Soup-kitchen church

September 10, 2015
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Guests at the soup kitchen of West End Collegiate Church, New York City. Photo by Rosealie O’Connor.

The guests streamed into the soup kitchen of West End Collegiate Church, shaking off the bitter cold from New York City’s winter. Many of them lived outside, so they were used to being rejected from public spaces like museums or churches. But the members of West End follow the Bene­dictine credo: “Welcome ev­eryone as if you are welcoming Christ.” So the weary men and women knew they could rest here. They shrugged off their backpacks and coats, and settled into their seats in anticipation of the Bible study held before the meal. It was Ad­vent, so associate pastor Jes Kast-Keat lit the first two purple candles of the wreath. The smell of smoke rose and mingled with the food, and a guest called out, “Let’s go to church today, pastor!”

Kast-Keat brightened. The guest had articulated a hope that had been forming within her. She’d been hearing other people echo her thought around tables, in their greetings, and as they said goodbye: “This is my church.” Those declarations felt right, as if they were creating something by naming it. They could sense the sacred space in the soup kitchen. They had been gathering for worship.

Actually, this community had been coming together for hundreds of years. Historians believe that Comforters of the Sick, or Ziekentroosters, first conducted religious ser­vices for the small colony of New Netherland on Man­hattan Is­land. In 1628 an ordained minister arrived and began the Reformed Dutch Church in America. West End Collegiate is part of the Collegiate Re­formed Protes­tant Dutch Church, and the oldest Protes­tant church with a continuing organization in America. There are four other Collegiate Churches of New York City: Marble, Middle, Fort Washing­ton, and Inter­sections. West End, which was established as a center for the Dutch refugee and relief ef­forts, is now in an affluent neighborhood a couple blocks away from Cen­tral Park.

According to Kast-Keat, the location gives the members of West End Collegiate Church an opportunity. Kast-Keat asked, “How could those in homes get to know their neighbors, when the person who sleeps on the street is their neighbor?” In the 1980s, church members worked to answer that question. They took action by starting a soup kitchen and offering an optional Bible study.

When Kast-Keat learned that guests had often been rejected by churches, she wanted to make sure that they would have a long-term welcome at West End and a space to worship. So she structured an order of worship around the Bible study, giving participants more leadership and voice. The guests read the scriptures and led the prayers of the people. Kast-Keat did not preach from a manuscript but invited conversation during the sermon. At the end of the service, ev­eryone prayed the Lord’s Prayer in unison.

These components invigorated the worship and unified the worshipers. “When people are in survival mode on the streets,” said Kast-Keat, “there’s something powerful about being able to say a prayer together.” As the words reverberated from mouth to mouth, the congregants realized that they were not alone. Then they ate together, breaking bread with one another, and their connection deepened.

More people began at­tend­ing the service, until the day when one guest named what was happening: church, a worshiping community separate and yet still connected to the larger congregation.

Kast-Keat has told the West End congregation what’s happening, and its members are discerning what it means to have a church forming in their chapel. They’re considering questions of polity and governance, like whether mem­bers should vote to serve communion, and working to re­name the feeding program so that the name reflects the worshiping community. West End Collegiate has a creative spirit, and welcomes the opportunity to try out new things. Mem­bers keep this spirit alive as they work through the trials, mistakes, and excitement of this possibility. “We don’t have this all figured out,” Kast-Keat said.

I asked her about having the worship service so closely related to the feeding program. Did it ever feel coercive? Did people worry that they had to worship so they could eat? Did they feel as if they needed to be Christian in order to receive food?

We’d both been aware of organizations that try to force God onto vulnerable populations. They proselytize the homeless, giving goods and services in exchange for conversion. But Kast-Keat as­sured me that West End does not force-feed God. Everyone is welcome around the table. West End makes sure that people can come to the table together regardless of their faith tradition or lack of tradition. The members indicate this through the music they play, through their greetings, and in their ongoing interactions with diners and worshipers.

“The colonial idea is in­grained in our culture,” Kast-Keat said, and explained that West End is aware of its power. “But our job is not to bring God to the neighborhood. God is already there. We are bearing witness to God.”