The Welcome Meal Feeds More Than Just A Stomach
On a chilly spring evening, nearly 30 men and women, most of them patrons of the food pantry housed at Epiphany United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, are seated at the long folding tables in the church basement, awaiting a hot meal. But Epiphany's weekly Wednesday night Welcome Meal is no ordinary soup kitchen-affair with long lines for overcooked pasta dumped onto paper plates.
Instead, the atmosphere in the Fellowship Hall has the comfortable elegance of a dine-in restaurant mixed with the spirit of a large family gathering.
Near the front of the room, guests are greeted and offered beverages by Trudi Zbinden, a longtime member of Epiphany, who stands smiling in white aprons behind a table with clear dispensers of bright red punch, lemonade, and water, a steaming pot of coffee and a collection of ceramic coffee mugs.
All around the room, white cotton tablecloths are spread across folding tables, where the visitors chat with new acquaintances and old friends.
"It feeds more than just the stomach, they give you hope," says Linda, who first came to the meal during a two-month layoff from her current job as a home health aide. She's greeted enthusiastically by her tablemates, who include an outgoing, Hispanic man with a beard, a smiling, middle-aged African America man with glasses and a younger white man with a pony tail.
Epiphany launched the Welcome Meal 15 years ago after a neighbor observed patrons of the Common Pantry, which is housed at Epiphany, lined up on the sidewalk on Wednesday evenings and phoned the pastor--not with a complaint--but with the offer to help sponsor a weekly dinner.
Today guests dine on china with cloth napkins, real silverware and, on most nights, live piano or guitar music.
"It's just a beautiful atmosphere," comments Linda, as a volunteer in a white apron slips plates laden with roasted potatoes, sausages with gravy and red peppers, and corn on the cob in front of the guests, along with bowls of split pea soup.
The gourmet meals are prepared by First Slice, a local restaurant that has a charity focus, and are provided at low-cost to Epiphany. The weekly event costs $15,000 annually, raised through individual donations from the church members, friends, and neighbors.
A typical Wednesday evening draws 60 guests. Some guests are homeless, some retired, others unemployed or working hard or low wages.
But most come for the company as much as the food, notes volunteer Kathy Engert who has coordinated the Welcome Meal for more than a decade.
Anibal, who lives nearby, says she's been a regular guest for three years. "You know the people here, they treat you like you're family. They come to you and talk. They bring the food to you with love."
Nilsa, who's lived in the neighborhood for 47 years, says a highlight of her Wednesdays is when Jeff Engert, son of Kathy and another long-time volunteer, makes the rounds before dinner with his toddler, Jacob. "Of all the places I go, this feels the most comfortable because it's like a family," Nilsa says. "I make friends here because I'm so alone."
Across the room from Nilsa, a man with a stocking cap and bushy, salt and pepper beard, sits with two friends, Jaime and Therese. All three say they are homeless.
The man with the beard, who goes by Papa Smurf, says he likes that the cooks left the skins on the roasted potatoes, because of the extra nutrition. "Especially when you're on the streets, you need this," he comments, holding up a wedge with his fork.
Jaime, a smiling man in a grey cap, says he just turned 56 and drove a semi-trailer for 24 years before he lost his license and his job. "You know what I like about the meal? Everything," he says, beaming.
"I love that you can come here and sit. We don't always get to do that," comments Therese, who adds that she's lost jobs and been in and out of rehab.
Lara, an education consultant who lives up the street, started volunteering last year with her 15-year-old daughter Holly who needed community service hours for school. The hours completed, neither wanted to stop coming.
"I didn't realize how good it would feel," says Lara. "People are hungry and you give them food . . . but also comfort. If I'm having a bad day, I leave feeling better."
Epiphany's Weekly Meal with Neighbors
Since 2002 we have been providing The Welcome Meal for neighbors who join us each Wednesday night for dinner. The meal is available to anyone who needs a hearty meal and/or company. Doors open around 4:30pm and dinner is served promptly at 6:15pm. We offer several beverage options, salad or salad, a main course generally with two sides and dessert. We usually service about 70 meals each week.
We welcome groups, families, and individuals to volunteer for the meal. Most volunteers help between 6:00 and 7:30pm. Please contact us at if you are interested in volunteering or simply stop by on a Wednesday evening.
Funding for this ministry is provided by members and friends of Epiphany UCC and The Welcome Meal. To donate to this ministry, click here.
If you have time on a Wednesday, you can volunteer by emailing Kathy here .