I’d like to invite you to dinner. Don’t worry about bringing anything because it is taken care of. We will bow our heads while someone says grace. You will be served first because you are my guest. Then we will eat together, share about our day, and laugh at each other’s jokes as friends and equals.
When I have friends over for a meal this is how I usually invite them to my home. I want them to feel comfortable and enjoy the time we have together. So, why do we ignore this etiquette when interacting with our homeless brothers and sisters? When people typically serve the homeless community it can result in an “us” versus “them” mentality. They line up and we serve them. This separation only furthers our assumptions and their feelings of isolation.
Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission has recently made huge strides to break this divide. The first step was transforming the physical space into a more inviting environment. The second step was initiating family-style meals where homeless guests, volunteers, and staff eat together. These two simple sounding steps have already made a big impact on those in and around the Mission.
Up to 240 men may be staying at Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission on any given night. So, shouldn’t it be “homey” for the men who don’t have their own home to return to at night? By painting the walls white with dark gray and light green accents, the room is both engaging and soothing. Three large, new windows were installed to bring in natural light which makes the whole room feel more inviting. The dining room used to be a warehouse so we want to depart as far as possible from this drab history. We do not warehouse the men and women who come to the Mission, but shelter them from the elements and lead them to a healthier and happier life.
For those of you who may not know, family style is a way of serving a meal where dishes of food are placed on the table and then each person is served or helps themselves. Sound familiar? You probably do this at home. When we first decided to start serving “family-style” instead of “cafeteria-style” there was a lot of hesitation on behalf of the volunteers, the men in our long-term Overcomers program, and some of the staff. Many were concerned that this new style would cause fights but Men’s Ministry Director Nick Lordi said “if you give someone expectations to live up to, they may surprise you. But you have to give them a chance to take that responsibility.”
On the first day of the family-style meal service, the results were breathtaking. Guests were serving each other, talking freely, and offering to share. I have never seen such a quick shift from isolation to community. Right now, family-style is only being served at lunch but we plan on phasing in the other meals soon. Since beginning this new service style, our homeless guests have shared a meal with staff members, volunteers, and members of the community. I hope that you will also join us for a meal.
Since implementing the changes, an average of 60 more guests have been joining us for lunch each day. There has been an increase in female participants who cite the friendlier environment as the reason for coming in. Bruce, a guest, reflected on the family style meal, “This gives people their humanity. I like that I can choose what I want and eat as much or as little as I want. I feel like I’m at home eating around the table with my family. I feel good – I feel grateful.”
Nearly one year ago, Asian Arts Initiative and Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission embarked on this journey to create a different kind of art exhibition that could truly enhance the quality of life for members of Philadelphia’s homeless community. After months of idea-sourcing and creative problem solving, with guests and staff at the shelter and support from the design team at Cecil Baker + Partners, we are could not be happier with the results.
Get involved with these big changes by joining us for a meal, taking a more active role by volunteering, or making a monetary donation to sponsor meals. It only costs $1.95 to sponsor a meal, which means it only costs $15.60 to pay for a whole table to eat together as a family!