Seeing Donna Mariani with her huge smile hugging guests before a meal with parish ministry St. Francis Feeds, it’s hard to imagine that she once hid in the kitchen. It took an enthusiastic (and pushy) pastor for Donna to get out of her comfort zone.
Donna loves preparing and organizing meals. Her family owned delis on Long Island and she used to run a catering business. Donna says if you had 14 people coming to dinner,she could immediately tell you how much chicken you need. And while living in New York, she regularly cooked for the hungry with a church ministry. She enjoyed this immensely.
Donna recalled, “One day, the pastor said, ‘I am setting a challenge before you. Those of you in the kitchen need to get out of the kitchen. You need to touch the people you’re serving, physically touch them. You need to sit down next to them and eat with them.'”
I said to my husband, ”I’m out of here. This is not what I’m called to do,'” Donna said. But the pastor was so convincing that she decided to try interacting with the guests. End result? “I never went back in that kitchen,” Donna said. “I loved being around the guests.”
Birth of St. Francis Feeds
Donna was a natural choice to be ministry leader when a group of parishioners four years ago decided to create a ministry to serve meals to hungry people in Raleigh. The ministry grew from the seed of the enthusiasm of John Budway and George and Michele Moonan, who had served together on a week-long parish delegation trip to St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia. The Inn, run by Franciscans and rotating teams of volunteers, offers hot meals and hospitality to people who are hungry in a friendly atmosphere like a sit-down restaurant.
Our parish already had a relationship with the Southeast Raleigh community served by Passage Home, a nonprofit community development organization founded by parishioner Jeanne Tedrow. One thing led to another, and soon St. Francis Feeds began serving Sunday dinner at the Safety Club community center on Branch Street in Southeast Raleigh. Poverty is rampant in this African-American community, where the median household income is $11,500 per year. The ministry serves on average about 120 people per month, with half of the folks sitting down for a meal and the rest picking up meals to go.
Growing in Hospitality
The St. Francis Feeds ministry involves 12 to 18 volunteers who greet people and prepare, serve and clean up after a meal on the third Sunday each month. Different people (or groups) can sign up each month, though Donna prefers about half the volunteers to be repeat servers to help things go smoothly.
Hospitality is the most important element. Donna said, “I tell volunteers first and foremost they need to understand that folks coming through the door are guests and they should be treated as if they were in your own home.”
Not everyone is comfortable interacting with guests – and that’s ok. Some volunteers stay in the kitchen or prepare food bags for takeout. Others greet guests and serve guests.
But Donna tries to encourage relationship-building for those who are ready. She suggests that servers consider asking their guests if it’s ok if they sit down to dinner with them. For those who are shy about eating a whole meal with strangers, she suggests starting small and joining guests for a cookie.
Many of the guests are regulars. Donna is particularly fond of a man called Scarecrow, who has been around the community since before the Safety Club was built 50 years ago. “Every single month he comes in, shakes [volunteer] Mike’s [Fuchs] hand and comes over and hugs me,” Donna said. And Ms. Betty, an older woman, is the eyes and ears of St. Francis Feeds to the community. She’s the one who tells Donna where to deliver leftover takeout meals. She’ll say there’s a grandma down the block in a wheelchair with two grandkids who she knows for a fact needs meals.
Connecting Service and Faith
Donna, who brims with energy, is experimenting with new ways to help volunteers connect service with their faith. Inspired by a recent parish workshop on the Power of Small Groups, she began a recent volunteer experience by playing one of her favorite spiritual songs, “Give Me Your Eyes.” And she encouraged volunteers during a few minutes of downtime before guests arrived to avoid talking about sports or school. Instead, she asked repeat volunteers to share some of their experience from their previous time serving.
Families with children ages 10 and older can participate in service, although children must be 13 to sign up for a volunteer slot. The younger children assist their parents.
Denise Gold and her 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter recently participated in St. Francis Feeds for the first time. “What I liked about it was it was very hands-on,” Denise said. ” It wasn’t theoretical practice of social justice. We rolled up our sleeves and got our hands dirty.”
Denise said she appreciated the opportunity to model service with her children and give them an opportunity to step outside their comfort zone. She said her teenagers had a good experience their despite initial doubts. “It was the first time I took my kids to something like that, and they were rolling their eyes and saying, ‘Oh, Mom,'” Denise said.
On the ride home they discussed the experience and what made them comfortable and uncomfortable. “Next time I think they would go happily,” Denise said.
To learn more about St. Francis Feeds and volunteering, contact Donna.