As I See It
The Multi-Faceted Ministry of Café Immanuel
By Frank C. Senn
Our members Chris Djuric, who works a lot of farmers’ markets, and Sarah Stegner, former executive chef at the Ritz Carlton who is now co-owner and chef of the Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook, saw beyond my limited vision. “Let’s serve a gourmet breakfast and invite the whole community of Evanston to come to breakfast—and maybe also to stay for worship.” With signage outside inviting people in, Evanston’s population began to come in—especially the homeless population (the overnight shelter is across the street from Immanuel), and then the “marginalized” more generally (not all of our “guests” are homeless). These people were being treated to a gourmet breakfast, with fresh fruits and organic products, served to them by our teenage wait staff at tables set with tablecloths, silverware, china, and flowers.
Week after week they come. Most of these “guests” are African-Americans attending breakfast in a mostly lily-white (Swedish background) church. Martin Luther King, Jr. might have added congregational dinners to worship services as the most segregated events in America. We were clearly breaking down this barrier. But at what expense? Café Immanuel is a pay-as-you-go proposition. It lives on the donations of the members (and considerable help in season from produce left from farmers’ markets and advance food preparation by Sarah’s staff at the Prairie Grass). In spite of an increase in attendance from the marginalized, we have not run out of food or money.
After a year of operation, Café Immanuel’s challenges and opportunities now loom large in the discussions of mission and ministry at Immanuel Lutheran Church. Some members are concerned that the faithful volunteers (who include some people who aren’t even church members) will burn out. Others are concerned that Café Immanuel might become a soup kitchen, especially if members stop coming because of the increasing number of street people.
When asked about burnout, Chris Djuric responded by asking if the organist or other musicians experience burn out because they have to practice and produce so much music week after week. We hope the answer is “no,” because they enjoy making music. “Well,” said Chris, “we like to cook.”
I confess that this was a new insight for me. I don’t like to cook, so it is a chore for me every time I have to do so. But it is never a chore for me to sit down and write. I love to write. I always have. But I know (through many years of working with journals and parish newsletters) that most people don’t like to write. People who like to cook, and do so professionally like Chef Sarah, live to cook. It is enjoyable for them. Writers like to write. Musicians like to make music.
This insight could be extended to other ministries and opportunities in the church. Some people like to fix things. Others like to crunch numbers. Some like to work with little children and youth. Some like to organize things. People should be serving in the church doing the things that give them enjoyment. Perhaps this is how we should be recruiting our volunteers. Not by listing what jobs need to be done, but by asking people: what do you most enjoy doing?
So it is not likely that the volunteers who work Café Immanuel are going to burn out, any more than those who sing in the choir week after week are going to burn out. But we all need to take a break once in a while—not because we’re burning out but because we need rejuvenation and fresh ideas. Refreshed and re-equipped, we’re ready to get back to our fun...I mean, our work. So Café Immanuel took off the month of January and will take off again in July or August.
The other issue is whether Café Immanuel is in danger of becoming a soup kitchen, even an elegant soup kitchen. This is not anyone’s intention, and steps have been taken to try to keep this from happening. It’s not so much a matter of increasing security in our building and for our children (although as an urban church we need that with or without Café Immanuel) or imposing rules on “seconds” and “thirds” (although members as well as guests should avoid the sin of gluttony, which is surely incompatible with gracious dining). It is a matter of being intentional about the Café’s mission.
We weren’t sure what the Café would become when we first proposed having it—or even how long it would last. But once it got going, we began to see its potential. It is many things at once. It is an opportunity for a great breakfast and fellowship in the congregation. It is a way of doing evangelism if we use it to invite personal guests to come to church. It is an expression of social ministry as we provide an exceptional welcome to the marginalized. It is a preparation for worship on the Lord’s Day. We have volunteer hosts in place to greet people. Members are now using the Café to celebrate their big days and are inviting their friends and neighbors to breakfast. The marginalized are being treated to gracious dining and uncommon hospitality. I am making a verbal announcement about the liturgy for the day every week and inviting the guests to stay for worship.
Perhaps when I first proposed this idea, I had no idea how radical it was. Hasn’t the church always done its thing around food? The breaking of bread, Holy Communion, agape meals, distribution to widows and orphans, monastic hospitality, congregational potlucks? How radical could it be to offer Sunday breakfast to the congregation and its guests? “Radical,” of course, means “root.” Maybe it’s always radical to go back to our roots.
But let me close with a quote from a member who has not frequented Café Immanuel but who came on April 20 to videotape the events of my 65th birthday celebration at the Café. His comments can serve as an unsolicited testimony to what we are trying to accomplish. By way of background, my sermon that day (Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A) was based on the Gospel text of John 10:10, “I have come that they [the sheep] might have life, and have it abundantly,” which I said was Jesus’ “mission statement.”
I read your sermon on Jesus’ mission statement tonight, and I really liked it.
Along those lines, I was very pleased to see so many homeless people at Café Immanuel on Sunday, with Immanuel members sharing some of their abundance of wealth and talents and energies with those in need, by feeding them and performing music and including them in our fellowship. Somehow it seemed really unique and special that you were celebrating your birthday not just with Immanuel’s members, but with so many homeless people as well. And I thought it was somehow also appropriate that I was filming them right along with Immanuel’s members, as though we make no distinction, and they didn’t even seem to mind being filmed. Maybe some of them even appreciated being treated the same as our members in that way—I don’t know.
But I couldn’t really put my finger on what I was feeling at the time, and now I think that reading your sermon has helped me to do that. As white, middle- and upper-class Americans, usually our big celebrations like birthdays and Christmases involve isolating ourselves from the rest of the world, together with our wealthy family and friends, not really thinking about the rest of the world, and sharing some of our incredible wealth with each other—often far more than necessary, even to the extent of buying each other things we don’t need, because there is so little we do need that we don’t already own. But your birthday celebration was different, because you shared it with those in need, we were feeding them for free, and you didn’t even receive any material birthday gifts at the breakfast.
I think what was happening was that we were all celebrating your birthday with you by living life in abundance, because we were sharing it with the homeless people. And the reason this was so striking to me was that it was in stark contrast to our usual birthday celebrations or especially Christmases—where we focus on our material wealth as we open expensive gifts, sometimes shake our heads in amazement, and maybe say to ourselves that we are really living life in abundance.
For a long time, I’ve thought to myself that we all live our lives as though our favorite hymn title, taken out of context, is “All Depends On Our Possessing.” Perhaps this has been our de facto motto or mission statement for our lives, and we need to consciously focus on replacing it with Jesus’ mission statement.