On a rainy and cold morning, a few people are seated outside the fellowship hall at First Presbyterian Church of Oakland. They are waiting for the doors to open for the hot meal served each Monday at 11 a.m.
Inside there is a bustle of activity in the kitchen and a banquet hall set up for a feast. This is not just a food “give-away.”
As guests come into the hall, their first stop is a clothing boutique and then a table filled with food they may take with them when they leave.
When guests are finished taking what they need, they line up and are served some of the most fragrant hot food in town. Volunteers have been preparing the food in the kitchen since early morning, and it’s served until it’s gone.
Lead chef Su Coburn fills plates, but even more importantly, she engages patrons by name as they choose their meal. It’s personal, and often conversations with guests are a continuation from their last visit.
This personal engagement in the serving line sets the tone for this program by individualizing and acknowledging every person hosted by the Food Ministry team.
The room remains peaceful under the watchful eye of Gustavo G. “Gus” Lopez, whose company, Mr. G’s Professional Cleaning Services, has provided janitorial service to the church for nine years.
His long time knowledge of many patrons supports and strengthens the personal connection to them, and the atmosphere is very much like a frequently visited restaurant or café, where guests see familiar faces and catch up on news from the previous week.
“I wasn’t always as considerate as I needed to be,” Mr. Lopez says. “Rev. Randy, my son-in-law, taught me about compassion. I was a little too harsh at first,” he said. “Now I’m able to diffuse heated exchanges gently and quickly.”
“My job is ‘law and order,’ but my whole outlook transformed when I realized that each person here may have concerns I know nothing about. It is a joy to be here,” he continued.
“It’s personal, we get as much as we give from the work we do here.”
The hallmark of this Food Ministry is the volunteers. They are from countries as far away as Ghana and from neighborhoods just around the corner. They are members of the church, non-members, and perhaps clientele of the Food Ministry.
As Team Leader Bill Coburn says, “Our program prides itself in recognizing we are participating in the lives of those who come to us, and conversely, they are participating in our lives.”
The Food Ministry continues in partnership with the Post News Group to spread the word about the program. Upcoming articles will share more about volunteers and clients and will publish a “wish list” with ways to give and participate in the program. Everyone is welcome to visit and see for yourselves.