SPOTLIGHT: Offering a Homey Atmosphere to the Homeless

1/12/2015

Cambridge Church Opens Café as Part of Outreach Program
  
 
The parish hall at First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, UCC is many things in the course of an average week: a dance studio, a practice room for musicians, an AA meeting room, a movement space for preschoolers, and of course, coffee hour on Sundays after worship.
 
But since the middle of November, once a week on Fridays from 1:00–5:00, the church’s Margaret Jewett Hall has taken yet another new and surprising form. It’s become a gathering space where church members welcome homeless and marginalized neighbors in Cambridge out of the cold and into community.
 
Every Friday at noon volunteers transform the church hall into The Friday Café, with serving tables, café seating, music (streamed from the Internet), and good, nourishing food. Signs are placed prominently around the building to direct guests to the Café entrance. Donated clothing is put out, along with hygiene supplies; a side table near an outlet becomes a cellphone charging station. There are board games and art materials, community bulletin boards and a free lending library on some shelves in an adjoining room.
 
The idea for the Friday Café first came to Kate Layzer, Community Minister and member of First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, UCC through her conversations on the streets of First Church’s neighborhood of Harvard Square. As part of her outreach ministry, she began asking the people she met how the church could help the community.
 
Many responded that what was most needed was a place to go in the wintertime where people could warm up and get something to eat during the day. And so she met with church leaders to explore the creation of a weekly drop-in space at First Church. She submitted a proposal to the Executive Council to run a Friday Café as a pilot program from November through March, staffed by volunteers and sustained by donations from the community. The idea was warmly approved, along with a small monthly stipend for Layzer and a $500 start-up budget for the program. A week and a half later, the Café was up and running
 
There were a few challenges. First Church hosts an all-day preschool on weekdays, so the plan had to include measures for ensuring that Café guests wouldn’t wander the building during school hours. There were meetings with preschool leaders to enlist support and allay concerns.
 
The Friday CafĂ© opens its door to the Homeless of Harvard Square.The church’s location, a 10-minute walk from the Square, has been a more significant obstacle. Convincing guests to cross that distance, and getting them to remember to show up on Fridays, has been daunting. But word is getting out. Numbers have slowly been growing, from 8 guests the first week to 40 the day after Christmas.
 
So far the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Guests who have visited the Café have appreciated the warm, genuine welcome and low-key atmosphere. They’ve also been treated to rich, nourishing soup made specially each week by professional chefs from two local restaurants. Donuts are supplied by a local bakery, while coffee is donated by a well-known chain. The Outdoor Church of Cambridge has been a key partner with First Church, through, what Layzer describes as, “the invaluable participation of Rev. Thomas Hathaway, UCC minister and the Outdoor Church’s Executive Director.”
 
“Best of all has been the response from church members,” said Layzer.  Twenty-six First Church members have taken part in the Café so far, many more than once. Some come almost every week. “The numbers—and the quality of the welcome volunteers have offered—have far exceeded my expectations,” she said. “Needless to say, I’d worried about the comfort level of volunteers encountering people whose lives are lived mostly on the streets. Watching church members having long, non-anxious conversations with individuals I know to be battling alcoholism or profound delusions… and then seeing those same volunteers sign up to come back, has filled me with awe. I could not have made that happen. That quality of presence—what happens ‘inside the container‘—is entirely the work of the Spirit.”
 
So far, the result has been profound. Explains Layzer, “There is a spirit about the Friday Café that is hard to capture in words—a spirit of kindness and peace that carries over into our (optional) 4:00 Communion service, where we speak the words 'No matter who you are, no matter where you find yourself on the journey of life and faith….' We sing, we pray, we share the gospel and tell the story again, breaking bread and passing cup. We say a final Amen and then, together, we begin stacking chairs and clearing cups.”
 
For [Jesus] is our peace,” writes the author of Ephesians; “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
 
 “I’m here to tell you—he’s still at it,” said Layzer.  “And it’s a good, good thing.”
 
The Friday Café runs Fridays from 1:00–5:00 through March 2015.  You can read more details about Kate’s inspiration in her blog article.
E-mail Kate at klayzer@gmail.com if you’d like to learn more.


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