It was four and a half years ago that Soul Food set its first table, cooked up a storm and opened the doors of St Paul’s and St George’s Church in Edinburgh on a Saturday evening and invited anyone in the city – in need of a meal – to dinner.
On that first Saturday we cooked Chicken and Chorizo with Hassleback Potatoes and served Eton Mess for dessert. We welcomed 25 guests. The next week, over 40 guests arrived. The week after 60 and from then we have been sharing dinner tables with 80 - 100+ guests every week at this venue, many of whom have become Soul Food volunteers.
It is a Soul Food value that the food we serve is truly delicious and healthy! We talk of the menus we offer being just like those we would cook if we were inviting a friend to our homes for dinner. We set tables with cloths and napkins and freshly filtered coffee flows freely throughout the evening. We would like anyone, stranger or friend, who walks through our doors to feel that they are honoured and that they are cared for.
Believing that hospitality is at the very centre of what it is to be a Christian, Soul Food has always been more than just a meal. It is a declaration that the church cares deeply about the fact that people in our city are hungry and it is a statement of intent to engage in any way that we can in this issue of grave injustice. With an invitation to dinner we wish to offer friendship and solidarity to those who feel themselves pushed to the edges of society and it is a promise that we will walk alongside those who are living with the grim realities of food poverty and inequality. As Murphy Davis said of Open Door, “Without supper, without love, without table companionship, justice can become a programme that we do to other people.’ Soul Food is not a programme.
Many of those who come along every Saturday night to Soul Food are homeless. Quite a number are rough sleepers or night shelter users. Others are living on friend’s sofas or are housed – temporarily – in a B&B by the council. (In Edinburgh there are over 650 people living in B&B’s. 650 people who have no access to kitchens and opportunity to make themselves a hot meal).
There are many reasons for homelessness, but the reasons that we hear the most regularly are: relationship breakdowns, domestic abuse, welfare sanctions, too few available and affordable housing options, being asked to leave your accommodation, mental health issues, addiction, debt or that you have just come out of prison or hospital.
It has been said that most of us are just two pay cheques away from becoming homeless.
As I am sure you can imagine, being without a home can be a completely isolating experience. It is also relentlessly hard work. If you would like help with your situation you can find yourself having to tell your story again – and again – and again – to all the various agencies who may be able to offer you support. You can find yourself robbed of your dignity as an overloaded system does not always treat you with respect. You can feel alone in your fears about the future and hope can become the hardest thing to hold onto. You will often be consigned to walking miles every day for food, or appointments or even shelter. It can feel as though nobody cares or sees you as the person you actually are. You are having to be defined by what you don’t have – a home – rather than what you do have; talents, gifts, skills, history. It’s no wonder that people’s mental health can begin to suffer.
At a Soul Food meal we hope that we can offer some respite and support to those of our guests who are dealing with situations like this day in and day out. Agencies working with those who are homeless or in situations of great anxiety due to poverty regularly come along to Soul Food. We are grateful to CAP, Streetwork, the Samaritans and Streetreads who have regularly offered specific and specialist support.
We have no plans for Soul Food to become a large agency engaging with the issues of homelessness, we do not want to become a service provider, rather we just want to live out, through the local church, the call to hospitality that we feel is uniquely intrinsic to our Christian faith. In the act of setting a table and inviting anyone in need of a meal – to dinner – we hope to begin a ripple of resistance that declares a desire to step into the stories of injustice and inequality that our cities and towns hold. Just as God once told Hagar that he was the God that sees, we want to say to the hungry, we see you.
If you read the Gospels you cannot help but notice that Jesus spends a lot of time sat at dining tables in people’s houses. In fact, the table is such a key place to him that he uses it as a metaphor to describe what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like (Matthew 22; Luke 14). It was around a table that Jesus sat with those who often found themselves excluded from society. He intentionally sought the company of the poor, the broken hearted, the persecuted, the disenfranchised, the bereaved, the sick and around a meal he would make clear to them that they were his friends and that they were no longer alone.
If we read the prophets of the Old Testament and look at the words of Jesus we see clearly that God’s heart beats passionately for those who find themselves pushed to the edges of society. Those our towns and cities so often devalue. Throughout the prophets God declares time and again that the way in which we truly worship him is by placing ourselves alongside those dealing with the injustices of poverty. How can we forget that Jesus himself identified completely with them? In his life he experienced the vulnerability of being a homeless infant, refugee child and was an adult with no place to lay his head, reliant on the hospitality of others.
Jesus talked of the Kingdom of God being like a banquet. A free banquet – for everyone – no price to pay. In the stories of the tables where he sat you can hear the echoes of the prophets of old:
Come everyone who thirsts,
Come to the waters,
And you who have no money,
Come buy and eat!
Come buy wine and milk
Without money and without price. (Isaiah 55:1-2)
We have been greatly inspired by the story of the great banquet in Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus describes the Kingdom of God being like a banquet to which everyone is invited. A banquet that the host – literally – searches the streets for people to share this incredible meal with. At Soul Food our values have always been one of the warmest hospitality, the kindest of welcomes, and an offer of relationship, commitment and community that extends way beyond the Soul Food meal itself. Something of the hospitality that Jesus offers to us all.
We believe that lives can be changed around a table.
Our lives have been changed around a table.
For those of who have been involved with Soul Food it has been one of the greatest privileges of our lives.
Inviting people to supper is truly holy and transformational thing…
Soul Food has grown out of the ministry of St Pauls and St George’s Church and last year we planted a church called Mustard Seed on Easter Road (hosted on Sunday afternoon at St Margaret’s Church thanks to their generous hospitality) that had the particular brief to develop Soul Food. Soul Food St Margaret’s opened it’s doors in May this year. It is a smaller venue but we still serve about 70 meals a week from it, every Thursday evening. In the New Year further Soul Food meals will open at other churches across Edinburgh.
In September, Soul Food became a charity in its own right. Whilst our primary focus is to host beautiful meals and offer safe spaces to ‘be’ across the city, we hope, in the near future to have a social enterprise arm to Soul Food that can offer employment and experience to any Soul Food guest or Soul Food volunteer who applies.
We have quite big hopes and dreams for Soul Food. Our biggest is our hope to buy a house from which we could operate and also offer a home to those who have – quite literally – nowhere else to go but the streets or a night shelter. Working alongside other agencies and also the council we would hope to offer accommodation and support that would enable those in need of such a place to find work and homes of their own. The difference that an address, a safe place to stay, food and a friend can make to someone’s life is transformational. But that is a story for another day and another blog post!
As I close, let me leave you with the powerful words of the American Activist, Theologian and Writer of the last century, Dorothy Day. The story of the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25, (probably the ultimate verses in terms of Christian hospitality), convicted her of the fact that God was present within every person that she met and so whenever we offer hospitality it is as though we serve him:
‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Matthew 25:35
These words of Jesus shaped her entire life and they led her to be instrumental in establishing places of refuge and community for those who were homeless, she wrote:
‘There He was, homeless. Would a church take him in today – feed him, clothe him, offer him a bed? I hope that I ask myself that question on the last day of my life. I once prayed and prayed to God that he never, ever let me forget to ask that question.’ - Dorothy Day
May we too never forget to ask that question and ever be the church that takes Him in.