“As often as you eat together remember me.” What did these words mean to the early Christian church? During its earliest centuries, the typical church worship involved meeting in homes and sharing a meal, which was part of the actual liturgy. Known as “Agape Meal” or the “Love Feast,” the “banquet eating table” is a recurring metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven. However, disputes about who was an appropriate banquet guest were a recurring theme in the New Testament. For instance, were the tax collectors welcome? What about prostitutes?
The Friendship Prayer Breakfast at Matthewson Street Church in Providence has attempted to “live into” a profound sense of hospitality for all, recreating this early Church experience by combining worship with Agape meal. And in so doing, we experience a sense of joy and connection to the struggles and triumphs discussed in the “Good News.” When it says in the Book of Acts that “their numbers were added to daily,” we are living that reality. And, we are challenging constantly the notion of who is welcome at our table. Everyone is welcome!
Before Friendship Breakfast started, our church had already been a community meal site for 30 years, serving 200 each week. When we began the breakfast program during our first Lenten season, we had 20 participants. We soon grew to 50, then over the summer we went to an average attendance of 160. By the next Lent, our regular attendance for this worship was 300. After three years, regular attendance is 250 to 350 each Sunday. Recently, we had 400.
At our May breakfast last year, during which we offered three worship meal services throughout the morning simultaneous with our traditional worship at 10:15, we had 500.With the Family Service Health Program that serves lunches twice a week, the Friday Night Community Meal, and the end of the month Church Potluck involving the food insecure, over 750 meals per week are now served at Mathewson Street Church.
The structure of Friendship Prayer Breakfast worship includes gathering music for an hour, a welcome, scripture reading, homily, pastoral prayer, passing of the peace, words of institution for the Agape meal, and then music and table fellowship with the meal. Occasionally, we have testimonies from people in recovery or others who have other inspiring stories.
We stress in every welcome that the meal is a worship service in the Christian tradition, but that anybody of any faith or of no faith is welcome. They can “take what they like and leave the rest.” There is ample opportunity to be served food before or after the more formal and traditional worship elements, so that we are careful not to practice “resource coercion.” Yet, I find at times that there is an intense longing for loving community more than even for food.
Helping to meet this need has resulted in the building of a core of very devoted participants. Over 40 volunteers are involved each week in meal preparation, service, and clean-up. An ever growing circle of supporters of approximate 170 families donate in-kind food. We raise $20,000 each year in food donations and kitchen supply needs. We have been grateful for the support of the Matthewson Street UMC-affiliated, nonprofit Heads Up, which shares the church kitchen with other nonprofit programs, for the financial support of Newman Congregational Church, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, and United Congregational Church UCC, as well as the prayers and moral support of pastors and others around the Conference. We are also thankful to a network of Little Leaguers, soccer teams, and groups of friends, who have been holding “potato peeling parties” on Saturday nights, as well as a group of formerly homeless volunteers who come each Saturday afternoon for several hours to set up.
Two other programs are embracing families for meals and developing "wrap around" services for our members. "Family Campstyle Breakfast" is a church school program for homeless families and their supporters, offering breakfast and after services a worship arts program. The "wrap around" services help supporters stay in touch with worshippers during the week, extending friendship and team-based support, such as rides, talking on the phone, supportive text messages, and other forms of networking.
Anyone willing to share a kitchen, respecting the dignity and talent of our homeless and formerly homeless volunteers, is welcome to be in fellowship with these amazing servant leaders. The food we serve is NOT reserved for the physically hungry, and there is absolutely a place at the table for anyone who hungers and thirsts for righteousness and is willing to share a prayerful and friendly presence at the table. The meal is the equivalent of $10 at a diner. So, drop $10 in the worship collection box, and you pay for your whole table. If we averaged 30 worship guests willing to do that each week, we would be entirely financially sustainable in terms of the food and supply expenses.
The Agape Meal includes a full breakfast...And awesome music…And awesome worship! And joy. Sheer joy. Come to do dishes with us or come to relax and pray and sing with us. These are all manageable opportunities to make room in your heart and in your life for those experiencing dire crises in their lives, in whatever way and to whatever degree God may be leading you. Let us break bread together at Matthewson Street Church.
The Rev. Jack Jones is the pastor of Matthewson Street Church, UMC, and a long-time activist and advocate for those with limited means.
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