On Wednesday 24th April 2019 the first Soul Food meal in Bristol (and the first Soul Food meal outside the city of Edinburgh!) set its tables and opened wide its doors! Hosted by members of B&A Church at their community rooms on Bristol's Gloucester Road, the beginnings of their Soul Food story were written. With a beautifully planned menu of homemade meat and vegetarian cottage pies and dessert of Eve's pudding, the meal began gently with nine guests and an incredible team who had planned, prepared and loved this meal into being! We know from experience that Soul Food often begins quietly with just a few people, but week by week we know that this will grow and grow. People are hungry in our communities and cities. Hungry for food and hungry for company and a safe space to be. With the desire to show love and support for those who are dealing with homelessness in Bristol, the folk at B&A Church hope that this meal will be a place of refuge and community.
When we first began Soul Food in Edinburgh we didn't really imagine that it may take place in other cities too - we are so delighted that it is. The model is really simple and we are delighted to share it. Our vision is to help to support , give confidence and equip any church that would like to begin to engage with the needs and issues of injustice that its neighbourhood holds and through the simplicity of a beautiful meal and the warmest of welcomes, offer relationship, support and community. We believe that lives are changed around a table where people are assured of their worth and value and treated with love, dignity and respect. Friendships are formed and relationships are built. Change happens...
On a Thursday evening on Edinburgh's Easter Road, Soul Food is hosted by Mustard Seed Edinburgh. Half the team that hosts the meal came to be part of the church after having first come along to a Soul Food meal, most having dealt with homelessness at some point in their lives.
As a church we are working out how to offer real and significant support to folk experiencing the gruelling challenges of poverty and the injustices of a society tilted more to the thriving of the rich rather than the poor.
Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the conversations that we have around the dinner tables. Stories of insufficient financial support, bedroom taxes and sanctions. Stories of childhood sexual abuse and violence, of drug addiction and difficult mental health challenges. Breakdowns in relationships, zero contract hour jobs that may pay the rent one month but not the next, illness that has resulted in hospital stays that then forfeit a B & B room. The constant threat of violence and the fear of life on the streets.
How much more overwhelming it must be to live with these realities in your every day.
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 communities, neighbourhoods, towns and cities are hungry and are dealing with the brutal challenges of poverty. It is a statement of intent to engage in any way possible in these issues of grave injustice. Even if sometimes they can feel overwhelming in their enormity and far from simple.
Soul Food is a simple idea. It is an invitation to dinner and the offer of friendship and community. Simon Sinek writes of how: 'Simple ideas are easier to understand. Ideas that are easier to understand are repeated. Ideas that are repeated change the world.'
In Ash Barker's excellent book, Making Poverty Personal:Taking the Poor as Seriously as the Bible Does, Shane Claiborne writes in the Foreword of how, 'Mother Teresa once said, "It is very fashionable to talk about the poor...unfortunately it is not as fashionable to talk to the poor...The vision for changing the world must begin small, like a mustard seed. After all, when a reporter asked Mother Teresa how she had managed to pick up 50,000 folks from the streets of Calcutta, she said, "I began with one."
I interviewed a Soul Food volunteer who has been part of the community since it began a little while ago. I asked them why they had first come along to a Soul Food meal. "You are beginning with the wrong question," he answered, "you need to begin by asking me why I came back." "Why did you come back'" I asked, agreeing with him completely that my initial question was rather lame! "I came back, because it was the only place I visited in the week where I didn't feel homeless. Everything from the welcome, to the proper tablecloths, crockery and the quality of the meal, was different to anywhere else that I went. I felt respected and valued."
When the issues of poverty in our city seem enormous it is easy to feel paralysed as to how to respond. But if one person comes to Soul Food and leaves sensing their worth and value, then something significant has taken place. By setting a table, cooking a meal and inviting our neighbours to dinner, we know we are just doing a small thing, but small things grow...
Three further Soul Food's are due to open in Edinburgh over the next few months, one based in the South of Edinburgh and two more in central Edinburgh, one of which will have a particular focus on supporting families who are homeless, living in B & B's and hostels. This Soul Food meal hopes to recruit volunteers from across the city and won't be run solely by one church but hopefully a few churches! We will be fundraising for it over the next month or so. If this would be something you would like to be involved in either practically as a volunteer or financially with a gift (we need about £6,500 for the set up costs and meals for the first 12 months), please do get in touch. We really would love to hear from you!
If you, like the folk at B&A Church, don't live in Edinburgh and would be interested in beginning a Soul Food meal in your town or city, we would love to invite you to come and visit and see how Soul Food works. If you would like us to come and speak at your church about Soul Food - we can do that! Also, we can help you every step of the way if you would like to set up your own meal.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to begin a conversation about Soul Food. We really would love to hear from you! Kindest Regards, Jenny