared.
In addition to learning job skills, the youths have gained confidence and self-esteem.
“Kids really like to have a job that they can learn to do and feel good about and somehow this has been a safe place for them to keep coming back to,” Mrs. Stewart said.
The success of the community meal has encouraged other churches to adopt the model. All Saints Church in Burnaby, B.C. started a community dinner in September.
Pat and Bob McMillan are two of the parishioners overseeing the meal there. “Our church has always talked about outreach, but you never have anybody that’s got the time or energy to do anything,” Mrs. McMillan said. ” So this was appealing because somebody else was going to be responsible for doing the dinner and it would be kind of a two-fold thing – part of the outreach would be helping to support the Aunt Leah Society and the other part of the outreach would be to open the church up to the community.”
All Saints attracts about 50 people to its dinner every week. It pays for the dinner through donations.
St. Alban’s has also started a weekly dinner in its parish in suburban Vancouver and St. Mark’s is considering starting one. Estelle Taylor is a freelance writer and editor based in Vancouver.