Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” – Matthew 14:16 (NRSV)
This week I went down to serve breakfast with a group called The Gathering. The Gathering is a nonprofit that began as a collection of churches working together to serve meals to those in need at three different locations in Milwaukee.
Here is what I loved about the experience.
Since I was serving breakfast, I arrived about 7:15. I walked into the church, found the kitchen and said I was there to help. Within a minute, they had me signed in, putting on an apron and gloves, and washing down tables and chairs. I didn’t call ahead and reserve a spot. I simply showed up and they gave me something to do. This is as straightforward as ministry gets. They have regular volunteers they rely upon to get the meal going and groups that sign up ahead. But essentially, The Gathering welcomes anyone who wants to come and feed people.
The second thing I loved was that George, the person overseeing the volunteers, took 15 minutes to sit down with all the first time volunteers and talk about who comes for breakfast and why and the causes of poverty in Milwaukee. Something I learned: Many of the people who come for breakfast aren’t homeless. Many are elderly or the working poor. George also took time for the group from The Milwaukee Violence Free Zone to share their work in public schools to help students find choices other than violence.
While George was talking with us, he also shared how The Gathering partners with the Homeless Outreach Nursing Center, the Legal Aid Society, and St. Ben’s Medical Clinic. These mission partners come to the meal sites on specific days of the week to provide other important services to their guests. They don’t just refer, but facilitate those needing help.
I didn’t have the opportunity to interact with the guests much as I was in the line serving jelly. However, I could smile and say good morning as I did so. The breakfast that was served was more like lunch. The main entrée was a rice dish that included meat joined by a vegetable, fruit, toast, and dessert. This may seem like an odd breakfast, but it was nourishing and healthy.
After breakfast was done and we were cleaning up, I did have a chance to talk with another first-time volunteer named Rome. Rome graduated from a Milwaukee public high school that is currently seeing its share of troubles. Now, he’s studying to get his cosmetology and mortuary science licenses. Rome told me that people sometimes need to wait 3-4 weeks to bury a family member as they try to get the money together. Responding to the real need in his community, he plans to offer his services free of charge to help people afford a funeral.
Before I left, I sat down to have rice and peaches with some of the other volunteers. I was able to finish my conversation with Rome, hear the story of Toda’s unusual name (pronounced like Yoda), and enjoy some rather delicious food. Before I left, Toda asked me if I’d be back tomorrow. “Not tomorrow,” I said, “but I’ll definitely be back.” And I will.